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Teacher Magazine Volume 29, Number 1
September/October 2016

Big question: How to make the past real and relevant for our students

By Monica Nawrocki, Writer/TTOC, Cortes Island

I woke up just before my face hit the page of my Grade 12 history text. We are studying Canada in World War II, and as fascinating facts bounce off me harmlessly, I idly wonder why there are so many Japanese-Canadian kids in my Lethbridge high school. The thought is gone as quickly as it came as I struggle to stay awake.

Fast-forward to the University of Manitoba, where I am studying to be an English teacher. It is here that I finally learn about the internment of Japanese Canadians and I remember that day in history class when I gazed in ignorance at my classmates-the grandchildren of Japanese Canadians ripped from their lives on the coast and forced to work on the sugar beet farms of southern Alberta. And I am embarrassed.

And then, I'm angry. How did I complete a public education in Canada and not hear about the Japanese internment? Or residential schools? Or any of the other ten sample topics suggested under the heading of past discriminatory government policies and actions in the social studies learning standards of the new curriculum?

Teachers who have been quietly using inquiry-based teaching are coming out as the new curriculum validates their instincts and practices.

So here's my big question: How do I make the past real and relevant for students today?
My belief in the power of story as a teaching tool led me to write a book for middle grades called Full Moon Lagoon, which introduces the Japanese-Canadian internment. When I was working on the book, I read the manuscript to my class. They loved the story and related to the characters. But when it came to connecting to the historical heart of the story, I needed a bridge. I took the whole class out into the hallway where our school history is displayed in photos.
They knew the photograph; it is of our school's first school bus. But they did not know that this was also the truck that carried the Nakatsui family and their belongings off Cortes Island in 1942. My gaggle of giggling pre-teens grew quiet as the thin thread of connection drew them back and drew them in. Story made real.

But how is it made relevant?
Last year, the teacher-librarian and I facilitated an inquiry-based history research project for the Grade 6-9 class. The big question was, “How would my life be different if...” and then the kids could either pick a topic from our curriculum-related list or create their own. We taught the skills they needed and they dove into the questions. How might my life be different if the War of 1812 had ended differently? Or if the Civil Rights Movement had never happened? If Eleanor of Aquitane had never promoted female writers? If the Canadian Multiculturalism Act did not exist?

The students dug into subjects they were interested in and they came to see how history was relevant for them. Perhaps that is the answer to my big question: give kids the story and a way to connect to it. Then ask them to figure out the relevance to their lives.

I asked a friend to read the manuscript of Full Moon Lagoon to her son. Shortly after the attacks in Paris earlier this year, she wrote to tell me that her son had connected the backlash against Muslims in Paris to the fear response of West Coast Canadians towards Japanese Canadians in 1942.

Connection. Compassion.
And whether it's now or later, I believe those threads of connection are what each of us use to weave the tapestry of our own experience of the world. After all, we do not see the world the way it is, we see it the way we are. 


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