Thursday, 1 November 2012

Giving the History Class a VOICE



John A. Macdonald comes to talk to the grade 8's about the
Five Factors of Confederation.

By Cathie Webb-Gillespie
Theatre and History Teacher
Voice Integrative School


I come into my classroom each day ready to tell a story...get them laughing and thinking critically about that story…


“Ms. Webb, how am I going to remember all of those people? The policies? The laws? The events?”
 "But, Ms. Webb? “I’m not good with dates!”
“I won't remember all of the events in that war!”

     These are the comments my students tend to make when they join my history class for the first time. And I agree with them. When I was in grade 7, trying to remember “all those dates” was a chore. When historical information is biased, focused on dates and textbook directed, events, people and statistics can often get difficult for many students to remember.  This is why I feel it’s so important for me to guide my students through the History curriculum by using as many teaching approaches as possible.   It's not just about regurgitating the Ontario Curriculum's history content (followed closely in my class); it’s about feeling it, connecting to it, interacting with it, deconstructing it, engaging with it, reading about it, writing about it, thinking about it, and living it!

     In my classroom, famous people come back to life all the time. They tell of their stories from long ago.  Jacques Cartier re-lives his three voyages to the New World and recounts the horrific winter of 1535. John A. Macdonald returns from the past to talk of his plan to unify a group of colonies under a strong centralized government; and George Etienne Cartier discloses the idea for a railway to help build a nation. He keeps it low on the radar that he’s getting financial gain from the railway.  There are so many more who visit to recount their ideas and events of the past.  Why do I choose to teach this way?  At my school, I am both the Theatre and History teacher . This gives me an advantage and a greater ability to blend the two disciplines with confidence and ease. Essentially, all our students know that the Theatre teacher is also the theatrical History teacher, and this works.

      I also choose to teach this way because I have seen that when students anticipate a visit from a person from the past, history becomes a personal experience that begins to unfold before the lesson, and continues long after the lesson.  Based on historical research (from multiple sources), by the actor that is ‘me’, each character brings forth their subjective point of view on ‘what it might have been like to adapt to the challenges of a new land’.  When they arrive, the students seem excited by what they will hear next.  They listen attentively as they take detailed notes, make diagrams and ask questions. They seem to experience emotions while the character relays his/her story.  They identify -- they begin to feel a connection to the story, the people, their triumphs, and their tragedies.  Through this active storytelling, my students start to invest in the learning process, wanting to “tune in” during each class, as well as predict what will happen next.

     When they are “hooked” on the story, what I see is that students seem to retain historical content more readily; and are better able to expand their knowledge through further reading and research.  Opportunities to apply and reinforce their knowledge are offered in many ways.  They organize and synthesize it into their own reenactments, newscasts, interviews, short films, historical song writing, script writing, and writing in role, model building, computer presentations, debate, discussion, historical artwork, posters, quizzes, tests and examination.

     Creating and maintaining a safe, encouraging and inspiring classroom environment is important in my history class.  Each student is expected to participate and apply basic concepts of history to a variety of learning tasks. They take personal and academic risks, develop skills, strategies, and habits required for effective inquiry and communication. They relate and apply historical knowledge to the world outside the classroom and consider preferred futures. They support and encourage their peers. They ask questions and meet responsibilities related to in class work and projects. They also develop time management skills, note taking skills and set goals and try to achieve them! As a result of these skills, the learning outcomes are that students create high quality work that has personal meaning to them. All of this reflects the 'perspective driven' approach in a global education.


"What is history? An echo of the past in the future; a reflex from the future on the past"

                                                                                                   Victor Hugo