The Lest We Forget Project Transcript

... shift gears here a little bit. And I'm going to go and work inside a classroom

For the last several years we've been conducting battlefield tours with the Cleghorn, John and Pattie Cleghorn, and the financial donations that they have gave to the Laurier Centre.

And this summer, a comment was made on the battlefield tour that talked about how Canadian history, in our schools, is the second most disliked subject that students have to take. It's right behind mathematics. (Audience laughter)

So those of you that have a mathematics phobia, right behind you are several Canadian history students that equally dislike history as much as mathematics.

Armed with this, we stop and we sometimes think about how can we actually engage our students. How can we reach our students effectively so that they can actually participate in Canada's history.

So, about twelve years ago, I went down to my cenotaph and I'm listening to the honour roll. And on the honour roll, they are reading off the names. Many of you have probably gone through a similar ceremony. What struck me was that I actually didn't know anything about them. On the stone was just their name, and they read it off. And we just simply moved from name to name to name.

And I thought, how well have we actually remembered these individuals? What have we actually done? And now that the ninetieth anniversary has come and gone, how long do we actually wait to actually begin to do something?

Out of this was born the Lest We Forget project.

It's the one thing that I think connects our towns and our cities. Almost every town and city has a cenotaph. On my cenotaph in Smith Falls, about an hour and twenty minutes from here, are fifty-six names: one nursing sister and fifty-five soldiers They are, I think, long forgotten.

So, I called Library and Archives, who at the time, the archivist was Ian Wilson, and booked the conference room, brought my students to Library and Archives, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. My students arrived, and in front of them were placed the actual soldiers file that we had ordered.

The students, all they knew at that time was the soldier's name, that was it, nothing more. It was a true historical inquiry for them.

The result was that the students were able to complete, using the primary documents, a five-, six-, some cases a ten-page biography on the soldier from Smith Falls.

Now on the surface this might not seem as though it's a very significant matter. But in the classroom and are actually fighting to have students engaged in Canada's history or a chapter of Canada's history it's actually quite meaningful.

The students begin to transcend from it's just a name, an unknown guy, I don't really care, to as they sift through the files, they begin to understand that it's more than just a name, that there's a person behind the name. That there is a community connection.

Now my home town, Smith Falls, hasn't changed very much in the last hundred years. For my students, over the years when we've worked on our cenotaph, what happens is that each student breathes life back into this long-forgotten name. And it becomes something that is very important for them.

If I could pick up on something that Andrew was talking about, I've just created some bullets here. The students actually determine what is significant for them.

If their soldier actually dies at the Second Battle of Ypres, and you were to then after the students have completed their research, suggest, what do you believe is the most important battle, nine times out of ten, the students will actually say the battle that my soldier died in. They are actually determining what's significant, rather than having it told to them that this should be significant, they determine for themselves.

And I go back to the idea that I'm a firm believer that students actually do not like Canadian history because they are told what to think, rather than deciding for themselves. They have a firm understanding of the battalions.

One of the things that Ian Wilson actually did was he put the war diaries online for each one of the battalions. Students can actually get inside the primary documents and begin to understand and create a context of where my soldier is at, inside a battle, inside a battalion, inside a division, and at that point the soldier is alive, the soldier then has meaning.

That's pretty powerful as an educational nugget.

There's another layer to all of this. The students actually become actively engaged in their community. They begin to use the microfilm reader down at the public library. They order the newspapers from Library and Archives. And come in happy as leprechauns when they find an article on their soldier, and they can now take that newspaper article and embed it in their research. That's a powerful connection.

The students actually feel empowerment inside their community as family members begin to contact the students. And the students again come into the classroom suggesting or saying, happy as leprechauns, "you're not going to believe who I was talking to! So-and-so."

In the modern day the kids actually say, I'm creeping this guy now. (Audience laughter) And it's wonderful, not that their creeping a guy, don't get me wrong, but that their actually making a connection with community members. (Audience laughter)

The third last point is the newspapers piece. One of the things that we do is that every week my students would actually, when they are finished the biography, it goes into our local newspaper. Again, the students feel as though the research they have completed is meaningful to them and it's meaningful to the community.

The second last one is photographs. Another connection that is made, that can be made, is with your local legion. Legion branches, oftentimes, have a wall of honour, and at Smith Falls, our wall of honour, we started out with one photograph from the Great War. By the time my students were finished researching the Great War cenotaph names, we had all fifty-six. My students then donated the photographic collection to the town. It's meaningful.

The last one is museums. We have two museums in my town of 9,000. Students actually complete the exhibits. They actually construct the exhibits. Design it so that they can feel as though their soldier is getting the proper commemoration. And this continues on. It doesn't just have to stop with the Great War, although that is the focus for us.

I'm going to shift gears here, from a curriculum standpoint. Inside my Ontario grade 10 Canadian history curriculum, It asks me as a teacher to engage my students in primary and secondary documents, research. It's one of the major complaints by universities, that students in the social sciences, would you agree with this Erin, Andrew, that they don't have any exposure to working with primary documents. So here's a perfect opportunity.

Library and Archives, through the Lest We Forget Project, holds 1.2 million documents, primary documents, available for students to access. They can actually build the biography of these soldiers and write a chapter for their community's history. It also forces the students to exercise citing their sources.

It gets them to understand what citizenship and heritage might mean. I'm not going to say what it means because I don't know, and the students should probably decide because student voice is the important piece in all of this.

What values do these soldiers enlist for? What do you think as a student they are enlisting for?

And we're also connecting local and national and international events to the soldier.

And finally from a curriculum standpoint, they actually get to communicate their findings in whatever way they want. And I'll use this as an example, I'm going to skip this and then I'll come back.

This is one of the teachers that, this is Allie, who was on the battlefield tour this summer. And how she decided that she was actually going to communicate her research findings, was to sit with a, draped with a flag, beside the soldier that she has researched and just actually have a conversation with him, just pretend that she was sitting on the front porch on a hot summer day if you will, and just talked to him, while the rest of us stood around, and listened, almost eavesdropping on this conversation.

It's a pretty powerful moment. And I use this photograph because many of my students, after we've finished our research, we then go to Europe and our final piece, our closure piece, is to find them in the cemeteries. Much the same as we do on the battlefield tours. And several of my students have done this.

Or, from the Newfoundland contingent, Newfoundland and Labrador contingent, sorry. This is Dave Sullivan. This summer what Dave Sullivan did is Dave wrote a monologue. And we are at Beaumont-Hamel, and Dave has conducted a significant amount of research on the soldier, on the soldier file from the Rooms website, that's been put up by Newfoundland and Labrador. And what Dave has done is, Dave then spoke, gave the monologue to us with not a dry eye in the group. It was extremely powerful.

Dave, in the modern sense thinks like students this way, Dave put this on Youtube. Dave gets back form his battlefield tour, and he meets up with the family members that actually see this on a CBC radio interview And Dave then sent me a photo standing in the living room with the family members based on the soldier he has researched. And the story goes on. And my students have experienced something very similar over and over and over again.

Okay, I'm going to shift gears for a second here. Every summer we run the, help run the Cleghorn War and Memory Study Tour. And we don't represent any group, we don't represent ay special interests. Professor Lee Windsor, Professor Cindy Brown, a professorial candidate at Western University, and myself, we bring eighteen teachers from across Canada overseas.

And one of the things we do is we actually try to create tension in the group. We try to create dissonance in the group. We actually, Andrew, one of the questions we ask while we're at Vimy is, "is Vimy a myth?" We're not saying it is, but inside a classroom, that's the question we want our students to begin to wrestle with. We want them to wrestle with Dieppe.

Is it fair to characterize it as a disaster? Why do we make those decisions? Why don't we let the students make those decisions?

So our battlefield tour is actually built around the idea of asking the historical thinking questions or inquiry questions, to then take back to the classroom, and use those types of questions with the students.

And last year, it was, the tour actually qualifies for credit in a masters or B.Ed. or Ph.D. program. Last year, this past summer, Professor Alan Sears joined us from University of New Brunswick.

The goal being to actually have the teachers intertwine Canadian history with education. And we are trying to hammer away at this idea, "how do we actually move away from from Canadian history being the second most disliked subject in schools?" What do we have to do?

One of the things I would suggest is that we give students a voice. And this is something, and then I'll finish off, my ten minutes are up.

On the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies, we actually run a blog for teachers. And the goal is to engage teachers in this historical inquiry questioning. And one of the questions we were asking a while ago was, "what is actually worth remembering?" and "who decides?"

Oftentimes the resource that we would use in the classroom, the textbooks, tell us what to think, summarize everything for us in a nice, neat little package, and the result is that students really don't like it.

They really don't like the idea of being told what to think, and I wonder how much opportunity we actually give students to think independently on their own, to wrestle with the questions that maybe in Canadian history we should be asking them to wrestle with.

And finally, I need to say it because Pam Calvert is in the crowd here, my students right now are working with the Juno Beach Centre, and we are actually building an app. We've designed a database through computer coding, and we're actually building a massive database for our D-Day soldiers. And all of this is trying to push the envelope beyond the traditional notion of what constitutes studying Canadian history, and pushing Canadian history into the digital age.

Thank you.

(Audience applause)