Barbara Ann Giroux Transcript

Julia Richards, Canada’s History

Welcome to another episode of Teaching Canada’s History Podcast. I’m your host Julia Richards and in this special educator’s series, we’re speaking with the finalists for the 2022 Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching. Created 26 years ago in 1996, the award recognizes best practices in teaching Canadian history and is an opportunity to highlight the important work that teachers and students are doing to interpret and share the stories of the past. I’m sitting down with Barbara Ann Giroux. Why don’t we start but introducing yourself? You could tell us a little bit about your school or maybe the students you teach? 

Barbara Ann Giroux

Certainly. First of all, thank you very much for inviting me here today. My name is Barbara Ann Giroux, and I teach Grade 1 at Holy Family School in the Ottawa Catholic School Board, located on unseated and unsurrendered Algonquin Territory in London — in Ottawa, Ontario. Our school is a JK to Grade 6 school and serves children from many diverse backgrounds. This past school year I had students who were English language learners, some were very new to Canada. I had students with educational and medical needs and all of the students were at different levels of school readiness coming into Grade 1. 

It is important to note that due to the COVID-19 pandemic not one of the 20 students I had in class had ever completed a full traditional school year composed of in-person learning experiences. So, they came into Grade 1 without having developed the learning framework for how school operates and what it demands of them. And any time we had to pivot to remote learning during the year there was an element of disengagement because some students could not attend, and some students did not attend. 

There's one other item of note, which some people might find odd considering this is the Governor General’s History Award of Excellence in Teaching, I don't formally teach nor assess history or social studies in the elementary panel. In the Ottawa Catholic School Board, it is taught in French, but I do integrate history into all other subject areas wherever possible and I have also devoted much of the time allotted to formal faith development to developing a path toward reconciliation. So, I endeavor to make the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action in child friendly language a living document in my Grade 1 classroom.

Julia Richards, Canada’s History

That's really incredible and especially in not a history setting I think it's really important to do that as well.

Barbara Ann Giroux

I think that it in the climate in which we live right now. The most important thing that we can do is be teachers of the true and accurate portrait of Canadian history.

Julia Richards, Canada’s History

Absolutely yeah, um, why don't you tell us about your project?

Barbara Ann Giroux

Certainly. Well again, I think everything I do is somewhat multilayered. So, this past year, our class focus has been on implementing our journey of truth and reconciliation within our school community. And the project has two main parts; first we took part in the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society's Reconciliation Ambearrister program. Through this program we learned about the Algonquin peoples on whose land we live, and we learned from Elders, who were able to share some time with us which was also difficult because of the pandemic. The children were responsible to teach our stuffed bear, the reconciliation Ambearrister, which was sent to us by the Caring Society, they had to teach the bear what we had learned. Our bear was given the name Makoons, meaning Bear Cub or Little Bear in Anishinaabemowin by an Elder. We also learned about the effects of colonization on Indigenous peoples and about the inequities faced by many Indigenous children, especially those living on reserve, that aren't faced by other children in Canada.

The second main part of our project was a human rights study that began as a read aloud activity that I usually do every year about the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child. The read aloud coincided with both the international Human Rights Day and the anniversary of Jordan's Principle passing in Canada's House of Commons in 2005.

As a result of an in-class conversation highlighting inequity, one student was so incensed that he felt we had a duty to tell the world about the situation. Other children thought telling the world was a little bit beyond their capabilities, so they decided that we should inform the whole school body and ask their opinions, students and staff alike. So, our “do you think all children in Canada have the same rights?” human rights study was born. It was student driven and I spent most of my Christmas holidays finding scenarios that we could learn about and post to our hallway display and invite everyone in the school community to participate by reading our postings to learn about the topic and then answering our survey question and offering their opinions. We would then tally the weekly responses and look for trends in the responses.

It again was a cross-curricular activity the human rights scenarios chosen matched the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child that were profiled in our mentor text, I Have the Right to be a Child by Alain Serres. So, you could see where language and math factored into that activity along with history.

Julia Richards, Canada’s History

So, what inspired you to develop this project? 

Barbara Ann Giroux

A couple of — or a combination of factors led me to this project. I wanted to do my part to work towards reconciliation and to ensure that my students learn an accurate and balanced story of our community and country, and not just one from a colonial perspective. It was also a personal response to the nation learning about unmarked graves at residential schools across the country. For these reasons, I approached the First Nation Child and Family Caring Society to participate in its reconciliation Ambearrister program. In terms of the learning activities that I used, other than using the spirit bear books, most of them came about as a result of what the class and I learned together because we were partners in our learning. As much as possible, because of the age of the children, I tried to use play informed age-appropriate activities, group discussions and project-based learning.

Even the second part of our project, the human rights study, was a response to student voices and their desire for positive action. It does take a lot of outside-the-box thinking, and a lot of thinking and work to come up with ways to help young children understand difficult concepts at their level, but it can be done. What keeps me going is a quote from Ryder Cote-Nottoway who's the grandson of Algonquin Elder Claudette Commanda. And he said last summer, “If our children we're old enough to go to residential schools, your children are old enough to learn about them.” And I am taking the liberty to extend that a little bit, uh, that the learning shouldn't end once the orange shirts are put away, after the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. It is our job to keep that learning going.

Julia Richards, Canada’s History

So, what do you think is your great — the greatest impact of your project?

Barbara Ann Giroux

Again, I there's a trend here I think the impact is threefold. First of all, my Grade 1 students had the opportunity to be part of a project that helped them even at a young age to be critical thinkers, deep learners, and activists for a better Canada, with a more balanced knowledge of Canada's history and they are developing an understanding of the peoples on whose land we live. When the information is presented in an authentic and transformative way, and when students can interact physically and emotionally with the concepts, there is really no limit to the depth to which they can demonstrate their understanding of difficult concepts. And we had some phenomenal conversations in our classroom. I really don't think that we give enough credit to children regarding the depth of their thinking and understanding. It also puts some onus on us as teachers that we must be willing to be outside-of-the-box thinkers in what and how we present and that we be willing to learn alongside the children. 

The second impact is that the children realize that they have a voice and their voice matters. They were not looked down upon because they were some of the youngest learners in the school but rather, they became leaders in the school and by inviting other students older than themselves and inviting staff as well to join in and share their learning. And this was done not only by what we posted in the hallway. But what was shared with the parent and the school board communities and with the country through the caring society's Spirit Bear Twitter posts. Everyone got to see what our class was doing.

And then the third impact is a personal one. The project has caused me to be a more reflective practitioner. To look for bias in historical perspective, however unintended, in my own previous teaching practice. So, I have to ask myself in what ways do I catch myself in the colonial mindset because that is the story of Canada that I learned in school. There's a lot of work to do to learn about and to listen to and to share the perspective of those who choose to live here, like my parents who came here against their will, and especially the perspective of those who have been here since time immemorial. Most importantly, I think this project has taught me that as our understanding of history evolves, I must continue to develop my historical thinking skills and continue to learn alongside my students.

Julia Richards, Canada’s History

And what an amazing experience for these students too, at such a young age, to be doing this project and having all those impacts. That's really incredible. 

Barbara Ann Giroux

Oh it — this past year was one of the hardest years in my career because of the pandemic but in terms of what we accomplished and learned as a class. It was by far the most rewarding year I have ever had, and we learned together. It certainly stressed how much I did not know.

Julia Richards, Canada’s History

So how do you keep your students engaged in history? How do you make it relevant for them?

Barbara Ann Giroux

Well children at the ages, that Grade 1 students are — so starting the school year they are, some are 5, some are 6, and by the end of the year some are 6, some are 7 — they are naturally interested in the stories of other people. And quite literally, they are used to stepping into somebody else's shoes sometimes, quite literally in their play. And to me that is what history is, the stories of people. And again, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to teach using a selected topics or selected stories in history approach that spans all areas of the curriculum. I can use language arts; I can use visual arts; I can use math; I can use health and Phys-Ed; I can use science and music to help in getting the historical concept across. 

I also have the opportunity to showcase my many personal books, both in my classroom and in the school hallway outside my classroom with the hope that students not only, whom I teach, but throughout the school will be able to see stories similar to their own in some of my books and take an interest in reading them or learning about the people or events that are profiled. I also believe that history can be made relevant to young children in the way it is presented to them by using a play informed process.

 So, I have a couple of examples of what we did this year, and they were just ideas that I had to think about for a little while and then they came to me. So, for example, when we talked about Treaties and explored that concept, and the children came up with some wonderful definitions of what Treaties are. So, for example, “Treaties are treating people how you want to feel” or “a Treaty is a promise to share your day” and they knew that Treaties had obligations attached to them and if you did not keep your Treaty obligation, people won't be able to trust you because you don't do what you said you would. That is coming from a 6-year-old. And you can very easily apply that to an adult conception of Treaties. They understood that the concept of them.

So, we explored Treaties by using our play structure, to define roles benefits and obligations of Treaty people. We used role play to explore differences between having freedom to live as from time immemorial, compared to being allowed to stay only on small land parcels reserved for their use. We were going to be discussing something by which the children needed to know what the concept of reserves was, so we used the school grounds to illustrate that. We used math blocks to build numbers representing the number of years Indigenous peoples may have lived in Canada compared to settlers’ presence. So, we took the Bering Strait land crossing as a concrete number because they couldn't understand the concept of time immemorial, but they wanted to know how much longer Indigenous people had been in Canada compared to when settlers first came. And we were able to build those numbers using 10s and 1s blocks, 1000s blocks. 

We learned about the ancient farming practice of the Haudenosaunee peoples, the Three Sisters planting and made connections about how to support each other's learning in the classroom the way the corn, squash, and beans support each other as they grow and develop. And we added Indigenous words to our class word-wall as identified by the children as important words to know. And then we also used children's literature and art to introduce the concept of understanding historical points of view through art interpretation and children's literature. So, we were able to do a lot.

And in all of our activities the students collaborated, they reflected, they shared, their thoughts and feelings as they processed their experiences. And even when I would speak with older classes, for example, a Grade 5 class, there was a student — we had been talking about the Indian Act — and one student came up to me after that class and asked if I just happened to have an extra copy of the Indian Act that she could borrow and take home and read. So, they were engaged.

Julia Richards, Canada’s History

Yeah, it sounds like it sounds like they were really, like really into this project and just so thoughtful in everything that they did.

Barbara Ann Giroux

I am so proud of all of the students. It was interesting when you — when I would see students who were not in my classroom stop and look at our posting. And if it was almost recess time and they would see me in the hallway they would start to ask questions. And it was interesting to see the older students, they would start to get hung up on the language in terms of — how would they handle — they think all children in Canada should have the same human rights, but does that mean they do have the same human rights? So, they were seeing nuances in language and that led to interesting discussions as well in the hallway. It was a very, very beneficial project to do.

Julia Richards, Canada’s History

Thank you so much for coming in and talking about your project. 

Barbara Ann Giroux

I — Thank you very, very much for having me.