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 Tracey Salamondra and Carla Cooke. Why don’t we start by introducing yourselves, you could tell us a little bit about your school or the classrooms that you teach?
My name is Tracey Salamondra and I teach at Hartney School and that's where the project was done out of. I have been teaching for just over 20 years and I teach middle years in high school social studies as well as some math, um, and I am also currently finishing my Master's of Education focusing on curriculum and pedagogy at Brandon University.
Um, I'm Carla Cooke Cook and I'm a senior year teacher as well at Hartney School I'm going into my 12th year of teaching in Hartney, and over the past 12 years I've been a true rural school teacher in that I have taught many courses including uh, history, ELA Grades 7 to 12, sciences, you name it, except for math — don't do math. And currently I'm in a transition with a move to Alberta.
Julia Richards, Canada’s History
Amazing. Alright, do you want tell us about your project?
Um, sure. I was going to say we had a couple things just about the school that I think will make the project make a little bit more sense. Our school is very small. We're a small agricultural town. Our school only has 150 students from K to 12. So, we see them for multiple years, in small classes and get to know them know them really well. Um, and I was going to say Carla is going to talk a little bit about some of the challenges that kind of come in that context too.
Yeah, I also just wanted to mention a little bit about how Tracey and I have come together, um Tracey and I collaborated with each other on several projects, and I think we work so well together because our teaching philosophies seem to be mirrored in each other. Um, and uh, part of this project was the belief that deep learning grows from authentic experiences that are grounded in our students' reality. So therefore, learning should be relational, equitable, and situated in place. So, working in a rural school much of our student’s time is spent looking into the outside for knowledge. So, we're looking — always looking for ways to provide them opportunities to see themselves within our curriculum and then understand the history that exists outside the textbooks and the cities. So, um, the town of Hartney as Tracey said is very small 462 residents of 150 students approximately. And it is a very diverse community — population, um, where families have been here for generations and we've a growing number of newcomer families as well.
The project was an attempt to capitalize on the assets possessed by the rural communities. How could we connect all students to their community and spark an interest in history? The small size allowed us to collaborate with local organizations to create this meaningful experience for both parties. And being a small school, we are kind of singleton teachers in our high school, there are only 3 of us high school teachers that cover the core courses across the curriculum as well as extra courses with one physical education teacher who teaches K to 12. So potentially this becoming a very a big project by combining history and ELA courses, Tracey and I were able to work one-on-one with the students on the inquiry project. Um, the direct collaboration and small class size ensured that all the students achieved growth and a powerful learning experience which you wouldn't get in a larger classroom. We would not have had the time to work one-on-one with each of the students on their pieces or identify individuals needs and strengths so potentially the growth for each student was great. Tracey, I'm not sure if I missed anything.
Yeah, no, that's no, that's great I was just going to say, so where the project kind of came out of it — it started at the beginning of 2020, and it really like it really did take the year. I was teaching history all year I had it every second day. So that allowed me to kind of pick away at the project throughout the year it wasn't something that we focused on at all times, of course, but it did give me a lot of time to play with. And then Carla had ELA in the second term and really spent a lot of time getting the kids ready to to write the pieces. So, I think that helped you know set up the situation where we can do this. And what the project was — was I was approached by a neighboring town and an organization was planning a park expansion and they wanted to do an interpretive trail. So, they were asking if my students would be interested in producing some writing that would go along the trail. So, my — our initial idea was that we were going to try to interview people and collect stories and write these stories for the uh to go along this interpretive trail. And then COVID hit and we decided we were going to pursue the project; we were going to keep going but it really did require us to be incredibly flexible and kind of change as we went just in terms of what our evidence might be. Which in the end, I think it made it actually stronger but it definitely was a challenge.
So, what we decided to do was that we partnered with a local museum, and this is in in the town of Elgin where the stories came from and it's tiny, it does not have a school, um, and the museum is very small and it's a volunteer board, and it's a volunteer curator, but they were willing to partner with us and really support us. So, the students started by going to the museum and they were — they were given, you know, pretty much free access and the students, you know, looked at the artifacts they looked at the photos they looked at what was in the museum and as a class we brainstormed a list of what themes we saw coming out of the museum and what pieces we thought were really special. Um, and then we started our research process and we really did that kind of open ended group research, we, you know, we looked at the virtual newspaper archives at the University of Manitoba, um the one joke is I taught the students how to use virtual local historical societies and they used that to find pictures of me as a teenager in my hometown which was quite funny.
Um, we looked at local history books. We actually got Zoom interviews with a few local experts and historians and there was also a book written as a doctoral thesis that featured Elgin in the 1960s. So, we read that as a class. And we made this giant board where we just kind of kept collecting what we thought were really, you know, like neat pieces of evidence that might be important and we were kind of organizing them on the board, but the students didn't know what they were going to write individually yet.
So, after we got finished with that initial research, uh, the students chose three stories that they thought were significant enough to tell. And then we kind of reorganized the research to support each student as much as we could and then we put out the call for anybody that was willing to be interviewed by us and we, you know, put it out on social media, in the local newspaper, by word of mouth, and we interviewed as many people as we could. Um, and, you know, we interviewed people in parks because we couldn't be inside together, we had some email interviews, phone interviews, zoom interviews, and we just — the students really had to be flexible and really had to learn to converse with people in ways that they weren't used to so that was really interesting to watch. Um, but when we they chose their three stories and what they thought were significant, that's when we really started, I think to see them also kind of becoming like young historians right? Like those historical thinking strategies just kind of started to come out on their own and it was really exciting. And then Carla Cooke started second semester.
And um, having the opportunity to spend some time the following June with Tracey and talking about the project to come, um I set up or designed our writing process and ELA program to support the students in development skills that we thought that they were going to need to tell these stories. So, we focused on developing the understanding of identity, storytelling, the danger of a single story. The students experienced being interviewed. Um, they had the experience of telling their own stories as well as the skills that were required to tell the stories of others. This experience helped them to work with their artifacts, traces, and accounts to create a historical narrative that they could share. So, once the rough copies were completed, students regularly conferenced with both Tracey and I to improve their pieces. Um Tracey looked after the research, historical pieces, fact checking, etc. and I looked after the writing formats that we were trying to replicate. Students booked appointments with us during their preparation periods and outside of school hours to polish off their pieces. And all the students returned to the museum outside of school hours to ensure that their evidence in their pieces continued to be accurate.
So, we did different projects, um, we read memoirs, we wrote memoirs, we studied the Humans of New York, we turned it into the Humans of Hartney where they went into the community and practiced their interviews via Zoom, telephone, emails etc. at that time, um, and just continue to work on their writing skills. Um, then I think — oh and then um, when they got to the point where we were looking at different sources and how they represent stories through their word choice, their voice, and the connotations Tracey and I tried to practice those skills both in the history class and in the ELA, class using both literature and historical pieces. Um, so that they could look at the information that was included and what they thought might be missing. I don't know Tracey if you want to talk more about the format.
Um, well the one thing I was going to mention is we were very lucky in that there is a local — again, a volunteer history group and they put out a series of local history books called Vantage Points and we decided that we were going to use those pieces as a, uh, model of what our writing could sound like. And Ken Storie who writes those pieces was actually willing to Zoom into the class again and go through his writing — his writing process and how he kind of sets it out and how he determines what he's going to include. And he went through that with our students, and I really appreciate that he was willing to do that for us. And I think it was really important for our students to see you know history in in action because I think lots of times it feels very removed and theoretical for them, and this was, you know, this was an example in their area of somebody doing this and I really think that that's something that is kind of — I feel like that's been missing for us.
Yeah. I think that lent too to the huge growth and their confidence and then the ownership that they took of the project at that point. They all went back to the museum in pairs, on their own, to fact check their pieces like we said. So, it kind of became that intrinsic motivation where it was all about how to good how to do a good project.
Julia Richards, Canada’s History
That that's incredible. What an exciting project for these students to do. That sounds so fun.
It was pretty — it was pretty exciting to watch them grow right?
Like just in so many ways. Tracey and I could talk for a long time on this, but —
Well and it when we were writing it out, we were realizing like “wow this seems so huge”. But I think because, and that's what I always say to Carla, like, you know, if we weren't working collaboratively, this couldn't happen right? I think the fact that we could each bring our strengths to it. And the — and that the students watched us and realized how we're working together, how important this is, it was almost like it was like just creating this kind of you know, excitement that I think swept all of us up. And it was really it was really great to be part of.
Julia Richards, Canada’s History
Um, you have already kind of talked about this but is there or what inspired you to develop this project is there any more that you want to add to that?
Um, there's a few things. I just think like for me personally — my like the focus of my masters has really been on trying to incorporate local knowledge, you know, student voice, place into curriculum and this was really exciting for me to be given the opportunity to do that. Like it was really uh — it really was kind of a gift that I don't think comes along all the time. So, I really do appreciate that. And it really did speak like we were talking about our kind of beliefs, right? like I felt that history — in order for my students to really be excited about it — because I do think that they felt like this was something that happened somewhere else. You know, it happened to people whose names were important they needed to see that no history is around us all the time and it happens to everyone right? Social history is huge, and I don't think they were making that connection before it and we really were trying you know like that — our kind of — our mantra is “make it real make it relevant” and try to make it as authentic as possible and I really feel like this project, uh, did that for us.
Yeah, I would agree. Any opportunity that I have to work with Tracey and students alongside each other is exciting for me. Um, I just think that when you're intentional and you're authentic and you can make it real so that they can connect, um, it really brings out way more than your original intentions were right? It becomes so much bigger and so much better, and students really own it.
This was a special group of kids. They were — we joked that they were our guinea pigs, but we had built such a strong relationship with this class. Being rural teachers, we've had these kids from grade 9 to 12 and, you know, you have that opportunity in small classes with kids and individuals to get to know them and just really bring — build that strong relationship. So, they were willing to take on this challenging inquiry project. They trusted us that they could do it and we would support them. Um, while they did their best at what they were doing. They realized how important the project would be to the people that were they were sharing the stories with um, they wanted to make sure that they represented, um, represented the stories and the people and the events ethically and professionally. And as I said before their reward became intrinsic. They were so dedicated to a high standard of work for their community rather than the extrinsic reward of a high mark and that just carried through from that project when they were in grade 11 on into our previous grade 12 year. They were just uh — they were a great group of kids to work with which made it even more exciting when Tracey brought this project to my attention because we just knew this was the group to do it with.
Julia Richards, Canada’s History
So, what do you think is the greatest impact of your project?
Um, well for me on the history side, when we were talking about this, I said when kids know their community, they know part of themselves. And I think that was really missing is I think we take it for granted that kids know themselves and they know their background and they know that — it it's kind of like this thing that carries through and influences so much. So, if we don't give them the chance to understand that I don't think history makes sense to them in the same way. But once they've kind of felt that I think all of a sudden history becomes very exciting. Um, and the other big thing was we're really big on that the students see that they valued, their voice matters, their history matters and that there's the, you know they're building these skills but It's more than that right? They're — it's kind of like their legacy right? And I think they really got that in this project.
Yeah, allowing themselves to trust us enough to sit in a large inquiry project and just believe that they could do the work, while they continued to grow skills immensely, um, it was really powerful to watch. Um, and it just makes you um, reflect more on everything that you do after that, you know. So, the focus on inquiry and learning by doing created this powerful learning environment for these students. And in the end, they were extremely proud of their pieces. We were proud of their pieces and their growth, and their community was very proud of the school. So, and like Tracey said their voice matters. Um, they don't see their stories in history, um, in the history books but it doesn't mean that they're not important. So, they needed to become storytellers from the diverse places that they come from, and textbooks and curricula often privilege the stories of urban places because of the significance that's determined through the number of people that it affected but this project focused on the stories that exist in our community. So, increasing numbers of our students are disconnected from that history due to the standardized curriculum. So, by changing or allowing students to um to hear the stories of the community that they live in is often taken for granted so they researched the stories they put the stories together. They used, as Tracey said, their historical thinking strategies to become those storytellers. Um, yeah.
Well and I was — I was sorry I didn't mean to interrupt you — but what I thought was really interesting is of course we teach the historical thinking strategies. But again, it feels like you're teaching it in a foreign story. And really what started to come out was these things just kind of were coming out organically, you know, like we were looking at um — the local curator was talking about how the automobile actually led to the downfall of the town and how vibrant the connections used to be by rail. And we were all kind of gobsmacked because we'd never considered that. But it's like, oh my goodness, that's cause and consequence, right there. And, you know, like, and then we were looking and we're saying you know like there's not enough Indigenous material in this in this museum. Well, there is you know your, ethical dimensions —
And you know you like — yeah, you're just these things are just coming out, without having to try and set it up. And it was just really exciting as a history teacher to watch that happen.
And honestly, as you say that Tracey, um, I think back to when I was teaching the history and trying to teach the thinking strategies in the textbook, I think were more difficult, um, and not as genuine or uh or as organic as you're talking about now. Like I can totally see that now while I hear you speak. And just watching the kids kind of pick up those skills without any and like real intentional, this is how it applies to your textbook now, let’s go practice this right? It just becomes apart of their critical thinking as well.
It's just there, right? Yeah
Yeah, yeah, so it just is so authentic and real.
Julia Richards, Canada’s History
And that's such — so many important skills too because the historical thinking concepts can be hard because they're so theoretical and abstract sometimes it's hard to apply it that way.
Yeah, we forget, um, as teachers and as students that those skills don't just sit in one course area, right? They transfer across everything. So, um, and that's what, you know, one of the other benefits Tracey and I were talking about or impacts that we saw is the carryover right? The carryover and the skills from history and ELA into their grade 12 year carried over into other course areas it didn't just stay in history. But their interest and love for history carried into my ELA class in grade 12 which was really exciting to see too. I guess that goes to begin that you know how do you make it, um, how do you continue their engagement in history too.
Julia Richards, Canada’s History
Yeah, absolutely! Um, we can talk about that if you want, um so how do you keep them in enagaged in history?
Sure, so I was gonna I — we'd kind of decided that maybe I would speak to this one just because I'm continuing or I'm teaching history. My big thing and my students will laugh if they ever listen to this and hear this phrasing. I allow them to go down rabbit holes to the best of my ability. If there is a spark, if there's anything that you know really — they have an interest in let's go right? Because I just think if you can capture that, you can build from there and you can get to where you want to go, but that spark is is you know it's rare and it's just exciting if you can capture it. Um, and then I do a lot of work, a lot of modeling I think on — maybe an ELA idea — but that idea you know when you're reading an ELA and it's like how do I make a connection to text? For me, it's how do I make a connection to history I'm seeing the present. Now, let's look back and see how the, you know, how the past works into that present. And I think when students start to see that, and then they kind of start to try that on their own, they start making connections for themselves.
And that really, I think led to our big paradigm shift for us which was instead of thinking like how can I afford to take my kids to Vimy? Right? Because in our small school that's not going to be a reality, uh, you know often. It's how can I — how can I kind of capture them by learning local and then take that new understanding and look outward. And it just really seemed to work with this group, and I think it was really powerful for us. I've got, you know, the following year kids that weren't even in the class are bringing me in photos from town and telling me I talked to my grandpa, and he told me the story of where the jail was in Hartney and you know and it was just — it really is having kind of a trickle down excitement in the school and it's great. It's awesome, I couldn't ask for more.
Yeah, the two — the two big ideas of confidence and connection, right? Like you talk about the ELA model of you know, connect to self, connect to text, connect to the world, that's — I mean we teach it in ELA but that's everywhere, right? So, you see that trickle down or overflow um, from Tracey's history class right into my grade 12 class ELA class this first semester this year.
Um, Hartney school is well known for their remembrance space service, in that for years and years, it’s been a tradition that it's, um, you know a teacher student led, um, I don't know Tracey I want to say performance —
It is yeah.
Because it almost ends up being a performance. Um, and I really — you know, when I first took over the ELA program, I tried to model what teachers in the past had done and, you know, a teacher leads the students and in what are we doing? What is our theme? What is our topic? What are what's the poetry? We're gonna — what are we going to research? What are we gonna put together?
And this year I just found that, um, these grade 12 students coming out of that project, um, had built up — built or um, increased their stamina to work hard at something and just be dedicated to what they were doing. Um, they had come out of history, coming into ELA and the Remembrance Day service going, Mrs. Cook, there are so many stories still untold, right? So, they took over that I was there as guidance. I said, okay this is the format. This is the structure, I set up the practices, I set up the schedule and who was doing what, but they took over the show. They decided what the theme was, we went into local history. There was a novel that crossed my desk, you know, letters that were written from um, a local soldier to his girlfriend and they researched that because they wanted to find connection and when they couldn't find the research to support the connection, they decided that his stories match so close to history that they wanted to use his, um, perspective to tell their own stories. And they didn't want to just tell more about the past they wanted to bring it, you know, the past, the present, the future kind of thing.
And like the whole thing was incredible because they just totally took it on and I was feeling a little bad at the end because it was like somewhere somehow, I was left holding the camera instead of instead of you know, being a part of you know. I mean it was awesome to read the poetry they wrote, you know, we looked at different forms of writing through war history and they all wrote their own poems. And you know traditionally speaking you only ever choose two of the best poems. Well, we had so many good poems we had to throw many in there, right? Like it was just — it was amazing to see that that overflow from Tracey's history class come pouring into my ELA class and just the enthusiasm for the rest of the semester on what we read and what we did and just they just owned things. Like there's so much more than the reading the writing skills the researching skills. There were so many more skills that they built within themselves, and they built within their little community of eight students it was — and the best part for Tracey and I was they included us in their little community of eight so like we became ten and it was great, and I talked too much sorry.
Julia Richards, Canada’s History
No that's okay, that was amazing. That's really incredible to hear I'm so happy for all those students and for you guys, that sounds amazing.
I was going to say we get very excited.
And I — but I think part of it is — its, you know, I think you have to kind of build that excitement and the nice part is I think when you are — when your intent is to kind of build that relationship and represent your community the excitement happens pretty easily.
Yeah. And I think Tracey's always — always been really good with her social studies and history and geography in changing that paradigm from connecting students to history by taking them to the places. Places, to starting with the lived experienced, and looking out and I really think that's a huge part in how she's able — she's able to keep those kids engaged. And then allow me to take that history into ELA and build it further right? It's yeah, it's pretty good. It's pretty cool.
Julia Richards, Canada’s History
Alright, well, that's all that I have. It's been a real pleasure chatting with you both. Um, did you have any final thoughts that you want to share?
Um, oh I was going to say that that's a scary question for the two of us. I just I think that — I think the big thing is, you know, I do worry about kind of the increasing standardization of education. And I worry about the focus on data and results versus experience because I really think that, you know, how these kids grew and — and you know they ended up having the top marks on the ELA exam in grade 12, you know, like the data is there to support projects like this. But I also think what you can't measure is what this sets up for kids right? You know like, now they're turning around and they're looking around their places that they're in whether they stay in their communities or not and they're noticing things and they're asking questions about why is that the way that it is. And I just think that is not something that you can get from an assessment or ah or a textbook they have to feel that, and they have to feel it through projects like this.
Yeah, I think that's well said Tracey.
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