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 Cynthia Bettio. Why don't we start by introducing yourself and you can tell us a little bit about your school or maybe the classroom that you teach?
Sure, um, so my name is Cynthia Bettio I am a department head of Canadian and World studies at the York Catholic District School Board in York region, which is just north of Toronto. And the school that I teach at is called, it's a very long name, Our Lady Queen of the World Catholic Academy we've recently gone through a name change, so it wasn't always called that, but I've been at the school since it opened. So, I've been teaching at the school since 2009 as a member of the Canadian World Studies department and I moved into a department head position about three years ago, so September of 2019 and I've been there in that role since.
Julia Richards, Canada’s History
Alright, can you tell us a bit more about your project?
Ah, yeah, absolutely I'd love to. So, the project was developed for a Grade 10 advanced placement preparation course, which is — and it was the Grade 10 academic Canadian history. So, these are students that are very high achieving academically um, but they have a little bit of I would say trouble with some of the collaborative pieces. They're very competitive. Um, they are very goal-oriented. And I really always want to try in this class to embed some of those collaborative learning opportunities for them because it's a skill that I think we're realizing now more than ever is really important. So that was part of what inspired the project I like to give this class challenging opportunities and by that I don't mean volume I mean quality. So, I really want to ensure that they're being given a meaningful learning experience through work that's going to not only allow them to understand the content of Canadian history from 1914 to the present but also will allow them to really acquire and master some really important skills that they can use across all subject areas.
So that's always my motivation in planning projects like this. In addition to that, given that we've been in a sort of weird virtual hybrid environment over the past few years, and I knew that I was gonna have students that were still online, because our board had hybrid for secondary school, I needed to make sure that the project was something that would work for both face-to-face students and virtual students.
And on top of all of that, the biggest I think inspiration for me was that I really like to approach this course from the perspective of you know, this is the dominant narrative that we're usually offered but I would like to explore some of the non-dominant narratives. And I really am very passionate and have dedicated a large part of my professional and personal career and life to social justice issues. So, these are things that are really important to me and in Canadian history I think we often present things as being you know there's one story and that story is what we all have to buy into. And the truth is, and I think this has become very evident over the past few years, that story has excluded more people than it's included and so I really wanted to ensure that my students from my school which is a very, very diverse school community I wanted to ensure that they could see themselves in the history of this country that they call their own. Um, because I think all too often, they see Canada’s history first of all, they come to me thinking it's very boring which it's not, and second of all they come to it assuming that it's not their history, but it is. And so, I really wanted to weave into this project different narratives that are usually silenced. And so that's what really inspired this project from ah a thematic or a topical perspective.
But in addition to that, there's quite a heavy tech piece to it. So, I am very, very fortunate to be at a school that has a lot of access to technology our founding principal, our second principal, and our third principal — so we are 3 principals in and we're starting a fourth principal in September — so these 3 leaders have been very, very instrumental in establishing a very forward-thinking innovative framework from which the school approaches things. So, I have access to all kinds of technology and hardware. But in addition to that and I think more importantly than that our school really fosters like an innovator's mindset. So, in my department certainly, this is something that I've really worked hard on you know after taking over from my predecessor who really encouraged that in me, I have tried to do that in my own department members and have really encouraged them to think beyond the traditional history classroom or geography classroom or social science classroom.
So, we were in a unique situation where we already had these opportunities for innovation, and you know inquiry-based problem based learning. Um then I had this this very diverse community in the school whose narratives are very much a part of Canadian history and then this challenge of having to prepare something that was hybrid and face-to-face compatible. So, all those things sort of came together and allowed me to develop this project.
Julia Richards, Canada’s History
That's amazing. It's — it's such an incredible project.
Oh, thank you.
Julia Richards, Canada’s History
Yeah, and the students was feels like so engaged. And I think it's such an important philosophy to have them included in the narrative as well.
Yeah, I think that they quickly realized that our history classroom was not going to be like their normal expectation of what a history classroom was, and I really work hard to try to demystify their opinions about history classrooms because they often come to me really hating the subject which is such ah such a tragedy because I think history is one of the most amazing subjects. And I think we've seen over the past several years just how important it really is and so I always take it on as a challenge at the beginning of the semester and I say to them look you might not like it right now, but you're going to like it by the end. And even if it doesn't become their favorite subject, which is fine. They see merit in it and that to me is a victory. Because there is merit a great deal of merit in it in in understanding this country's history. And I find that adults who don't work with teenagers, and even some adults who do work with teenagers, are of the opinion that teenagers just don't care. And I have seen the opposite to be true. They care profoundly. They just don't know how to show that they care and what they should care about. So, I give them the opportunity to figure out on their own what they should care about I don't tell them what to care about I give them the opportunity to discover that on their own. And I think if we want our country to be able to move forward through processes like reconciliation as an example, young people are going to have to be instrumental in that process.
So, I — really this opportunity with the Governor General's Award, it's not for me, it's for them. Like they are the ones who did the work and they're the ones that need to be congratulated and celebrated because this wouldn't have happened without their incredible amounts of hard work and dedication. So yeah, I feel really privileged to have been able to work with them on this project.
Julia Richards, Canada’s History
What do you think is the greatest impact of your project?
Um, I think you know it depends on the angle that you want to look at this from. For the students, I think that they realized a few things. I think first of all they realized just how rich Canada’s history really is. Um so that's I think the first thing. I think the second thing is they realized just how many groups have been excluded from the mainstream narrative of Canada's history and so that came out loud and clear through all the work that they did. I was constantly hearing things like I can't believe that this happened, I didn't know anything about this, who allowed this to occur? Like these kinds of questions, they were sort of you know, incredulous um, for most of the process.
Um I think the third part would be that it demonstrated that they can do difficult things. And I think that you know we talk a lot about wanting to build you know, problem solving skills in young people. But then we as adults interfere and try to solve all their problems. And what was beautiful about this project was I had a third party working with them, the company's name is STEM Minds, and STEM Minds was um, instrumental in teaching them the coding language Unity. I know nothing about coding. This is not something that I could help them with um, and it was I would say I think they would all agree that this was probably the most challenging part of the project. But as a group, as a community, you know, we would all sort of come together and say, how are we going to solve these problems? And some of the problems were easy to solve. Some of them were difficult to solve. But they all solved them. And I think they came away from the project like at the end it was the most incredible thing.
Um, it was the last day of our scheduled classes. So, we had what were called conference days, and most students chose not to go to school those days because it was you know two and half hours of them just getting feedback from their teachers which in almost every case, they'd been getting the entire semester. But my entire — like I had 23 students — 21 of them were present, which is like incredibly impressive that they were there. And they stayed not only until the end but past the end. Because that was the day that the coding team was really trying to pull everything together and they were struggling, and they worked really closely with STEM Minds. The person we were working with, someone by the name of Mackenzie Smith or Mac, so Mac was helping them try to troubleshoot and almost every student stayed behind. And when the coding team cracked the code, literally, I felt like I was working in Google like everyone was rallying around them, clapping for them, slapping on the backs like congratulating them. You know it was such a powerful community experience and after all that was said and done, I said, you know you guys didn't think you could do this, but you did. And it was hard, and you got frustrated, and there were probably tears, and you probably got angry, but you did it and that's a life lesson in itself.
So, if that's the only thing that they take out of this experience — I'm okay with that. They demonstrated tenacity, hard-headedness, dedication, and an extreme amount of hard work, but they manage to pull it off. And um, this is in an environment that they're not accustomed to because these are students who when you give them an assignment, they say can I show can I see an exemplar and then they replicate that exemplar because their fundamental goal is to get the best mark possible. Well, this was a project where I had to say to them, I don't know what this is going to look like when it's done. I don't have an exemplar to show you. I can coach you; I can guide you; I can support you; I can get you in touch with people who can support you; and help you with things that I don't know, but ultimately, we are going to decide what this looks like collectively as a class, and you're part of that creative process. But it's going to be challenging and it's going to really get you outside of your comfort zone.
And initially there was you know there's always a bit of pushback. They really don't know what to do with that because they are very accustomed to problems being solved for them. But I think when we give students the opportunity to problem-solve in a meaningful way. They always do it and that's what they did. So, I think those are probably the biggest lessons for them.
For me as a teacher, the biggest lesson for me — always every time I do a project that I've never done before which is all the time because I don't like repeating the same project more than once. It's always the same thing and that is that with the right amount of support students can achieve beyond anything that you possibly imagined. And I can honestly say, I've been teaching for 20 years, I really, really changed my teaching approach probably about seven years ago or so, six or seven years ago, and at every single moment since that time I've never been disappointed by the work that students have done. And that's not because they all do fantastic work, it's because they all demonstrate that they're willing to do the work. And that is a testament to their determination, and their willingness to succeed, and their ability to develop these skills that we sometimes prevent them from developing. So that's always a big, big learning piece for me.
Um I also have learned, and this project was another example of that, that I don't need to know everything about what they're doing in order for it to be done well. So, I don't think I will ever be able to fully understand how to code. I'm curious about it I'd like to learn a very simple version of it, but I've never had the opportunity to learn how to do it, but I was able to you know leverage my network. Which I'm very fortunate to have a fantastically supportive network of people that I can draw on when I need to, and they were able to act as the experts for my students when I couldn't. And I think that that demonstrates so many things to them. You know that that you can pull in people that you know that have different skill sets and we don't all have to be good at everything. Because I certainly am not good at coding. I can't even code. So, I'm not good or bad I'm just not doing it. Um, they saw that it's okay to play to your strengths and to pull in a team together to make something happen. And that that collaborative piece, like as I said at the beginning, collaboration was a big motivation for me, and I modeled that collaboration for them and they in turn really did such a fantastic job collaborating with each other. So, I think those are probably the biggest learning pieces for me as the teacher in charge of this project.
Julia Richards, Canada’s History
That that's incredible and what a powerful experience for them too — to go through all that, that's amazing. How do you keep your students engaged in history or how do you try to make it relevant to them?
Um I think it's become a lot easier to do that of late. Because I think what we're seeing in general terms is a lot of current events occurring as a result of people not understanding history. And so, my goal all the time especially in this course because you know this course, like other history courses, anything that takes you from a period of time until the present, the content grows every single year so teaching this course fifteen years ago included less content than it includes today. So that's always challenging. It's an overwhelming amount of content. Um, but the way that I keep it engaging is by demonstrating the connections to our everyday realities.
So, one of the opportunities that the students had access to was Dr. Lindsay Gibson he worked a little bit with them on the project and spoke with them about a couple of the historical thinking concepts. So, the historical thinking concepts for me, they are the backbone of how I teach history. So, I always begin with them. That's what they get instruction on right away before we even get into content, we look at the historical thinking concepts. And then we start into the content using the historical thinking concepts. So, they are — like by the time a student has finished being in my classroom, whether they're in this class or any history class with me, they know those historical thinking concepts inside out like there are experts on them.
Um, and so when they were working with Dr. Gibson you know he asked them some very challenging questions. Questions about, for example, commemoration controversies and they really had the ability to think deeply about what this means in the present day. So, this I think is the beauty of teaching Canadian history that in teaching these students, who truly have come from all over the world. I have students who were you know, not born in Canada born in various different countries some that are you know, many generations about Canadians, some whose parents were not born in Canada, but they were like every possible ethnicity that you can imagine is represented in our school. We are a beautifully diverse community.
And I think the hard part for a lot of these students is they come to this history class thinking we're going to learn about English Canadians and French Canadians and they're all white people and that's all we're going to do. And then they realize through a process like this, oh, there's actually like really relevant history to my community. For example, we have some students who are Southeast Asian well you know they in their discovery found they found research about the Komagata Maru. So, these are students who themselves their families are Sikh, they have experienced the process of immigration, or their parents did at least, and then they're making these connections between what is what they're experiencing today in 2022 and what is — was experienced so many years ago with the Komagata Maru.
Or, for example, students who perhaps have immigrated to Canada as a result of the conflict in Syria. Well, when we start talking about what's happening in Syria then we start talking about what happened during World War II, and what the Canadians you know experienced as they were marching through the Netherlands and liberating the Netherlands and coming upon you know concentration camps. And then connecting that to the residential school system, and this cultural genocide that has occurred. And then having them draw those connections between that and the research that they've done about the residential school system, or about forced sterilization of Indigenous people. And these are these connections that you know you can't help but start to care more.
Um, and so that's really, I think the key. I think we are past a point now where history education can only focus on what happened as though it only existed in the past. I think we have to make relevant connections to the present and we do that through you know, using those historical thinking concepts, teaching kids those skills to understand historical events from different perspectives, from various angles in terms of cause and consequence or continuity and change. The ethical dimension is hugely important in a course like this. And so, equipping them with those tools to be able to look at these events or these situations and determine you know how does this connect? What is the pattern here? Um that I think is what makes it engaging. And then they start to really immerse themselves in the history of this country. But until then it's very much a static one-dimensional thing that exists as a subject on a timetable. In my class, we don't just learn history, we actually do history. And we do history by engaging in really meaningful research, and scholarship, and assessments and evaluation practices that allow them to really see that this history is their history, and that it is extremely relevant to the realities that they live as Canadians living in this country. And that in addition, to that this country that you know I have a deep appreciation for as do they, but this country has history that has to be reconciled. And I think when they see that then it's no longer one-dimensional. It becomes a three-dimensional entity to be explored, and to be assessed and analyzed, and questioned and I think that's what makes them engaged and curious more than anything.
Julia Richards, Canada’s History
Yeah, that's amazing. It's been a pleasure speaking with you. Is there any final thoughts that you want to share anything you didn't touch on?
So, I think that it's really easy — I think it's really easy for us to assume that young people are disengaged and self-absorbed and you know are living their lives vicariously through social media. I think it's very easy to make that assumption. Um, but I will say that not just with this project, but if we're speaking specifically about this project, what I've witnessed is young people who are driven, and focused, and have an inherent desire to understand in order to do better. And I don't mean do better academically, I mean do better than what's been done in this country before.
I have every confidence knowing that the students that were in this class with me will become engaged and active Canadian citizens. Because what they've learned has shown them that there are all these other voices that have to be amplified. And in order for that to happen we have to create space for those opportunities. And I know that they will become adults in this country who will create space, and who will act as allies, and who will ensure that they are listening to people whose opinions need to be amplified and asking questions about the sources that they're getting information from to discern whether those sources are reliable and are from perspectives that they want to understand more deeply. And I have every confidence knowing that this incredible group that I was really, really blessed to work with they're going to accomplish great things.
And I'm just so — I just feel so humbled by the fact that I was able to spend this time working with them. Because as I've said this project would not have happened if it weren't for them. So, I just created the opportunity, they did the hard work. Um, so I'm really, really blessed have had the opportunity to work with them. And I hope that they listen to this podcast and that they're proud of the work that they've done because I am extremely proud of the work that they've done. And they really, really demonstrated what they're made of after a couple of years that were extremely difficult. They rose to the challenge and they really, you know for lack of a better term, they blew it out of the water. They just exceeded any and all expectations that I even had I had no idea that they would do the most incredible work that they've done. I'm not surprised, but I'm so happy to see it because I just didn't know what it was going to turn into, and they made what I envisioned come to life and I'm really grateful for that.
Julia Richards, Canada’s History
Yeah, they should be incredibly proud. It's a fantastic project.
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