Central Okanagan teachers Derek Smith of Mount Boucherie and Graeme Stacey of KSS have a long history together. They have taught at the same schools in the past and also work together on a few local and provincial organizations.
Now at different schools, both teachers have developed innovative, engaging and critical thinking projects in their classrooms that have been recognized on a national level with Government of Canada history awards.
“All of these students, regardless of the type of work they get into, will be a functioning citizen,” said Smith. “No matter what path they take these students are going to be faced with making decisions when it comes to elections or things that are going on in the world and you can trace it all back through history. My goal and hope is they will be more aware (of history) and more engaged. If we are doing our jobs right, we are creating better students and a better place to live.”
Smith and Stacey were among 30 winners across Canada in the competition that asked history teachers to create projects using critical thinking. For Smith, his project will be put into his classroom this year and will ask students to research post-war Prime Ministers and select one to replace the Queen on the 20 dollar bill, the only Canadian currency which doesn’t feature a PM on it.
“It was all based on critical thinking and creating criteria to assess history, to make decisions and to evaluate them,” said Smith who said students will be able to submit their choice to the Bank of Canada, which is looking for suggestions from the public about a commemorative 20 dollar bill. “What I liked about it was it more of an authentic task and something to engage them more. If they buy-in you’re going to get a lot further with it and they will take more away from it.”
While Smith will put his new project to his students for the first time this school year, at KSS Stacey’s social studies’ and history students have been engaged in a project for the past several years, learning about what he calls forgotten soldiers: Canadians who fought in Hong Kong in World War II, many of whom were taken as Prisoners of War by the Japanese.
“There are only 23 of them (Canadian veterans of the Hong Kong battles) left and 2016 marks the 75th anniversary of this battle,” said Stacey. “We’re not going to have many of these guys left and part of this project is to personalize the story of these veterans who spent three-and-a-half-years in POW camps so kids can be advocates for this story.”
As part of the project, students will hear from a relative of a Canadian POW and will also comb through historic pictures, selecting just five in the end, researching the war and making personal connections with veterans, through the research.
“They make primary connections through imagery of the veterans’ experience,” said Stacey. “They will come to their own conclusions to learn what it was like to become a Prisoner of War in World War II. The textbook only has one paragraph on it but I want them to engage, be angry about this topic and find out more about it. To me this is a big deal. In my lifetime and in these kids’ lifetime, there aren’t going to be any more of these soldiers left.”
Stacey said his program has been a benefit to himself as well, adding that he is inspired by the student responses and insights into the story of Hong Kong veterans.
As the government of BC moves to a new curriculum over the next three years, a lot is being made of the move to new competencies that will involve critical thinking. But for history teachers Derek Smith and Graeme Stacey, using critical thinking is something that has been taking place not only in their classrooms, but in many more.
Their award winning projects are online and can be picked up and used in classrooms across Canada as a way to share projects that uniquely involved students.
“To me this was a validation of what is going on in this building every day,” said Smith. “There are a lot of inspiring and interesting things happening in these classrooms. Teachers are working harder to engage students. It’s easy to complain about the battle with cell phones and all the media we have to compete with but at the end of the day I don’t think kids are any better or worse than we were when we were their age. If you have an authentic interest in the subject you’re tackling, you are passionate about what you are doing and putting together lessons that engage kids, then I think you can cut though that.”
“This is about exposing kids to past histories and making them come to life a bit more,” added Stacey. “It creates empathy and allows them to recognize some of the wrongs that have happened in history.”