A Haweater is a person who was born on Manitoulin Island, the largest freshwater island in a lake in the world. I grew up on Manitoulin, and once I had graduated from Carleton and Lakehead Universities, I returned home to “The Island”, and started my teaching career.
I have been a teacher for 25 years. I grew up in a household where personal and local history anecdotes were discussed and connected to national and world history, and it’s those sorts of connections I have always wanted to have my students be able to make in their own lives.
History has always been my passion, and throughout my career I have tried to find creative ways to engage my students with our local community in order to make history come alive for them.
Our Island is relatively remote, accessible for most of the year by a single lane bridge crossing the narrowest part of Lake Huron’s North Channel. In the summer we can head South aboard a ferry, which travels to Tobermory, on the Bruce Peninsula, but from mid-October to mid-May our only access to the mainland is via a 106 year old, one-lane swing bridge.
Our island has a vibrant history, combining Indigenous and settler cultures and our communities continue to strive to find ways to celebrate that shared culture in meaningful ways, through local museums and cultural events.
Small, rural schools such as Assiginack Public School, where I currently teach, are community gathering places on the Island. Often more than one generation of a family has graduated from our school, and many of our students remain from Kindergarten to Grade 8.
Everyone knows one another, and many community members are more than willing to volunteer in classrooms and at community and school events.
Much of our local history can be accessed through these community members and it is celebrated in classrooms across the school, through these volunteers.
For the last 25 years, that is what I have striven to do; to use community connections to make history come alive for my students; to use a local lens to shine a broader light across regional, provincial and national history.
In 2019, my Grade ¾ class and I embarked on a Fibre Arts Adventure, to look at the importance of traditional crafts through the lenses of both the past, and the present.
It started out when I had the idea of having a local master quilter come in to teach my students about quilting past and present.
It was intended to be a 2 week exploration of quilting. It ended up being the start of a 6 month project that changed and developed as my students explored their connections to both local and national history through traditional crafts.
Initially, I hoped my students would see how the early settlers on Manitoulin (and by extension, Canada) would have used quilting for practical purposes – to stay warm in an unforgiving climate.
I also wanted them to engage with their families, and ask questions about whether anyone in their family was a quilter.
They learned about scrap quilts and art quilts, and how materials from clothing were repurposed into quilts when times were “lean”.
My students learned about traditional quilting patterns and methods, and then moved on to creating patterns, and learning how to use sewing machines themselves.
They had so many questions. I could see that there was a great potential for learning beyond this small project.
In mid-February I travelled here, to the Canadian Museum of History, to be part of the National Teachers Advisory Group. When I returned to class, I decided to give my students a chance to explore artifacts that were accessible on the museum’s website.
We talked about the provenance of artifacts, the social history around them, and how our material culture sees some artifacts saved, and others put to the side.
We used some of the six Historical Thinking Concepts when looking at these primary source artifacts, and students were encouraged to think beyond the artifact itself, and what it could teach us about a specific time and place in Canadian History.
What I learned about my students was that they had a tremendous interest in learning more about the fibre arts. And they were passionate about sharing what they had found with each other, with me, and with their families.
Through this sharing, more community history was being uncovered.
They were so engaged in finding out more, that I decided the project needed to be extended.
I decided to teach them how to weave.
Now, full disclosure here, I am a knitter, a basic quilter, I do embroidery, and I have recently taken up weaving. This project allowed me to engage my students in topics I was interested in myself.
And they loved it! They learned how to used my rigid heddle loom, and became experts in warp and weave and tension. They learned how time-consuming weaving can be.
Inspired by their weaving, together we did more research into traditional and modern weaving machines.
While my knowledge in this area is fairly basic, with a little research I discovered that the knowledge in the community was not. So, I invited in more experts: three spinners and weavers who brought their equipment and their passion to my classroom.
Again, community involvement created deeper student engagement and learning.
In the end, my students worked together and wove a scarf from locally hand-spun fibre, which they then presented to our Principal.
As they took turns weaving, they had more questions, and they spent more time researching.
They were so engaged as they made local connections to what they had learned, and they shared this information with their families. Through those discussions, they learned about some of their own personal history, and brought that knowledge back to share with the classroom.
Through written reports and visual representations they demonstrated their understanding of not only the process of creation, but the importance of traditional fibre arts as records of history.
As March progressed, they continued to have questions about different artifacts they were finding on the Canadian Museum of History website.
Their curiosity about embroidery led me to reconnect with a family friend, whose Grandmother had fostered my love of the fibre arts. She is a skilled embroiderer, with her own business here in the Ottawa area, which is named for the road her Grandma lived on on Manitoulin.
We explored her social media accounts, and my students learned more about modern embroidery projects, and engaged with her online. Within a few weeks, she had sent a package of materials which allowed all my students to try their hand at basic embroidery.
More connections, more discussions with family, more learning. I thought perhaps the project was coming to a close.
Now Manitoulin has a small but vibrant farming community, connected across the Island. I was a farmer’s daughter, and am now a farmer’s wife, and I know many of these local farmers.
As is true across the country, they often “work off the farm”, and one of our school’s bus drivers happens to be a farmer I know.
One day in April, as we headed off on a class trip, I was chatting with our driver. I began discussing the project, and I asked him if still had sheep, and he confirmed he had maintained a small flock.
Based on my students’ interest in the yarn part of the weaving project, I asked if he might have a bit of fleece we could see, in order to continue our learning. He told me he didn’t have any at that time, but that his sheep would be sheered in May, and we could have a piece of one of the fleeces then.
As happened through the rest of this project, this conversation triggered another fibre arts adventure. The farmer and the sheerer had a conversation about my project. They thought it was too bad that my students and I couldn’t have a full fleece to work with.
So together they picked the best ewe from his flock, and sheered it as through it was going to be carded and spun by experts.
He arrived on the bus one day with a feed bag containing a full fleece, not a piece, and suddenly I realized we were going to be learning how to make yarn!
I knew nothing about how to go about this, and told my students so. And thus we learned together.
First we had to learn how to “pick” the fleece, which is to remove the chaff and other organic matter from it, to wash it, to prepare it for dyeing. We learned about lanolin, and felting, and what materials we would need to be able to dye the wool.
We assembled the traditional tools required for fleece preparation, and with the help of various experts and online resources, we learned how to dye, dry, card and spin raw fleece into yarn.
Throughout this process my students shared their learning. We invited other classes to come in to our room as we worked with the fleece. Parents and community members followed us on the school’s Facebook page and our classroom Twitter account.
As with other parts of this project, students learned the time-consuming nature of traditional fibre arts production, and researched modern industrial spinning, weaving and fabric projection.
Students also took their learning outside the classroom. Some came back to me with knitting and embroidery projects that they had started at home. One student joined a quilting course, and produced her own art quilt.
Last June, I looked at my students and I realized that my “Small Quilting Project” had turned into an exploration of different fibre arts and different periods of time.
Students had combined local stories and artifacts with artifacts stored at a national museum, and had learned how their family stories could be connected to the bigger stories within the Canadian experience.
Without the Assiginack community, this project would never have happened. So many people volunteered their expertise, and helped turn this project into a months-long exploration of material history, social history, and family history that stretched from local sewing rooms and linen closets to the Canadian Museum of History.
By providing my Grade 3 and 4 students with a personal window into the past, our community helped them make sense of the facts they were learning about colonial era Ontario, and Canada.
I often hashtagged our Twitter posts with “Learning Outside the Box”, and I truly believe that is the type of teaching that best engages young learners in our past.
Finally, I would like to thank Canada’s History for selecting me for this award, and for inspiring me to continue my “Outside the Box” work with my students.
Small stories can have a big impact on local communities, as we celebrate our past and connect it to our future. Thank you.
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