By David Calverley
As a secondary school history teacher in Ontario, I enjoyed the ActiveHistory.ca posts published in March by Samantha Cutrara and Rose Fine-Meyer. I agree that women’s history and gender issues are not well-represented in Ontario’s Grade 7 and 8 History curriculums. Lack of representation is also an issue in the Grade 10 History Curriculum. It is the final compulsory history class in Ontario, a course I’ve taught numerous times, and the course I’ll largely focus on for this article. However, observations that the curriculum fails to address certain content sufficiently carries the implication that the curriculum requires revision. Such observations are useful since curriculum is always changing to reflect different needs. However, as a practicing teacher, I think it is important to consider another factor when addressing limitations in the history curriculum: the practice of teaching high school history. Multiple issues impinge upon a history classroom but many can be lumped under the heading of time. So, please spare a thought for the history teacher and give some consideration to our practice.
First, all teachers must consider their students. Good teachers love their kids and want them to succeed but puberty ridden students can be exasperating. Intermediate students (grades 7 to 10) have only partially developed brains. They have poor attention spans, and what attention they do have is often focused elsewhere. They have difficulty grasping concepts that might seem straight forward to the teacher but are too abstract for a thirteen-year-old. Complicating all of this, teachers instruct students with a range of academic, social, emotional, and developmental issues. I’ve taught Grade 10 students who read at a Grade 3 level, students with ASD, FAS, and other social/emotional/developmental issues. Creating a course that addresses the curriculum, is age appropriate, and supports exceptional students takes time.
Teenage life also intrudes on your class time. Perhaps a student is upset because their friend is facing a manslaughter charge, or a member of their family is charged with multiple, indictable offences. Perhaps their parents are divorcing. Maybe their father, mother, brother, or sister has suddenly passed away. The student might be developing mental health or addiction issues. Perhaps one of your female students is pregnant and both she and the father are understandably stressed. Maybe a student at the school has died, from illness, accident, or suicide and it is impacting the students in your class. Maybe one of your students is being abused and your are part of a Children’s Aid Society investigation. I have faced all of these issues at some point in my career, and each required my time and attention.
It is also important to remember that class time is not devoted solely to covering content. Teachers need to assess their students. Growing Success details how assessment will be carried out in all Ontario classes. It states that “In all subjects and courses, students should be given numerous and varied opportunities to demonstrate the full extent of their achievement of the curriculum expectations… .” What does that mean? First, it means that a teacher can’t rely solely on tests to assess their students because students need varied and different assessments to demonstrate their learning. However, if you give a test, it will require at least two classes: one for review and the other for the test. Larger assessments such as essays require multiple classes to complete. Students require instruction to understand how to formulate research questions, conduct research, analyze primary sources, assess secondary sources, create footnotes, and write. These skills are covered in the first “strand” of the Grade 10 History Curriculum. Assigning an essay means setting aside hours of class time to teach students essay research and writing fundamentals.
When you finally arrive at issues of content, teachers need to decide what they will cover. The curriculum is huge, and you can’t cover everything. Consider one strand in the Grade 10 History Curriculum, “Canada, 1929-1945.” In each strand there is a short list of overall expectations (“the knowledge and skills students are expected to demonstrate” via assessments) and a much longer list of specific expectations that outline the knowledge and skills in greater detail. There are thirteen specific expectations in the 1929-1945 strand. How would you cover all the material in four weeks (approximately twenty classes)?
Consider one specific expectation from that strand. I’ve included the list of examples and sample questions provided in the curriculum:
C1.5 describe the main causes of some key political developments and/or government policies in Canada during this period (e.g., Mackenzie King’s Five Cent speech; the formation of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation or Social Credit; the establishment of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC] or the National Film Board [NFB]; provincial Sexual Sterilization Acts; social welfare policies; the Dominion Elections Act, 1938; Quebec women receiving the vote; wartime propaganda; the decision to intern Japanese Canadians; the 1944 Racial Discrimination Act), and assess their impact on non-Indigenous groups in Canada
Sample questions: “What are some factors that contributed to the development of new political parties during the Great Depression? What social and political values were reflected in these new parties?” “What was the historical context for Maurice Duplessis’s Padlock Act? What impact did the act have on the civil liberties of various groups in Quebec during this period?
A teacher doesn’t need to cover all the examples, but you must cover the overall expectation. My choices, based on the examples, would be the formation of the CCF (it reflects how economic and social problems in Canada led to the formation of a new political party), sexual sterilization policies (students are shocked to learn about past practices carried out in the ‘interests’ of society, and it allows me to address the forced sterilization of indigenous women), and the internment of Japanese Canadians (to tackle both the suspension of civil rights during wartime and racism in Canada). Regardless of my choices, I am leaving out more than I include.
You might think daily lectures, similar to a university class, will allow you to cover more material and be efficient use of class time. However, lecturing to a class of thirty to thirty-five grade 10 students for seventy minutes, five times per week, is not a good idea. A few students might appreciate daily lectures that cover multiple topics, but most will quickly tune-out. Tuned-out students become disruptive students. Classroom management is an entirely different issue, but it is at the forefront of most teachers’ minds particularly if they have a challenging class. When I switched to teaching high school from university, I quickly learned that excessive lecturing leads to problems.
Experienced history teachers also recognize that their students know very little about the broader historical context of issues and events they will cover in class. For example, before I cover Canada and the Cold War with my class, I need to explain communism, that the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc were once a thing, that Germany was not always unified, that the world stood on the brink of nuclear annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Russian spies were a problem long before the current insanity in the White House? My class time is taken up covering numerous topics to give broader global context to Canadian history.
As I stated earlier, I agree that gender issues are poorly covered in the intermediate history curriculum. However, there is only so much time in a class to cover multiple, important topics. I cover some women’s history in my Grade 10 class, and I would like to cover more. However, time devoted to one topic means taking away from other, equally deserving subjects. After almost twenty years of teaching high school history, I’ve realized there is only one constituency I need to keep happy: my students. If they learned something, improved their writing, and enjoyed the course (which means they might register for an optional, senior history class), I think I made good use of the time I had with my students.
David Calverley has been teaching secondary school history, social science, law, and politics since 2002. He received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Ottawa and his B.Ed. from Nipissing University. He taught in the Department of History and the Faculty of Education at Nipissing University, and he continues to teach intermediate and senior History ABQ courses for the Schulich School of Education. His book Who Controls the Hunt? First Nations, Treaty Rights, and Wildlife Conservation in Ontario, 1783-1939was published by UBC Press in 2018.
 Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation, and Reporting in Ontario Schools. 2010. Ontario Ministry of Education. Accessed March 14, 2019. http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/policyfunding/growsuccess.pdf. Page 17.
 The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 9 and 10. Canadian and World Studies: Geography, History, Civics (Politics). 2018 Ontario Ministry of Education. Ontario Ministry. Accessed June 24, 2019. http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/secondary/canworld910curr2018.pdf pp. 24-25.
 Ibid. 117.