Teaching Through Exceptional Times Transcript

We will now be talking with the alumni 2020 for excellence in teaching.

Meg Wilcox: [Kristian Basaraba] is a teacher at Salisbury high school in Sherwood Park, Alberta. We also have Francis Lalande, enseignant au Collège Citoyen de Laval au Quebec. We have Dominique Laperle, enseignant au Pensionnat du Saint-Nom-de-Marie à Montreal. And we next have Dawn Martens, an elementary music teacher in Hamilton, Ontario. We also have Nathan Tidridge a high school history teacher at Waterdown High School, District High School in Waterdown, Ontario. And finally, we have Chris Young who's a teacher at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Hello to all of you!

All: Bonjour! Hello!

Meg Wilcox: And just a final reminder to everyone watching today that if you have any questions for our recipients you can type them in the Q&A box on the right hand side of your screen. So please throw those questions in there and I'll be happy to add them to the mix.

So first off, maybe we'll start from the top — I'll go back through the names briefly — but if you want to explain your project and what brought you here to the Governor General's awards. So we'll start with Kristian Basaraba.

Kristian Basaraba: Thanks Meg! So I guess to give a synopsis of my project, it was entitled Exploring Colonialism, Creativity and Reconciliation with Skateboards and so I had my students spend six weeks with, I guess indigenous experts. We had Michel Blades, a First Nation, Métis, Inuit lead, in our school division come out and give some, you know lay down some kind of traditional knowledge and foundational knowledge with regards to Indigenous rights and Indigenous history.

I had Joe Buffalo who is a pro skater from Maskwacis, Alberta, now living in Vancouver, come out and talk about his experience growing up at a residential school and being a pro skater right now. And then I had students work with a Cree artist, a local Cree artist, a young, hip artist, Jon Cardinal. And what we did was created skateboard deck graphics that incorporate those class learnings and by exploring like the history and the effects of our colonial past into works of art that symbolize the call to action for social change.

That culminated with 17 skateboards being produced by students and Jon. And it then ended with a art exhibit at Local 124 skate park — skate shop sorry — in Edmonton. We did a five-week run. So yeah, that's my project.

Meg Wilcox: So all of your students are now legit gallery artists, like they've already had their first gallery show.

Kristian Basaraba: Yeah, you know it was part of a class so I ran, I'm a science stream teacher by trade so I think I come from a little bit of different perspective than most of the panelists here So I'm a physics-chemistry teacher, but I also created this course as an entrepreneurial course where students look at branding. They created their own brand, their own logo, their brand purpose, they look at social media aspects, they also look at e-commerce. And we also looked at brand collaboration, so that's where this project came in.

You know, I wanted students to look at collaborating with with Jon Cardinal the artist and create these works of art. And it was really inspired by a company out of Saskatchewan called Colonialism Skateboards. So Michael Langan, the artist there, he really provided all of the inspiration for this. And he's doing what we did and so we kind of piggybacked on his idea and kind of ran with it.

Meg Wilcox: Wonderful. Next we have Francis Lalande Would you like to explain your project a little bit?

Francis Lalande: Yes. Hello everyone, it's a pleasure to be with you today. My project was called Project by Bike. My goal was to use a new tool to teach history, so I brought my students on the Lachine Canal, which is a major part of Canadian history. Students looked at the canal how it is today, and back in the classroom I compared their experience with sources at the time. So they've seen how it changed over time with their own interpretation. Also I had an exam with my bike and GoPro. So the exam was on the history of Montreal.

Why a bicycle? The bicycle I believe is something that can be carried after high school, and is the best friend of the historian.

Meg Wilcox: And next is Dominique Laperle. So your project?

Dominique Laperle: Hello everyone, thank you for having me. The project is called Dollard et Groulx. It's a project that starts from a fake news, or fake headline, and we make them believe that the Dollard des Ormeaux and the La Fontaine Park statue would be destroyed. So after this the students are taking the position of a journalist and need to inquire about this fake news and they see very much that is not true and it will not be removed. But they will be investigating who is Dollard des Ormeaux, what they've done. And then we compared narrations from New France and records we have from the 20th century and then analyze what historians say today of it.

So they sort of have a perspective of history, seeing that sometimes we use characters to build opinions or sometimes we use them as influencers, which is a very trendy term, at the time. So there are ideological interpretations behind all of this. Following all this, I had this desire that we should look into how sometimes we have ideas on communities. Saying that communities were bad, for example, when it was wrong, for example this Dollard des Ormeaux, the image of Indigenous people was very bad and how it can be put into perspective. The question at the end is: should we keep the statue or not?

This project started in 2014 and evolved over time. And the last two years, based on what happened with Cornwallis, Sir John Alexander Mcdonald in Montreal, I think this project is quite topical. Merci!

Meg Wilcox: Wow! It's media literacy and history and politics. There's a lot to go on there. I'm looking forward to the conversation. Next we have Dawn Martens. Would you like to explain your project?

Dawn Martens: Yes. Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak today. And thank you to her excellency the Governor General and Canada's History for recognizing my young historians. So what we did for this project was to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. My grade 4 to 6 students produced an online version of the opera Brundibár. Now Brundibár was performed over 55 times in Theriesenstadt, a hybrid concentration camp ghetto. While also producing this opera we studied historical fiction, we studied — also had the chance to talk to a survivor from Theriesenstadt. And the children corresponded back and forth with him.

Meg Wilcox: Wow, thank you so much Dawn. And I look forward to hearing more about that as well. Next up we have Nathan Tidridge. If you'd like to explain your project?

Nathan Tidridge: Hi, thank you! Waterdown, the community that I'm from is in the GTHA, Greater Toronto Hamilton Area. And it's your classic suburb, it's growing quite rapidly. And a few years ago, in our most recent survey, they uncovered 104 artifacts — or 104 archaeological sites that held artifacts. One of those sites was European and the rest were Indigenous. And working with students we, and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation which is the First Nation whose territory we're on, we created a natural area that preserves those spaces. But also celebrates and promotes the Indigenous identity of a community that I grew up in and didn't know anything about. And so it continues to be a space to educate that community about its history and its identity.

Meg Wilcox. Wonderful. Thank you so much Nathan. And last but certainly not least we have Chris Young, if you'd like to explain your project?

Chris Young: Hi there, thank you for having me. So my project was a four-week unit that commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike, which was the largest labour action in Canadian history. And what my students did was they analyzed primary and secondary sources, they examined the past from multiple perspectives, and they were taught how to think historically. And they compiled historical inquiry projects, of their choice. and then ultimately they showcased those projects on a commemorative day, that we held on the 100th anniversary of the first day of the strike which was on May 15, 2019. And then my students also engaged in the community, by visiting numerous historic sites and also by meeting experts in the field.

Meg Wilcox: Thank you so much. So the projects today cover such a wide variety, but I'm going to start with something that affects all of us I think as educators who are running classes right now. And in this case, if you want to just put up your hand or jump in, we'll sort of let this be a teacher free-for-all with all your great ideas.

How have you been talking to students about 2020 and and where we're all at right now? How do you, sort of, discuss that with them? Dawn, go for it.

Dawn Martens: I would say that when I'm dealing with small children the world doesn't stop. Despite the fact we're in 2020 it keeps on rolling for a lot of these kids I try to introduce as much normalcy as I can online to my students and it's very interesting because as an elementary teacher I'm not only watched by 30 students, I'm also watched by about 30 adults per day, probably more. So I try and engage them personally and I try and talk to them about it.

We had an interesting writing prompt the other day and my writing prompt was: have you ever heard conversations that adults are discussing that you maybe shouldn't have heard? And I thought well this will be interesting to hear what they'll say. And about five of my students out of 30 said my parents talk about Covid quietly but they don't talk to me. So I think we need to engage children on what's happening at this point in history. And I think we need to realize that often they are wiser and know more than we realize.

Meg Wilcox: Absolutely. Nathan.

Nathan Tidridge: That's so true. I've got two elementary age students in the other room and they would remind me of those teachings every day. With doing the Souharissen Natural Area it really exposed my students and I to land-based pedagogy — to learning from the land. And that was something that really carried us through this pandemic, of getting outside, getting out into the land, paying attention to what's going on.

And that almost turned into a mantra at the end of every online class: go outside. You know, get some sun, go watch the fall leaves change — or when this started in spring — watch things come back to life. It has really exposed us to that and we're really grateful for that. And so that is, that's definitely something that the pandemic has really highlighted to us thanks to the Indigenous teachings that we got from the Elders.

Meg Wilcox: Dominique.

Dominique Laperle: What's very important in this whole situation is to remind them that there are issues which are — continue to be present. You know, the epidemic is there we have to be careful of course, but some issues, for example those of the environment, which must not be forgotten in the context. It's easy to focus only on the pandemic and to forget, for example, the issue of the environment, or of the healing processes that are currently ongoing with the First Nations.

So as a historian our work is also to show our students that sometimes, some things have occurred in the past and that the consequences — the effects — can still be felt today and that we have to solve this issue. So to give perspective to things, to remind us there are other important topics that are also to be considered and analyzed, allows us, I think as a group, you know the students and the teachers, to find kind of fresh air to breathe. Thanks to these new projects but also thanks to discussions which are sometimes very positive ultimately.

Meg Wilcox: Yes, absolutely. Context is essential. Anyone else like to share how they've been talking with their students in context of the pandemic? Kristian.

Kristian Basaraba: Just maybe to piggyback on what Dawn was saying, like I deal with high school students, so a bit older and so it's a different perspective from the little guys, but I have a little guy of my own at home so that's that's on a whole new level, but it's just really having those frank discussions I think. And just — how is your mental health, you know? What are you doing to facilitate or help your mental health? Giving them strategies and providing the most resources.

I'm fortunate enough to work at a school right now that's an outreach school and we have a success coach who we could kind of tap on the shoulder and so it's allowing them to kind of, you know, talk about what they're feeling, having those those discussions and then providing that support. I think it's really important.

Meg Wilcox: Thank you Kristian. Chris.

Chris Young: So yeah, I would just add that I talk a lot about current events in my class and 2020 is no different. This year of course we're talking more about the American election and the pandemic. But I think what's so important is that you try to provide your students as many perspectives as possible. And that you really try to encourage them to think critically. And ultimately, for me personally, I think it's really important that the teacher essentially tries to stay relatively objective. I think it's key that students feel safe in your classroom and feel that they can speak their mind. 

And I think if you're too politicized as a teacher, I think sometimes that can maybe make students less willing to share their perspectives. So that's generally been my approach and this year I think because there are so many contentious topics to talk about I do think, you know, creating those relationships with your students is so key at the beginning of the year so they feel comfortable to ultimately speak their mind.

I'll just give you one quick example, when you're talking about the American election, you know, at our school most of the students lean certainly more to the left, but there are other students who are more right-leaning. And you know I really encourage that other perspective. But for those students to share those perspectives they have to ultimately feel safe in the classroom.

Meg Wilcox: Definitely. The next question I wanted to ask is about contentious topics in the classroom. So, many of you are talking about difficult, sometimes contentious, discussions and I'm curious how you approach it.

But also, I'm gonna throw a second question there, how that's maybe evolved over the years as you've become more comfortable talking about these subjects. And I see that Dominique is nodding, so would you like to start?

Dominique Laperle: What's very interesting is when I started this project, which changed, the very idea of taking down this statue in 2014 didn't even appear like being a solution for most of the students when they were writing up the article. What's very interesting is that now it is one of the most frequent answers (i.e. youngsters have an acute awareness, I would say, of injustice.) And young people, even though they think about the context by saying oh yes it's true in a point of time we built these statues to honour men who in those days were considered as important spokespersons, well today justice calls a treatment which is more radical.

So it's interesting because basically we had looked in 1999 that the fall of the Berlin wall was something that was incredible and we had seen the statues of Stalin, and Lenin, Marx fall in many countries. And now what we can see is some of our Canadian symbols which are fragilized by the look of the new generations. And this forces us really to take into account their opinion. And to talk with them about these issues in a far more subtle way.

Because indeed, with the social media, there's often a kind of harsh vision which is transmitted quickly through Facebook and other media. And there's often a kind of collision of ideas between ideas, but this collision is often borne by a movement — a momentum on the social media. So try to find a time to find the venue, the venue of the classroom, to kind of begin a discussion on difficult subjects like that, on elements of public art, amongst others, you know the statue, I think that this is necessary. Because, whatever we do, the nuances that we put forth allow everybody, including the adults who will sometimes be offended by certain reactions, to take a step back to say "ah, yes indeed i had not seen things that way."

But it's very delicate. You have to introduce things first of all with a certain number of parameters for the discussion and and especially to allow, as Mr. Young said, to allow all the opinions to be able to express themselves with respect. And that might be one of the current important issues. Yes indeed, in Quebec and Canada we have a tendency to be a bit more to the left in our opinions, and when an opinion more in the centre or more right speaks out there are movements amongst youngsters to allow them this expression so that everybody will be able to conserve a different vision, so that we will have a true dialogue. Otherwise, it's one or the other, it becomes a dialogue of deaf people and it's useless.

Meg Wilcox: The ability to practice civil discourse and dialogue with people that disagree with them is one of the best skills that we we can send them out into the world with. And anyone else? Any other thoughts in terms of how you approach these difficult topics? Nathan, and then we'll go to Dawn and then we'll go to Francis.

Nathan Tidridge: I'm teaching Indigenous studies as a non-Indigenous person, this is something that I deal with as an educator and as an ally. And so, there's a few things. Number one, I have to realize my own limitations as areas that I can speak to and areas that I can't speak to. But also that I have a responsibility on my shoulders to have really important conversations of privilege, as well as around those structures, that were put in place that attempted to dismantle treaty relationships. And that can be really difficult conversations to have.

My community presents as a non-Indigenous community, and so for a lot of students, and especially their parents and grandparents, this is the first time that they're hearing this. And so it has to be factual, it has to be honest and I have to recognize my own limitations and not speak out of turn. And certainly not speak for others experiences and perspectives. But in a treaty relationship I also have to understand that I can — I speak to the non-Indigenous side of that treaty and have to explain to my students what happened, what went wrong, and the truths around those systems that were created. So it can be tricky. And every time you do it you get more comfortable with it, but as long as you're honest and you're open and you do it in a good way there's a role for non-Indigenous teachers to play, there has to be in a true treaty relationship.

Meg Wilcox: Absolutely. Thank you Nathan. Dawn.

Dawn Martens: Nathan, I understand what you're saying because being a non-Jewish person dealing with Holocaust education, I have to be very careful about how I speak about that. And often when I do address this subject I feel like I'm almost thinking on many different levels; trying to be sensitive to the subject matter and also trying to be sensitive to the survivors or people that experienced it with their relatives.

I was reading something interesting, it was by a Dr. David Walbert in North Carolina, and it was a quote about history and things that are, I want to say contentious, but I also want to say highly emotional, because I don't know if I'd call the Holocaust contentious. I would call it extremely emotional, and extremely — well anyway, he said "These topics make many students and teachers uncomfortable and they should make people feel uncomfortable." And I think sometimes we are called as historians to make people not feel comfortable, to face up to things that are contentious. And I believe that by introducing children to this at a young age, not too young, but at a young age, I think I build better historians.

For people like Chris, and Kristian, and Nathan, and everybody who's teaching the children that are older, I don't think that by protecting the children from everything we necessarily create better citizens. And I don't think that high school student — high school teachers do either. I think you create better citizens by talking about these subject matters.

Meg Wilcox: Thank you Dawn. Francis.

Francis Lalande: Yes, concerning controversial topics I think it's important to make youngsters understand that doing history, the goal is not to judge the past but to understand it. So we have to develop historical empathy. We must not impose our contemporaneous criteria to societies in the past because the cause was totally different. So concerning controversial topics it's really empathy, historical empathy, that we have to develop before teaching such topics.

Meg Wilcox: Thank you, Francis. Kristian, you had your hand up.

Kristian Basaraba: I really like what Dawn said. And my project it really kind of looks at, you know, the dark colonial past of Canada. You know, and we looked at various topics, but one of the topics that a lot of the students kind of gravitated towards was the idea of residential schools, and, you know, some of the the, well, damage that it caused to a country and to a culture. And so with regards to that, kind of — you know everyone's "you know we've got to educate them," and all that, and let them kind of look at all these things from multiple perspectives, but we also have to allow them to have a voice.

And I think the reason my project was so successful in engaging students is that it was visual in nature. And it really kind of spoke to them, it was relevant, it was — you know skateboard culture tends to be kind of this rebellious type nature, individualized a little bit. But there's a strong community within skateboards — skateboarders. And so it was that voice, and some of the art.

So, it's hard to talk about a project that's so visual and not have like you know skateboards here, or pictures. I don't know what everyone's seeing on the other end, but you know some of the boards, for example, one board had an Indigenous person — it was kind of like a before and after if you can kind of think like Two-Face from Batman you know, they had different sides. So it was kind of pre-residential schools where it was darker skin, life in the eyes, long braided hair. And there was post- residential school where the the skin was a little bit lighter, representing the whitening of the skin, there was nothing left in the eye, their hair was all cut. And so that's a really visual and powerful image, and this is you know a teenager that is doing that. And again, just kind of going back to what I said, just allowing them to have that voice. And maybe that voice is oral.

We've talked to you know — we've heard from people giving oral histories there's that, there's the visual history, there's the written word. And so, allowing our students to kind of — and providing opportunities for our students to do that, I guess is important.

Meg Wilcox: Certainly. Did anyone else want to add anything on controversial topics in the classroom? We're good? I'm curious, I mean especially as you've all been speaking about your personal experiences with students and getting to know them better through these topics, have you found that it's a comfort for some students? Or for your students to be able to sometimes look back to history and see connections with where they are now? Chris.

Chris Young: Yeah, so I think it can be comforting, but not always. So for the example that I would give you would be the Winnipeg General Strike project. And you know my students, when they were learning about the the strikers, I think they realized pretty quickly that the strikers mostly wanted to live in a similar world as they do. They wanted to live in a more equitable and just world, and I think that must have been comforting for my students to learn about.

But at the same time I think they realized also that many of the challenges of 1919 remain with us. And they learned that ultimately some of the strikers, or most of the strikers, wanted things like a living wage. And they wanted ultimately to fight for things like gender equality. They wanted... My students learned about things like the perils of a global pandemic and how that ultimately accentuates class inequality. And they learned about how racism and fake news can ultimately destabilize society. So I think for everyone on this panel, and everyone that's watching, those are all pretty current themes. And I think for my students that probably wasn't all that comforting to learn about.

But at the same time I think it's valuable, because ultimately by learning that type of history I think it might inspire them to take social action in their own present, or in their future, to try to resolve some of these huge challenges that have been with us forever.

Meg Wilcox: Thank you Chris. Nathan, go ahead.

Nathan Tidridge: Yeah, I'm more in line with Chris. My goal certainly in Indigenous studies for a largely non-Indigenous audience is discomfort. I'm trying to inform and explain situations and create understanding, but if we're not feeling uncomfortable then I'm not doing my job properly, as far as treaty relationships, the Indian Act and Indigenous rights. So, I see my role as bringing discomfort, but informed discomfort, and the tools necessary to to challenge those norms and disrupt.

Meg Wilcox: Absolutely. And Dawn.

Dawn Martens: Yeah, in my in-person school I have an interesting mix of students and I had an experience where we were talking about what happened to the Jewish people in World War 2 and I had one boy, who is a Syrian refugee, who was going through a lot of counselling, a lot of anger management, because of that experience. And he hadn't talked to the whole class ever. And when we raised the subject about what happened to some of the children all of a sudden this boy said "I saw my brother killed two years ago." And that opened a whole new topic that we wouldn't have been able to talk about had we shied away from the controversy of history in the past.

And I've also noticed online, this year I started teaching the children about the Holocaust through a historical piece of historical fiction called Ben on the Night of the Broken Glass. And it's a novel for children, a little book for children, about a cat that actually sees the Night of the Broken Glass. And one of my children just said right after — it's very creatively done and they talk about the brown shirts but they don't say much more — and then one of my children said "brown shirts, I have a connection it's not exactly this" but she said "orange shirts people were, you know, judged because of the colour of their skin." And then I had another child raise his hand and say "Yeah, I know what you mean in junior kindergarten I had someone who wouldn't play with me because they said they didn't like the colour of my skin."

So all these conversations that come up with the honesty of childhood, and I'm sure with the honesty of high school students, would not have happened had we not visited the prejudice in the past.

Meg Wilcox: Wow, those are some some anecdotes that I think say so much more than the story themselves. Thank you. Would anyone else like to? Dominique.

Dominique Laperle: One of the things which is very important also to observe is that, with a project like the one I was doing, students quickly realize the importance of accumulating varied sources of information. So when we look at a project and we have sources from the 17th century, or three or four sources from the 17th, we consult the sources in the 19th century then you realize that they have to gather many sources of information before arriving at an opinion which is clearly documented.

And here there's an exercise that's always quite interesting in classes, the exercise where students will spontaneously observe that: well, I have only one source of information — that of you know I look at Instagram or I'm on Facebook and I build myself based on one single source of information. And then they realize that even if they say that they have an open mind and tolerant and everything, nevertheless they have a vision which is very narrow.

So our history projects are there to kind of break this tunnel vision, the borders of what surrounds them, so that they'll be able to become citizens of the world, well so that they can have this broad look. But it's difficult, this is what they realize, being a citizen of the world it's necessarily work which is on a daily basis, which requires a lot of analysis, which requires a lack of comfort, like my previous colleagues said earlier on, before it's necessary to be... and also you have to question what we think and what we live. So yes, I think if we do this in history, in our various groups, at our various age groups, the students which we teach will manage to build something that'll be quite interesting.

Meg Wilcox: And I'm so sorry that we have to end this discussion right now because we are at the end of time, but I love that idea of ending on civic engagement and creating citizens with skills to be able to navigate whatever challenges that come their way.

So, thank you so much for this today. I really do appreciate it.

All: Merci beaucoup! Thank you! Thank you very much.

Meg Wilcox: So we'll end our Q&A there and I would like to thank all of our presenters for telling us more about your work, for sharing how you're adapting your practices in the midst of the pandemic, and for being so frank and honest in sharing your stories, I really appreciate that as well.

In the name of the Canada's History Society, I want to thank each one of you for these wonderful meetings during this Canada's History Society Forum. ...conversations, presentations.

And of course to our online audience thank you for participating. It is thanks to the sharing that we can find new potential solutions to explore our past. You know, just listening to all of this today I really feel like the one thing that comes out of this is how complex our history is, how layered it is, how collaborative it is as we come up with solutions moving forward. And that it's ongoing, that the history is never truly in the past.

We would like to thank Power Corporation of Canada for their generous support of this year's forum. And we would also like to thank Canada's History's award partners: the Department of Canadian Heritage, the Canadian Historical Association, and the Canadian Museums Association.

Thank you to all for your participation and your interest, merci.