Melissa Moorhouse Transcript

Julia Richards, Canada’s History

Welcome to another episode of the 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 Melissa Moorhouse. Why don’t you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit your school or the classroom you teach? 

Melissa Moorhouse

Yeah, great. So, my name is Melissa Moorhouse and that I am a history teacher at the Etobicoke School of the Arts in Toronto, with the Toronto District School Board. It's kind of a neat school because it it's a public school but students apply to get into the school. And they're just students who have a big passion for a various art form. So, we have students from literally all over the Toronto District School Board with all sorts of backgrounds and all sorts of needs and all sorts of incredible passions. So, I'm really lucky to be able to teach history in this kind of unique place. The students are really highly motivated, um, but also really engaged in just in social justice initiatives. And so yeah, that's kind of where I teach, and I've been there I'm lucky enough I've been there for according to the records 19.7 years.

Julia Richards, Canada’s History

That’s amazing. It sounds like such a great school.

Melissa Moorhouse

Yeah, it's really neat. And I teach Grade 10 Canadian History, Grade 11 American History, and Grade 12 World History. So basically, all the histories.

Julia Richards, Canada’s History

Alright, do you want to tell us a little bit more about your project?

Melissa Moorhouse

Yeah, absolutely so my project is called “Ethical Dilemmas — Then and Now” and it's a World War II end unit and project, so summative project number two. And the whole unit looks at the topics of World War II through this lens of ethical dilemmas. So rather than teaching, you know, the causes of World War II, um I teach them kind of the causes but we kind of teach it through the lens of the question: to what extent was Canada complicit in appeasing Germany and did Canadian politicians do enough? 

And when we look at those types of questions, we link them to some of the things that were going on in our world today. So, for example, in this year we talked about did Canada do enough to prevent the Russian attacks in Ukraine. And so, we kind of link the past to the present throughout the unit through this lens of ethical dilemmas. And then the project asks students to pick one of the ethical dilemmas, research it and dig deep into that particular dilemma from World War II and then connect it to something going on in their world today.

And the outcome of the project is kind of interesting. Students get to choose what medium they want to communicate their findings. They could do something academic like, write a mini essay or a letter to an editor. They could do something more creative like create a 1-to-2-minute film or public service announcement, perform a piece of slam poetry, write a song, or any mode of their choosing. And so, in this project students get to choose their ethical dilemma, they get to choose the way that it connects to the present, and oftentimes they choose things that are also connected to their own identities, and they get to choose the format by which they um, they kind of show their findings. So that's kind of the project in a nutshell.

Julia Richards, Canada’s History

That's really fascinating and such a great project to carry history throughout into the present too. So, what inspired you to develop this project?

Melissa Moorhouse

Um, so I developed this project kind of in late 2015-early 2016 and it's really like changed and evolved as times gone on, but it was the — really the publication of the 94 Calls to Action with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was one of the major inspirations for this project. Because um, that the 94 Calls to Action really had a major section on education and I wanted to do something really like authentic to address the educational calls and I've been teaching Indigenous history you know within my courses forever. But I really wanted to do something more authentic to decolonize, um, decolonize the curriculum and this was kind of my response to that. It's kind of an authentic like authentically decolonizing um, creating an authentic way for diversity equity inclusion social justice to be built within the framework of inquiry and based on students’ passion and students' interests.

That was one of the inspirations. The second inspiration was at that time really in the news was the Syrian refugee crisis. And um, you know the child Alan Kurdi was on the front page of every newspaper in the world and I realized you know it wasn't just enough for me to make these connections myself to model it for students, but I really wanted to create a situation where students could dig deep into some of the things going on today connected to the past. Because the obvious connection with the Syrian refugee crisis was the refugee crisis for Jewish refugees just before World War II began. And so, one of the things, one of the ethical dilemmas we look at now is consider Canada as immigration and refugee policies and antisemitism prior to the Holocaust to what extent did Canada fail Jewish refugees before World War II and how does that connect to our refugee policy today? 

Um, and so those two major kind of events in that moment really inspired this more authentic way of decolonizing the curriculum and then a huge thing for me, a huge inspiration for me, is finding any way for personal engagement for students and their identities. And so, the second piece of this was how can I create a project where students feel like they have agency over their learning, and they have the opportunity to really take into something that's meaningful for them.

Julia Richards, Canada’s History

Yeah, that's — that's incredible. It's such important work too. Um, for students to see themselves in Canadian history.

Melissa Moorhouse

Yeah, absolutely. Um, and like the real kind of hidden stories that really are important to them is something that this project really brings out.

Julia Richards, Canada’s History

Absolutely. So what do you think is the greatest impact of your project?

Melissa Moorhouse

Um, like really the most important impact that I've seen is like seeing these very personal transformative moments where students are connecting the past the present and their own place in this world through this project. It's really like a privilege for me to go on this journey with them I talk about this project with my students as a journey as an experience and as a way to learn about themselves. Um, and so when that happens it's pretty special and I'll give you just one example,

So, I have — I had a student who was born female in China and was adopted. And is now gender nonconforming, and this student decided to actually look at something that wasn't on our sheet, like on our project, Ethical Dilemmas project, but wanted to dig into um, the question of, why Chinese immigrants to Canada, why Chinese Canadians would volunteer, when their country was treating them so poorly.

So, we had learned that in 1923, there was a Chinese exclusion act and Chinese people were the only immigrants who were not allowed to come to Canada at all until 1947, until after the war. And so, in class we learned about Force 136 which was a Chinese voluntary force — special force — special operative force that was dropped in the behind the lines, behind the front lines in Japan. And this student said to themselves: why would anyone want to volunteer or risk their lives for a war? What kind of personal ethical dilemma did that person go through when making that decision? And so, through that um this student who I would say was moderately engaged in class became incredibly engaged because the story allowed them to like to explore their own identity explore their own history and a lot of the history that they didn't know because of their own adoption. And in that way, this like I'll never forget like the student at one of our consultations said, I’ve realized this project isn't just checking a box, Ms. Moorhouse I think that this is actually like something that's going to be really important for me and I can't wait to share it with my parents. 

Um and that like really like, uh, I'm a pretty emotional person but that really you know, touched me. And you see that all the time It's so exciting to see Indigenous students learn about the Dene people who mined uranium that went into the atomic bomb that ended the war. And being able to connect that to like environmental degradation and um, that still goes on today and Indigenous people constantly trying to protect the land on our behalf on the on the behalf of not just Canadians but around the world.

And so, all of these kind of transformative personal moments where students connect to their own identities while connecting the past to the present is pretty awesome and such a privilege for me to be able to experience their opinions being formulated their identities becoming more clear seeing them being inspired to care about what's happening in the world and just like learning it's really neat.

Julia Richards, Canada’s History

Yeah, that's — that’s incredibly powerful. Oh, my goodness. Um, so how do you keep your students engaged in the history or how do you make it relevant for them?

Melissa Moorhouse

Um, well like first and foremost I know I've been talking about quite a few serious things here. But the first thing I do with students is make sure they realize that history can be fun. So, I hooked them with some really fun things. We do um you know we do simulations; we do like kind of metaphor historic stories with popsicles. Um, and so I just want them to I want to show them that history is not boring and even though there's a lot of serious and important stories that we want to uncover, there are also ways that we can have fun with history and still be respectful. So, I think making it fun is really important.

And then we really get into the stories like I'm a storyteller from the bottom of my heart and um for me revealing these kind of untold stories and first of all me learning about these untold stories and learning about them with my students is so exciting. Um, and so like finding and uncovering these untold narratives and stories is just so exciting for me and for the students and stories that connect to them, amazing and exciting stories, stories about regular people stories of celebration resistance, resilience, and art all of these like I always say um you know, history's the easiest subject to keep students engaged in because the stories speak for themselves — they’re so good and they're true. And then tying everything — these stories to them personally to them as people, as citizens, as minorities or not, tying it to their privilege and helping them to understand themselves and their place in this world is the kind of final piece to keeping students engaged and making history relevant to them. So those are kind of the things that I that I do with my students to kind of keep them focused.

Julia Richards, Canada’s History

That's amazing and so interesting for them too to see it that way.

Melissa Moorhouse

Yeah, absolutely and like just keeping them realizing too that like our pillars of diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice can be seen in those stories in almost every single story and as well in obviously our society today. So those are kind of the — the main ways.

Julia Richards, Canada’s History

Absolutely yeah. Is there anything that you want to add any final thoughts that you want to share?

Melissa Moorhouse

Um, just that you know teaching is such a privilege. Teaching history is such an amazing experience and privilege and um, you know I love my students, but I love what I do. And um, we're just like I think it's I'm the luckiest person in the world to be able to do this job and thank you — and thank you for taking the time to listen to my mediumly-old teacher rant.

Julia Richards, Canada’s History

It's no problem! It's been a pleasure chatting with you. This has been really great.