“What Canadian stories should be told, and how can we tell them?”
This was the question that the grade 10 students at Unity Christian High School in Barrie were asked to consider when learning about the history of Canada this past semester. The grade 10 History and English teachers teamed up their classes for a joint project aimed at telling Canadian stories and showcasing them both as a written story and as a museum exhibit.
“When our teachers first told us about the project and that we’d be putting together an exhibit for a museum, my response was, ‘Wait … we have to do WHAT?’” shared Benjamin, a grade 10 student at Unity Christian. “It seemed so big and impossible! But as we began to actually do the project, we realized that it was a really great project. It gave our class the opportunity to learn things about Canadian history that were interesting and important to us.”
In his address to parents and community members who attended the museum’s opening of the exhibits, English teacher Jeff Weening explained that the project was developed out of a desire at Unity Christian to engage students in authentic learning experiences that provide cross-curricular opportunities, that engage and involve the community, and that provide a real-life audience. “There have been these strict categories in education that have been around for a very long time,” described Mr. Weening, “where people think that you have to study one thing in English and another in History, etc. We are trying to break down those created categories a little bit.”
“We liked the idea of trying a project that combined two classes,” added History teacher Kim Furtney, “and we thought this was a great way to tie English and History together. Of course, it’s also fun that it ties in so well with Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations this year!”
The project began already in the second week of September. Mr. Weening and Ms. Furtney kicked off it off with a storytelling event. They invited several members from the community—a French-Canadian military war vet who has been deployed to Afghanistan, a First Nations woman whose mother and grandmother both lived in residential schools, a new Canadian citizen who immigrated from Mexico, and several others—to come into the class to share their stories with students.
After the storytelling afternoon, the students travelled to the Simcoe County Museum (SCM), where they were introduced to the idea that artifacts carry a story that is waiting to be told. Students spent time brainstorming and journaling about what they love, what excites them about 20th century Canadian history, and what kind of story they would be interested in telling.
“Our partnership with the curators at SCM was incredible!” shared Ms. Furtney. The history teacher has taken her grade 10 History classes to the museum for several years to experience an interactive WWI program called “Into the Trenches,” and she recognized that both Kelley Swift-Jones, museum curator, and Forrest Patenaude, education director, have a key educational element to their vision and programming. “We decided to take a chance and call them over the summer to propose our project idea to them, and were thrilled when they responded to our request with an enthusiastic yes!”
“The curators came into our classroom numerous times, and we were at the museum working with them more times than we can count,” continued Ms. Furtney. “From the very beginning, they worked with students, helping them choose their story, narrow it down, and plan their exhibit. They helped students create a theme, choose colour schemes, find artifacts, make contacts, and put together their exhibits—in a word, they were amazing!”
“I think it’s fair to say that we really didn’t know what we were getting into when we signed up for this project with the teachers from Unity Christian,” shared museum curator Kelley Swift-Jones. “But I can tell you that it’s been nothing but a joy to work with each of these students throughout the whole experience!”
Forrest Patenaude, the museum education director, agreed. “This is the first project we’ve worked together with students on in this capacity,” he reflected. “We were able to play a supportive role to the students as their projects progressed, giving them pointers and sharing artifacts that were available to support their stories.” One of the key questions that Ms. Swift-Jones asked the students as they prepared their exhibits was, “If a visitor comes to your exhibit and they only remember one thing about it, what do you want them to remember?” Both curators expressed that they are proud of the work that the grade 10 students at Unity Christian have accomplished, and they are thrilled to be able to share the stunning exhibits in their museum as part of their year-long sesquicentennial celebrations.
“There were definitely a few challenges that students had to overcome along the way,” shared Ms. Furtney. Some had a hard time choosing the story they wanted to tell, while others had difficulty planning an exhibit and imagining what sorts of items would help them to tell their story. But we kept challenging them to dream big!” When they had finished, the students’ exhibits fit into six main categories of history in Canada that included sports, science and technology, culture, personal family stories, war, and the arts. Their exhibits told the stories of famous artists like Emily Carr, shared little-known information about tanks and other vehicles used in WWII, gave an overview of the transformation of fashion throughout Canadian history, shared the experiences and challenges of immigrants who travelled the Atlantic Ocean to start a new life in Canada, told the story of famous Canadian hockey players, and demonstrated different board games that have been used to entertain children over the years.
“I wanted to tell my grandmother’s story because I feel like it’s important to share the experience of immigrants and what it was like for them when they came to Canada,” shared Grace. Her grandmother lived in Yugoslavia during the second world war and travelled across the Atlantic Ocean alone as a young girl, with no money and not knowing a word of English. “Her story is about challenge, perseverance, and faith. I think her story lends us a new perspective on what we have and what we take for granted. And also, I believe it can inspire people who are going through difficult times of their own.”
“Hockey has been in my family for as long as I’ve known,” shared Matthew. “I’m a fan, my dad is a huge fan, and my grandfather loved it as well. In fact, my grandfather inspired me to learn more about the Canadians who had participated in the sport over the years.” Matthew told the story of several hockey players, but he focused specifically on Shayne Corson, who played in the NHL. “It was so cool to interact with famous hockey players that I’ve only heard of before, and the hockey sticks in my display were Corson’s actual sticks that he played with!”
Alayna, another grade 10 student at Unity Christian, chose to focus on famous Canadian artist Tom Thompson. “No one knows how Mr. Thompson died,” she shared, “and I thought that would be interesting to others. And also, his art is incredible—I fell in love with it!”
“The thing I loved the most about doing this project was seeing what everyone else had chosen to tell their story about,” Alayna continued. “It gave us a closer look at what our classmates are interested in—what they’re passionate about—what they love and are willing to invest time into learning more about and sharing with the community. I found that fascinating. So really, the project gave me the opportunity to learn so much more about Canadian history and, at the same time, we learned more about each other.”
“I think it’s fair to say that everyone involved in this process has learned a lot about themselves and about each other,” shared Mr. Furtney. “When we first started, I don’t think anyone really knew what was going to happen. But it was great to see the students grow, take risks, show initiative, and stretch themselves as the semester went along. As teachers, we loved that this project gave the opportunity for them to tell a true story while learning how to tell it. We loved seeing them get excited about the past becoming alive. We loved having them work with real storytellers—people who love history and who love seeing students learn about the past. And we loved creating a live exhibit for an authentic audience. It was fun watching them catch the vision that the large open gallery space in the museum was going to be all for them, to show their hard work.”
“While the students were telling individual stories, they were also developing a vast knowledge of the stories and events that shaped our nation,” she added. “And, along with everything else, during this very special year of celebration in our country, that’s a wonderful way to celebrate being a Canadian!”
“It’s exciting that others get to come here and see the hard work that we’ve done creating the exhibits and telling the stories,” shared Nichola. I’m so thankful for the opportunity to share our work in this museum and to allow others to experience the part of Canadian history that is important to us.”
“This project gave us the opportunity to learn about things that were interesting and important to us individually,” shared Benjamin. “And yet, together, our projects became a tribute to Canadian history that we’re excited to share in our community over the next couple of months.”
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The student exhibits will be showcased at the Simcoe County Museum until the end of February. You are welcome to visit the museum in the upcoming weeks to explore the exhibit or check them out online. The Simcoe County Museum is located at 1151 Hwy 26, Minesing, ON.