Reconciling the Past Finding a New Path Transcript

JOCK MARTIN: We worked together in 2017-2018 to specifically integrate English grade 11 and history grade 11 to explore more deeply the effects of colonialism on Canadians.

This work culminated in a published book of student...writing based on research...and the book has drawn a lot of attention to what we were working on, but I think what we'd like to do today is to answer the question, 'How did we take a group of students who were forced to take history in grade 11 in take it personally, the issues that they're writing about in here?’ and, so, that's what we're going to attempt to do in the next ten minutes, is…talk about the process by which we feel this task was accomplished.

HEATHER RAGOT: We were blessed with working in a large shared room, and shared the same students...for Language Arts and Canadian History.

Having a large space that was flexible for many purposes, and having an orientation towards experimentation and integration, allowed us to play with educational issues we felt were important, namely creative response, student writing, design thinking, and a desire to think deeply about what reconciliation means and why it should be important to all Canadians.

We wouldn't describe what happened as a project, so much as creatively designing educational experiences for our students all year long. This is not a project that was planned in detail before we began.

Rather, we listen to the class, responded to the content of the course, and conducted research, and then followed the principles of creative design to create multiple iterations of the students' work, utilize the study of literature, and creative expression to make the information personal and allow students to find experts outside the classroom.

JOCK MARTIN: So, in the beginning...we really only felt it was important to make sure that we did not allow time and pressure, the time of a school year and the pressure of a curriculum, to confine us and limit the understanding of pre-contact history to a set of generalized commonalities of Indigenous culture.

Instead, students chose to explore specific nations to confirm that the textbook common traits were indeed present, but also to understand what made them unique, to understand the cultural, geographic, or linguistic differences that would make a group different enough to have a different name, to be in a geographic area, to be considered separate from others instead of lumped together in a...kind of a pan-Indigenous understanding of the largest, longest part of human history in North America.

Pursuing this task allowed us to confirm some skills around research citation and persuasive argument writing.

HEATHER RAGOT: Of course, the big six historical thinking concepts helped break down the familiar pattern of studying history the students had come to expect, repeated patterns of knowledgeable teacher curating information, re-editing a narrative, and then testing for proof of the consumption of that narrative by testing through retelling.

Our aim remained presenting information and asking for reaction, and making meaning, asking questions, and then reinvesting in those questions by conducting research. One way of making meaning was exploring literature in the English class.

The power of literature lies in the voices of characters. Well-drawn fictional characters can bring life to abstract ideas like betrayal, redemption, and sacrifice to the reader.

Because characters spring from the imagination and personal experience of a writer, characters can be created to illustrate complex historical concepts like...colonization. Readers can develop an understanding of past relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Canada through the creation of specific characters.

The study of literary fiction, written by Indigenous writers...helped our students to understand the personal experiences of Indigenous peoples, both in the past and present.

Thus we read, viewed, and discussed the works of Thomas King, Katherena Vermette, Rosanna Deerchild, Sherman Alexie...Andrew Hayden...Drew Hayden Taylor, pardon me...we also used Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire’s 'Secret Path' graphic novel to show how an artistic response, drawing and music, can evoke a personal response in the viewer to expand their understanding of the residential schools experience.

Finally, through the creation of a character, a writer can give a voice to the historical experiences of a whole group of people. Indigenous writers help us and our students to begin to guess what it would be like to live in a residential school and experience the generational abuse of colonization.

JOCK MARTIN: The previously studied Indigenous cultural identities became useful again to us in our class when we wanted to investigate the effect of colonialism upon the very groups we’d begun to start to know.

After connecting with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba...we found terrific educational partners and a wealth of information that created many new questions, as well as provided some primary source material.

In particular, investigating the financial ledger of a residential school was a powerful experience for students to uncover the financial aspects of some of the decisions that were made in a system where the federal government offered per capita grants for schools to run their programs...if we can even use that word to describe what schools were doing, if we can even use the word 'schools' to describe these institutions.

Students were confronted with references in the ledger of students who didn't survive the holidays after going home sick, or who were sent home for being 'white,' which we later learned was the ledger shorthand for being Métis.

The Centre's educational outreach staff were helpful guides for the context and impact of residential schools, but also allowed students to start uncovering information about residential schools within the territories they had already researched.

Previous pre-contact knowledge could now be used by students to begin to be more specific about the colonizing efforts by Canadians on the Indigenous population.

The location of reserves were discovered and compared to the traditional living areas of the communities that had come before. The location of schools were discovered, and placed in relation to those reserves. Students could begin to contextualize the information they were receiving.

They could start to picture the difficulties. They could use the specifics to make sense of the information.

As before, when we pushed away from the general, the specifics helped the students make meaning and become connected to information, and start to see reconciliation as a Canadian problem rather than an Indigenous problem.

Working with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation provided another opportunity for students: actively participating in the Imagine a Canada contest. Students were asked to creatively communicate their ideas for reconciliation in a contest that wanted to publish their works across Canada.

By now, students were looking for ways to process what they were learning in a different way than...writing an essay. By engaging in the creative process, students found another way to make meaning of the information before them.

HEATHER RAGOT: There were other outcomes we were interested in as well. As a university preparatory school, and teaching the humanities, we wanted students to successfully complete a research paper.

So, we asked students to create an argument centred on analyzing the effects of colonization on the community, as they had originally researched for pre-contact.

It was...a further iteration of the skills they had learned for research, citation and argument building, and we were pleased with the academic results, although there was a tonal difference between the creative pieces and the academic paper that left us somewhat dissatisfied with how we had slipped back into the 'game of school,' as the students had performed for their grade.

It was the school's investment in looking at design thinking, specifically the LAUNCH program, that sparked an idea. The individual papers had presented unique arguments, although some of the content and understanding had overlapped.

Inspiration hit...what if we looked at another iteration of the writing by creating chapters in groups and actually launch a book.

The students were initially cautious. They were used to writing a paper, being done, and getting a grade. It was precisely this kind of personal disconnect from the work that we had begun to break through with the creative pieces that kept the academic work impersonal.

By using collaborative technologies like Google Docs, students warmed very quickly to the idea of merging their papers together, writing new transitions, and using each other’s evidence as proof. 'Hey, your example works better for my argument!' was a very happy phrase to hear when the group was building a chapter together.

Here, history and English students were happily collaborating in their writing because they had something they were bringing to the table to begin with: their individual research paper. They cared about what they were doing, and they were writing for a real audience.

JOCK MARTIN: Two more partnerships were created to facilitate the last important pieces.

Local bookseller McNally Robinson featured an Espresso printing machine that would do small print orders, but would also help you secure an ISBN code as well as submit the printing to the Parliamentary Library as a Canadian publication, and, unbelievably to the students, stuck the book for sale in their store. [LAUGHTER]

We found the publication support immensely valuable in completing the final stages of the work: publication...before the year was out and the students were gone. A side benefit to being sold in a store was a sudden urge not to have any mistakes, and to get all the citations correct, as one student exclaimed in class, 'Everyone has to get this right or we're going to be sued!' [LAUGHTER] ...even more evidence that this was becoming very personal.

The other partnership was returning to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, and even though none of the creative pieces were chosen for the contest, members of the class were invited to the educational conference and gala launch at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

At the conference, our students worked with other students from other educational and social contexts, together with residential school survivors and elders, to struggle with the question, 'What does reconciliation mean to you?'

One student, almost overwhelmed with what they were hearing and...feeling, turned to us and exclaimed, 'This is the most important thing I’ve ever done,' and then as a teacher you just go, 'What?' Oh goodness, it was getting really, really personal.

HEATHER RAGOT: You wait for those moments, right, as an educator? You wait for students to suddenly say to you, 'What you're doing matters,' and that was gold for us. [APPLAUSE]

On this point, I would like to highlight in order to do this work we needed the literature, we needed the creative work, we needed the community partners, but the most important ingredient was the authentic voices of the members of the Indigenous community.

Speaking to survivors, which we organized for all the students, which is also available at the National Centre of Truth and Reconciliation in their database, and was preceded, at a younger age, by forward-thinking social studies teachers exposing students to guest speakers like Niigaan Sinclair, who taught students about the promise of treaties, and the betrayal of the Indian Act.

Additionally, reading Indigenous authors, and researching specifics about Indigenous culture and history, helped make this an authentic journey for students.

Ultimately, it was only in the listening to survivors of residential schools while being prepared to listen armed with knowledge and context that students were able to make the effects of colonialism...that was a very powerful moment...make the effects of colonialism personal.

It wasn't until we were…face-to-face with survivors that it was when students internalized reconciliation as a Canadian problem that we all must deal with, and, you know...we sat down across the table from know, this is a presentation to a large group of students, which is very powerful...but when you sit down at a table with people and hear their stories...that was incredibly moving.

It highlights the importance of the record that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is keeping in their archives. It highlights the importance of storytelling as a primary source, and of exposing students to narrative, even secondary source narrative, to help them imagine themselves in other times, in other situations.

A critical eye on the work we tried to do, and in the meaning the students found for themselves, will still find a...colonial narrative and perspective woven throughout. It is a product...of where we were in 2018.

But the work, each iteration, will further the understanding, move us towards authenticity, and create new avenues to hear the authentic voices that must tell this story.

JOCK MARTIN: So, in the end, most of the students happily came back, after exams, after the end of school, after we'd written their report cards, to launch the book to a real audience. They were nervous.

They were happy, but let us observe...they didn't have to be there. The 'game of school' no longer required it. They spoke openly about the journey, they read selections from their chapter, and they spoke about what it meant to them to have learned the information in the first place.

It was intensely personal, hugely gratifying...more than that, it was the most authentic assessment of learning we could have made of their knowledge and skill. They knew what they were talking about, because they could easily explain it to others, they knew the facts, they made meaning from it, they understood the significance and the ethical dimensions, and they were still asking questions.

They were writers, they were public speakers, and they held the product of their work in their hands, and they were sharing it with others. A+.


Thank you.