Leone Andrea Izzo Transcript

The students were learning about the first segregated all-Black unit of soldiers during World War One. This project was developed in partnership with some educators at the York Region District School Board’s Museum and Archives. So that would be Rebecca Mitchell, the curator, and Christina Blake, the educator at the museum, who developed some resources and a digital mapping tool to act as a gateway for students to learn about this historical period. And this not well known, not very well documented period in Canadian history. 

This project also came to light thanks to the research that was done by historian Kathy Grant with the Legacy Voices Project, and she works with a website for students and educators called Black Canadian Veterans dot com. 

So the overall goal of the project was to get students to learn more about this unknown period of Canadian history, which documents a period of discrimination and systemic racism that happened in Canada, but also a moment of Canadian history which really highlights and demonstrates Black excellence.

So soldiers were enlisting for World War One in 1914, 1915, and at that time Black soldiers were being turned away by local enlistment, and the soldiers were unhappy with that. And so they went through letter writing campaigns and peaceful protest to try and enact change. In 1916, the Canadian government authorized the formation of the No. 2 Construction Battalion and eventually 600 soldiers from Canada and around the world enlisted to be a part of the war effort.

They formed a non-combat battalion and were sent to the Southeast of France in order to work in labour roles, forestry and that sort of work. This ended up meaning that they were not very well remembered after the end of the war because it was a non-combat battalion. So as an educator, I worked with the ladies at the museum and the educators at the museum and tried to develop a resource where students could learn about the history in a cross curricular way.

Students were asked to think about the creation of a museum exhibit that would be virtual. So they created a website on a soldier of their choosing who served with the No. 2 Construction Battalion. The project was very cross curricular because students got to think about research, writing, media, arts and mapping. The My Map was a geographic mapping tool that students used to plot down different points on the map all around the world, which told a story about the soldiers that they were researching.

As the teacher implementing this project. I had an opportunity to guide my students through the research stages and the development of their website. We also got a chance to meet with the museum and review some of the artifacts, photographs, documents and other items that helped the students learn this important story about the No. 2 Construction Battalion. 

After the websites were developed, my classroom was opened as a virtual museum exhibit space, basically pretending to be a museum on Remembrance Day for other students from grades 4 to 8 to come and visit. And this was a unique opportunity for students to share their learning with their classmates and peers in the school community. 

This entire project was very exciting from start to finish. But one of the interesting parts that made it very memorable was that the school board sent a videographer to film the students in action and document the process. Students then had a had a chance to be interviewed by the videographer and talk about why this learning was important to them. That video ultimately ended up on YouTube, and the students can really see that their work had value and their learning was important, and it made it for a very exciting time for the students.

This project had a really big impact on student learning because it made history come to life and the whole idea of teaching the history of Black Canadians through a Black excellence lens was important for me as an educator. 

The students got a chance to develop their website, so they had a lot of digital media literacy skills that were being explored and developed. They also developed primary research skills and writing and anything any of those skills that you might expect from a history project to develop. The students got to be interviewed on camera to talk about their learning and why their learning was important. And ultimately that video ended up on YouTube and the students had a lot of fun watching that learning and that video unfold. For them, it was a moment to see that their learning and what they were doing in the classroom had value and other people might be interested in. 

As you can imagine, learning about early 1900s Canada created a lot of new questions in the minds of students. Like what is a general labourer or what is a Teamster? And that developed further research questions which led to more research.

We also hosted an Open House Virtual Museum tour on November 11th to celebrate Remembrance Day. Grade four, five, six, seven and eight students were invited to come and tour the museum and do one on one interviews with my students to learn about their soldier that they had researched and show off their websites. This had a bigger impact on the entire school community because now the learning was being shared with other peers and younger students.

This project was a great example of documenting Black Canadian history through a Black excellence lens, which lines up really nicely with our school board's initiative of dismantling anti-Black racism in the YRDSB. 

One particular student who comes to mind his name was Marcus, and Marcus is not the type of student who would normally be the first one to volunteer to be interviewed. The students were very nervous at first to be interviewed, but he showed leadership and was able to show the other students that it was okay to volunteer. And he, I think, really built his confidence in this project. And he was able to show that his learning had value. 

As we approach Remembrance Day 2023, I hope to continue the we are going to be continuing this project in my class again this year, and I'm very interested to see how the students further develop their websites and sharing it with the broader community.

So as a teacher, I think that it's really important to help history come alive for students beyond the textbook. History has a lot of meaning in the modern era and it teaches as a discipline. It teaches students a lot of important skills, but it also has a lot of interesting stories and fascinating details that students want to engage in. If it's interesting and if it's hands on and if it's experiential and if it relates to their lives. 

So as a teacher, I'm trying every day to make history interesting, fun, unique and hands on. For example, recently we did a walking tour of Stouffville that allowed local history to come more to life as opposed to learning about it in a textbook. That's the type of learning that I was hoping to incorporate with the No. 2 Construction Battalion Project

As a history teacher or as a teacher in any subject, it's important to understand where your students are coming from and what their interests are and try to really make that come to life while still hitting on those important curriculum expectations that we are asked to teach.

History is a tough one, but if you try and think about it from a multi dimensional perspective and make it come to life, I think it's important to get students engage in learning about the past so they can make better decisions for the future and be critical thinkers in the present. I think it's important now more than ever that students and young people get engaged in civic forums in democracy, in journalism, and learning about where the world has come from and where the world is going.

I want to be able to say that I've had an impact on student lives by having them more involved in their community, looking at things like what their local museum provides. What's happening on a political level in their community, and getting more involved with the history, the geography of their region. Because all history is local. 

What was really great about the No.2 Construction Battalion Project was that students learned how Black soldiers in the past had faced systemic racism and discrimination. As a teacher, we did a little pre teaching about what does discrimination look like, what is the definition, what is systemic racism and students learn that through peaceful protest and through social justice action. These soldiers were able to enact change in a positive and peaceful way. My hope is that the students will internalize that and become agents of social change to make our world a better place.

So history is not just about memorizing dates and names and battles, but also learning about the processes of how human history and how stories unfold to make the world a better place. 

It's also the teaching of history is also important because teaching students the skills that they need in any career can come from a history class. Research, writing, thinking about different perspectives. In fact, when we were doing the primary source research and looking at the attestation papers from World War One, it was interesting to see that students were really struggling with how to read cursive writing. So we looked at that as well, and these skills we developed in class can help them grow in future careers.