The “Lost Stories” Project: A Tool for Introducing Students to Questions about Historical Markers, Public Memory, and Commemoration

This is the final essay in a five part series featuring the Lost Stories Project.

By Scott Pollock

It seems as of late that whenever I turn on the news, or pick up a newspaper, I am confronted with another story about historical markers, public memory, and commemoration. Recent examples range from the debate over the possible re-naming of Sir John A. Macdonald public schools, to the on-going controversy over the Langevin Block in Parliament, and the confrontations that have occurred as a result of the removal of Confederate statues in some areas of the United States. Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, I have also found that many of my high school students are engrossed in these issues, which they will quite happily debate with one another. This seems to me to be something of a pedagogical opportunity — a moment in which teachers can, ever so carefully, encourage their students to think more deeply about what “history” is, how it is constructed, and why we choose to remember particular stories.

The idea of engaging in this sort of discussion may be somewhat frightening (perhaps very frightening) to some of my colleagues teaching in K-12 classrooms. This is understandable as philosophic discussions about the nature of history, commemoration, and historical consciousness have not traditionally been a part of K-12 history education (often they aren’t part of an undergraduate history education either, but that is a topic for another day). There is, however, an ever-growing body of research both within Canada [1] and the rest of the world [2] that indicates students are capable of understanding and thinking critically about these issues when they are given appropriate support. In fact, the existing research seems to indicate not only that students can deal with these sorts of questions, but that they enjoy the opportunity to do so [3]. Given this, I think it is time for K-12 history teachers within Canada to devote time and space within their crowded curricula to raise questions about public memory and commemoration. The challenge is to figure out how to do so.

The Lost Stories Project is in the process of developing a set of resources for teachers who are interested in addressing these issues with their students. The project’s website has recently added a “teaching lost stories” section (I should mention here, in the spirit of full disclosure, that I helped to develop these materials). This area currently contains three sets of lessons related to the story of Thomas Widd, who founded the first school for Deaf, Protestant children in Montreal. In the fall, four new collections of lesson plans will be available on the website, in connection with the four new “lost stories” that have been featured on Active History this week.

Image 5.1: Thomas Widd. Courtesy Mackay Centre School

As students work through the materials currently on the website, related to the first project we produced about Thomas Widd, founder of the Mackay School for the Deaf in Montreal, they will be challenged to work with primary documents as they learn about the education of the Deaf and hard of hearing, to consider why Thomas Widd’s story was forgotten, to contemplate how Widd’s story might be told, and to analyze historical markers in their own local community. In the process, students (should) develop a richer sense of what it means to “do” history as well as a deeper understanding of the connections that exist between history, historical markers, and public memory.

As a classroom teacher there are many aspects of these materials that I really appreciate. For example, I like how they use a micro history to consider broader historical questions and the fact that they shed some much-needed attention on a neglected aspect of Canada’s history. What excites me the most, however, is the final lesson, which asks students to examine, situate, and evaluate historical markers in their own communities. This sort of genuine question about the past is, in my experience, rarely raised in high school history classrooms. There are, of course, many reasons why teachers might be reluctant to take on this sort of research. They may feel they need to “cover” the curriculum, they may have concerns about their students’ ability, or they may fear that trying something new could lead to failure. A quick look at the research on place-based education [4], and the many examples of similar projects on the web [5], challenges the grounds on which these fears are based.

This is not to say that the Lost Stories lessons are easy, nor to imply that they will work for every classroom. There is, however, a grain of truth in the old cliché: “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” At a moment when external events are causing Canadian students to ask important, insightful, and deep questions about their relationship with the past there is a clear pedagogical opportunity (perhaps even a pedagogical imperative) for teachers to engage in the sorts of discussion that the Lost Stories project can help to foster. With this in mind I hope that the readers of this essay will investigate the Lost Stories website and consider how the materials they find could challenge their students to think more deeply about Canadian history.

Scott Pollock is a history and social science teacher at St. Mildred’s-Lightbourn School in Oakville, Ontario. He recently (2017) completed a Ph.D. at OISE/UT with a focus on the history of history education. The four new Lost Stories films will be shown as part of a Lost Stories Film Festival during the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Regina on May 28 (the first full day of the CHA) at 5PM in the Shu-Box Theatre (Riddell Centre –RC 174). The screenings will be followed by Q&A with members of the Lost Stories team. Refreshments will be served.

[1] Examples can be found in several papers in New Possibilities for the Past: Shaping History Education in Canada, ed. Penney Clark (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011).

[2] See for example Lee, Peter and Rosalyn Ashby, “Progression in Historical Understanding Among Students Ages 7-14,” in Knowing, Teaching & Learning History: National and International Perspectives, ed. Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 199.

[3] Clark, Anna, “Teaching the Nation’s Story: Comparing Public Memory Debates and Classroom Perspectives on History Education in Australia and Canada,” Journal of Curriculum Studies 41, no. 6 (2009): 745-762.

[4] See for example Fine-Meyer, Rose. “Engendering Power and Legitimation: Giving Teachers the Tools to Claim a Place for History Education in Their Schools.” In Becoming a History Teacher: Sustaining Practices in Historical Thinking and Knowing, ed. Ruth Sandwell and Amy von Heyking (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2014), 291.

[5] The work of Kathryn Whitfield’s students, as described here, is a good example of a similarly challenging project. This lesson, posted by the Historical Thinking Project, is an example of a project that raises questions about historical markers.

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