Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Governor General Award

This week, the recipients of the 2017 Governor General's History Awards were announced, and I am humbled and thrilled to be counted among them. The award is given to teachers of history and is based on a portfolio submission including a project, supporting work, teaching context, references, and student exemplars. We all gather at Rideau Hall to receive our awards on November 22nd, and have some other activities set up that week in Ottawa for history educators and the guests we bring. I thought I would share the information I submitted to Canada's National History Society, the group that administers the awards.

Skookum Stories -- Project Overview:

“Skookum” comes from the Chinook Jargon - a trade language that developed in BC and the West Coast during the 1800s. It means “big” or “strong” and has crossed over to become a word in the English language. This Skookum Stories project is about telling a strong story that draws on student's roots and culture, and is based on primary and secondary source evidence.

Provide a description of the project you are submitting. Be sure to clearly describe the activities, processes, and outcomes:

Skookum Stories is an inquiry project for BC Social Studies 9. Students set out to find out more about their cultural heritage. This often starts by settling on what "family" could mean and to make an inventory of the people in their life they could talk to and what evidence they might have about the past. Next student decide what parts of their “story” as they know it interests them for further inquiry and then make the effort to talk to elders, preferably two or more generations back, but just one if that is not possible. Students gather evidence and conduct research about either their family’s roots or their culture, with special attention to stories that have a connection to history, place, and ideas. Students for whom 'family" is a real challenge are often led towards local history & community research, or broader sources that deal more with culture than family. Along the way, students design inquiry questions to help guide their work, and organize their evidence and response to their questions. As the project progresses, they build in spoken and visual elements and get feedback from friends, family, and teacher(s) before finalizing the story and presentation. Finally, they share their story collection with class, share the visual elements (usually artifacts or sources), and wrap up with a contribution to a Skookum feast. The inquiry cycle leading up to the presentations happens off and on for about two months, with some class time devoted specifically to research techniques and project work. The presentation cycle takes about two weeks (13 hours) for a class of 25, with another class devoted to sharing of food. Specific outcomes for this project include: 1) Working with "competencies" -- the historical thinking concepts that are now embedded in the BC Social Studies curriculum, 2) Making personal connections with history, specifically themes and events from the Social Studies 9 curriculum, and 3) developing Research, Inquiry, and Communication skills. Unofficially, two of the most important outcomes are to become confident as individuals who have important stories to tell, and to keep alive the evidence of the past that too often go the graves of the people who have gathered it or were witnesses to history. Each time I have used this project with students, I have taken notes on their findings and what they got out of it. While respecting student privacy, I have blogged about the process and highlights of student stories. Any examples I post with potentially identifying details have gone through a permission process with the students and their parents/guardians.

Describe your teaching philosophy and how this project supports that philosophy in your classroom:

I see classrooms as ecosystems, as constant rearrangements of ideas and efforts. Although I teach Social Studies -- generally seen as a combination of history and geography, I think what I'm really doing is identity work, creating space for students to challenge themselves and grow into something stronger than when they arrive. The ecosystem metaphor works on many levels, with inputs such as light, soil nutrients & moisture, species diversity, and time relating to things like instruction, learning resources & activities, inclusions, and pacing. Perhaps my role in the ecosystem is that of the forest denizen, an old tree that provides support for the whole structure. The Skookum Story project taps into all of these things, with students owning most parts of the inquiry, resources, and pace. Very few things we do as a class bring us together as a community than the project presentations. The diverse stories and journeys of discovery really stick with the students, and have changed me as a person and teacher. I have been fortunate for many opportunities to develop and share resources for heritage inquiry in BC, both on the web and at conferences and workshops. I am both honoured and baffled by the number of teachers who have accessed the Social studies resources I’ve posted online over the years. Dozens have tried and adapted the project, and collectively we’ve pushed traditional heritage projects into the realm of inquiry and application of critical thinking.

Explain what makes your project unique and the particular environment (classroom, school, and community) in which it was developed and implemented:

The idea of a heritage-related project is not new in the realm of Social Studies or History classrooms. I think what sets this apart is the sense of urgency to connect students with elders (and their stories, documents, and artifacts) before those connections are lost. I am astounded at how many students discover or rediscover important and interesting stories from their culture and background that no one in their immediate family knew about. This intergenerational cycle is important for cultures to survive and thrive. Another unique aspect to this project are the options for students that have difficult or complex family situations. I have been supported in my work by school staff, in particular my librarian and fellow Social Studies teachers, and by the Pacific Slope Educational Consortium, a collection of teachers who work on critical thinking resources. I also get a lot of support and feedback from students and parents. This project is almost always of value to families, and in some cases has opened up lines of dialogue and facilitated personal change for students and their inner circle of family and friends.

Explain how your students use the historical thinking concepts in this project using specific examples from your student work submissions:

The project requires use of inquiry questions around each of the concepts.

Significance -- we explore what makes a story interesting versus important, for example is an ancestor's involvement in an event (such as the Northwest Rebellion) significant on it's own or is it the event itself? Of course it depends. This year, I have had students share their connection to many significant events including the Loyalist Migration, Irish Potato Famine, North West Company, gold rushes and railway construction, Red River Rebellion, WWI, Spanish Flu, WWII, Japanese Internment, Residential Schools, and the Sixties Scoop.

Evidence-- students learn the difference between primary and secondary sources and use both to anchor their projects. This year students used journals, photos, military records, interviews, and other documents.

Continuity -- students find patterns in their research that can also be found in history, starting by asking what is different and what is the same. My students often compared homesteading lifestyle with modern conveniences.

Cause & Consequence -- many of my student this year examined the cause/effect cycle related to immigration.

Perspective -- students are challenged to find at least one issue within their research for which they can present differing points of view backed up by evidence. Examples this year include the Japanese internment.

Ethical Dimensions -- students are encouraged to look at values held by ancestors and make judgements as to why they existed and what impact they had. Racism is a common "value" that comes up, as is the idea of patriotism in times of war.

Please provide any additional notes or comments that would help us understand the nature and value of your project in Canadian history:

When I first started doing heritage inquiry in Social Studies, it was often difficult to get my Aboriginal students to take on their own cultural heritage and family stories as a focus for their project. Many of my students had close relatives who experienced various forms of colonization including time at residential schools such as nearby Lejac. Over the years, this has changed; in my mind this has happened for a few reasons. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission process has given many of the elders a safe space in which to share their powerful and often devastating stories. In turn they are now willing to talk to their nieces, nephews, and grandchildren about what they experienced and witnessed. "Being Native" is now less of a stigma -- teachers and Aboriginal Education staff have done great work in the last 10 years to include, develop, and honour Aboriginal perspectives and identity; this has been an emphasis of our revised BC curriculum. I have also gotten better at working with reluctant learners and finding supports for students that have difficult stories to tell or tricky family situations. This also goes for students who have been adopted, live in care, or are not in communication with family members.

Links: list any URLs that house any related material related (e.g., class website, Flickr, YouTube, etc.) and describe the role they play in your project:

Links and resources have been assembled at

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