Romy Cooper and Graeme Cotton

Recipients of the 2013 Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching 

November 19, 2013
Canada's History speaks to Romy Cooper and Graeme Cotton about their Heritage Fair-based project.

General Gordon Elementary, Vancouver (British Columbia)

Romy and Graeme have revitalized the Heritage Fair at their school by designing it with a critical thinking question as the focus and teaching it as a history study rather than a social studies project, embedding historical thinking concepts into each step. Growing the Heritage Fair at the school level has been a slow process over the past five years and has required much leadership from both teachers. Graeme was instrumental in the development and execution of the grade 3 “heirloom” project. She provided unending support and guidance to the class’ teacher and feedback to the students as they prepared and presented their collection. Both teachers assisted the grade 6/7 teachers as they navigated their way through their first Heritage Fair projects by teaching their classes how to formulate critical questions and how to identify and use primary sources, by inviting the teachers to observe in our classrooms, by organizing guest speakers from BC Heritage Fair to the school, and by offering step-by-step support, advice and materials based on our project-based learning expertise.

In order to get other teachers on board, and more importantly, to encourage students to buy in to the Heritage Fair project, Graeme and Romy have been fine-tuning the way they and the other General Gordon and MACC teachers teach the project. What is unique about their approach to Heritage Fair is the expectation that students are to play the role of historians. Students explore topics in Canadian history, formulate their own original question to investigate, gather a variety of evidence, organize their thinking conceptually and posit their conclusions into the context of what other historians have put forward before them. They then share their work publicly, demonstrating critical, creative and historical thinking with some degree of expertise.  Moreover, this project is special because at this dual-track school, French Immersion classes work closely with English classes, sharing ideas, goals and resources.

Their ‘thinking’ approach to project-based learning came from a desire to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population and to unite and motivate the students at our school academically. They needed to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, for Heritage Fair. How to differentiate the Fair for struggling and non English speaking students, new Canadians with no family connection to Canada, students with learning disabilities, gifted learners, and French and English students? They needed to find a way to personalize the Canadian experience, to encourage students to be passionate about Canada and to provide them with a meaningful opportunity to think historically, often for the first time in their elementary social studies career. They devote time at the beginning of the project in assisting the students with their topic choice and focus question development to ensure their passion will outlive the duration of the project work.