Teaching Canadian History

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Over the past few months, I have been asked by a handful of fellow educators how I go about teaching Canadian history. As I am moving away from classroom teaching into an administrative role, I am somewhat saddened that I will not be directly designing learning experiences for learners, but grateful that these educators have prompted me to reflect on the past eight years of learning design.

When designing learning experiences related to the history of Canada, I tend not to start where I am at. I try not to inject my interests or experience into the design. As such, I angle away from the idea of beginning at a certain point — say Confederation — or from a thematic perspective. These two ideas seem to resonate as the central pillars in instructional design, but not necessarily in learning design.

Where I try to begin, and I should say that I fail often, is with two key ideas. The first is the experience of the learner and the second is with the very idea of history itself. In terms of the experience of the learner, I believe that it is critical that we come to know our students deeply before we begin to design learning experiences that are meaningful and educative in nature. This might well mean that our exploration of Canadian history might not delve into areas where we deem ourselves as experts. In fact on many occasions, I have been forced to leap out of my comfort zone and engage in discussions about areas of history that quite frankly I was ignorant. These are always the most fruitful explorations!

Learning about the experience of our learners also allows us to design with place in mind. Understanding what our learners understand about their territory, their city, the local ecosystems, and the biosphere itself, can help us plan future experiences. I often begin each year with an exploration as to what my learners know about Red River. Our exploration of Canadian history generally stems from a discussion about the rivers, the land, and their experience with the geography. From there, I often introduce Joseph Boyden’s Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont as a means of exploring the geography in an historical way. This also means that we need to get out of the classroom, explore the Forks, Fort Garry, and Union Station to begin to see how the landscape changed over the past three hundred years. (This is also a good time to introduce the historical thinking skills.)

Joel Westhiemer, in What Kind of Citizen?, suggests that understanding the roots of our learners is critical to learning design within the humanities. He suggests that what is important is “Root instruction in local contexts, working within your own specific surroundings and circumstances because it is not possible to teach democratic forms of thinking without providing an environment to think about.” (p. 80). For many of our young people, place is a central experience and something that they are attached to.

This emphasis on place has taken past learning communities I have been associated with on explorations of the HBC, feminist perspectives, and the Winnipeg General Strike. All of these bring in the notions of theme and chronology, but most importantly, become driven by the learner’s passion and experience.

Second, I have relied heavily on the contemplation of what history is to drive our learning and learning design. The Manitoba curriculum places emphasis on answering “What is history?” and this is a theme I try to introduce in each meeting. This is a fantastic question to really assess where learners are coming from, and when they reach the point of disequilibrium and frustration, I generally nudge them in the direction of Desmond Morton, who in his book A Short History of Canada, offers this as a definition:

“Whatever our future, we should understand how Canada has travelled through its most recent centuries to the present. If we follow that voyage, our history will give us confidence to change and compromise and in some enduring truths about communities and families and human beings. It should also tell us that no ideas, however deeply held, last forever.” (p.ix).

As such, Morton suggests that history is about a collective and very human experience. It is not simply a study of the past, but it is a quest to understand why it is we exist on this planet. What greater voyage could we embark on with our learners? Pulling this idea into every meeting grounds learning communities into a quest that reaches far beyond tests, quizzes, and the regurgitation of someone else’s story. History becomes a quest of sense making and a search for meaning.

So for those incredible educators who have been toying with how to design their learning experiences this year within the context of Canadian history, I leave you with these tiny nuggets from my past experience. Listen to your learners and challenge them to make meaning out of our collective and short experience on Earth.

 

 

 

 

What is History? (Term Test Edition)

6a00d8341bf7f753ef01b8d0a244ce970cAs part of your Term 1 test, participants in the History of Canada, the History of the United States, and the History of Modern China courses will need to contemplate what they mean by history. Specifically, what is history, what do we mean by the doing of history, and how do we do history? Members of our learning communities are asked to ponder what they think history is and then offer their personal philosophy and methodology.

Last night, I listened to Margaret McMillan’s lecture on CBC’s Ideas on what history might be. Have a listen if you get a chance. Once again, she has challenged me on my naive notions of history. I also love the way the program’s host, Paul Kennedy, introduces us to the idea of history.

This term, we have looked closely at the positioning of Desmond Morton, an SJR grad, Rhodes Scholar, and author of our History of Canada text, Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, and Odd Westad, who wrote Restless Empire.

In the History of Canada, we also looked at what Thomas King called history in the Inconvenient Indian, while those in the History of Modern China examined the process of Michael Dillon. Peter Stearns offers another interpretation of why we do history.

In this space, let’s enter into a dialogue as to what we think history is, why we do it, and how we do it. Let’s ensure that we are precise, that we use evidence, and that we are kind to each other when we respond.

Here is one example of an historian describing what he does. How can his understanding inform our discussion? What is history to him? Why do we do history?

Here is another historian taking about the use of memory:

To help massage our dialogue, I leave you with David Christian’s explanation of “Big History.” Is this an history?

Myth & History: #Warof1812 #sirJAM

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Taken from the Toronto Star

This week, we have looked a great deal at how Canada’s history has often been transformed into mythology, for better or for worse.

We have analyzed a number of historians, events, and positions related to the supposed mythologies of the Winnipeg General Strike, the War of 1812, and Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Mcdonald.

We investigated what Desmond Morton referred to in his book Canada: A Short History as the christening of the War of 1812 as Myth (2006, p. 38). From there we looked specifically at the Battle of Queenston Heights from the perspective of two historians, Robert Vineberg and Donald Hickey, who argued that the heroes at Queenston Heights were really Sheaffe and/or Norton, respectively. We then questioned why the Government of would spend $28 Million on commemorations of the War of 1812, when historians, like Morton, seem to deem it not so significant.

Here is an article from the New York Times which looks at the War of 1812 and its politicization. Andrew Cohen is featured in this article and I would encourage you to read his linked article form the Ottawa Citizen (although republished in the Calgary Herald). He suggests that the Harper Government mythologized the War of 1812. Why would the Government do this? Do you agree with Cohen?

Next, as the 200th anniversary of John A.’s birthday is approaching this weekend and all the major papers will be full of “history buffs” explaining why John A. is a hero or villain. (Watch in Saturday’s Winnipeg Free Press.) We read in class Richard Gwyn’s essay on why we should commemorate John A. and we also researched how the Numbered Treaties were essentially negotiated under duress and how the Canadian Government under John A. arguably committed genocide and other atrocities. Here is a review of Daschuk’s book Clearing the Plains which we referenced in our student-led seminars on Big Bear and Riel/Dumont. How is it that John A. can be deemed the Father Figure of Canada, and at the same time have caused such harm?

So…Here we have a few events, people, and positions which have been arguably trumped up as myth. Why do we do this? Why do we create interpretations of history that might be embellished? What does this type of “history” serve? What is our task as critical and historical thinkers when it comes to myth and history?

Do some reading. Do some thinking. Call a classmate and have a conversation about the idea of myth and history, referencing specially the War of 1812, John A. and or the Winnipeg General Strike. Upload your conversation to Soundcloud and tweet it out ususingsirJAM, #Warof1812, and #sjrcanhis. Be sure to use the historical thinking concepts to help you analyze and create arguments. Please tweet out your phone calls by Sunday evening.

“Myth basically serves four functions. The first is the mystical function,… realizing what a wonder the universe is, and what a wonder you are, and experiencing awe before this mystery….The second is a cosmological dimension, the dimension with which science is concerned – showing you what shape the universe is, but showing it in such a way that the mystery again comes through…. The third function is the sociological one – supporting and validating a certain social order…. It is the sociological function of myth that has taken over in our world – and it is out of date…. But there is a fourth function of myth, and this is the one that I think everyone must try today to relate to – and that is the pedagogical function, of how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.”

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

What is History? Part 1

Desmond Morton with Governor General Johnston

Desmond Morton with Governor General Johnston

Throughout the year in Canadian History, Law, and Canada in the Contemporary World, we will be exploring an incredibly rigourous and difficult question: What is History? Over the past few thousand years in both the West and East, historians have been grappling with the how and why of history.

As such, as a learning community, we will be exploring this question together and we will try to offer new understandings as a group and as individuals. To do so properly, however, we will need to speak to elders and experts in the field and listen to what they have to say. Each week we will look at a text, listen to an historian, and/or look at alternative perceptions of history and the doing of history.

As we use Desmond Morton’s A Short History of Canada as our main text in this course (and because Dr. Morton is an SJR alum and Rhodes Scholar), we will seek his wisdom first. Last week, he emailed me his interpretation of history:

History is another word for “experience”  and experience is our best way to profit from the errors our ancestors made because they had not really understood what was happening. At the moment, this is most apparent in U.S. policy toward the Middle East.

When I “do” history, I try to move my mind back to the era I am considering and to read whatever survives or is available in writing from that era.  Our forebears lived in an environment of belief and custom that, in many ways, has changed out of recognition.  

Usually we have some understanding of why our contemporaries behave and react as they do because we are pressured by parents, teachers and other authority figures to behave in much the same way that they were taught. The young grow up in a world shaped by social media and forms of  technology that simply did not exist a generation ago.  If we look at the Great War of 1914-18, we must look back a full century, to a time no living human being can now remember directly. To know how and why our ancestors did what they did, we must do our best to understand them and their time.  Those who enjoy history welcome the chance to understand those strangers we call our forebears.

                                                                Desmond Morton, OC, CD, FRSC.

                                                                Hiram Mills Professor of History emeritus

                                                                McGill University

Now it’s your turn. Based on Dr. Morton’s insight here and the introduction to his book, what do you take from his understanding of history? Can you take it and further it? Spin it? I look forward to your thoughts and ideas.