Teaching About Residential Schools

Posted by Brenda Ohngemach on October 12, 2016

Introduction: My Residential School unit was largely based on the Residential School Lessons for the Genocide Elective set out by Cheryl Payne. I simply tweaked them a little bit to suit my classes. I taught this unit last year in April. The main areas of change were primarily how I prepared and debriefed the students to see the NFB movie We Were Children. The other change was including a summative assignment based on the questions found in Facing History and Ourselves’ book Stolen Lives. Creating this summative assignment was a great experience in professional collaboration as  all of the history teachers at my school collectively designed it.    

Purpose: This write up will describe both the assignment and the preparation/debriefing strategies I used for We Were Children.  To give context, I will briefly go over the unit and our visit to the Residential School at the Woodland Cultural Centre.

Prior Knowledge-Context: My students were introduced to Residential Schools in our WWI-1929 unit; information was included in one of our jigsaw activities to show discrimination and injustice in Canada post WWI.  Some of my students were also in my grade 9 Art/ Native Studies course the previous year so they all had background information prior to the actual unit.

The Unit: The whole unit was roughly 8-10 classes and included the film, excursion to the Mohawk Institute which is a Residential School, and the wrap-up and summative assignment.

First Part: I started the unit following Cheryl’s lesson on identity. I had the students read the poem “I Lost My Talk” pg 89 in Stolen Lives. Then using the Big Paper strategy, students had to discuss the meaning of the poem. I then connected this discussion and poem back to the idea of identity and how the poem discusses how the author’s identity was taken away and how She was/is reconnected to it. I reminded the students about our identity unit and how we identified what an identity was/is and what was needed to create/develop one.  At this point I gave my students an empty mind-map titled Indigenous Identity. Using our discussion from our identity unit, I had the students come up with categories or headings for the mind map. Students were then to fill out their mind-map based on a group of readings from Stolen Lives. We then discussed their findings and related it to them and their idea of identity. What was similar? What was different?

Movie: I had warned the students that the film would be difficult and that if they needed me to pause the film or they needed to step out it was okay. I was very honest about the imagery and subject matter of the film. Warm-up: Before we started the film I put up chart paper for each of the following words: upstander, bystander; trauma; resilience and othering. I gave each table a bunch of sticky notes and asked them to write down examples - either lived experiences or experiences they had learned about. These experiences were to be based on the meaning of the words on the chart. Both the students and I stuck our sticky note experiences on the appropriate chart paper and afterward we discussed them —-if they were comfortable doing so; some cases it was just my sticky notes we discussed.  

During: I had put together a package for the students to work on while the film was playing. It was a collection of sheets with the same words that were on the chart paper and a few sheets from the NFB teacher’s resource guide on the film. I wanted the students to analyze or take down notes while they were watching so they could keep a little detached and perhaps keep control of their emotions. I stopped the film 10 or so minutes before the end of class so that I could ask the students to write down the examples or experiences illustrated in the film that fell under the chart paper headings and had them stick them up and we discussed them. I found this allowed the students to make sense of what they had seen and help them deal with the hard content. I did the same thing the next day.

Assignment: Before we went on the trip to the Residential School I handed out their summative assignment. This assignment was collaboratively written by the history teachers in my school. The assignment was a written response to a selection of questions we took and modified from Stolen Lives. We had asked that in their response they build on what they learned in the classroom - our discussions, readings and film, as well as make reference to either the trip and what they experienced there, or what they learned from the survivor that would lead them through the Residential School.

Trip: The period after the film we visited the Residential School in Branford at the Woodland Cultural Centre. On the drive there I talked to the students about respect and appropriate behaviour. I had arranged for the students to meet with survivors and wanted to prep them on how to talk to them or ask them questions . On the way back we had a “response” sheet that one of the teachers developed. The sheet asked the students how they felt, what they learned-what stood out for them, what their impression was on the experience and what feedback they had on the trip so that we could improve it next year.

Post: Cheryl Payne from Facing History and Ourselves visited and taught the final class of the unit.  Her lesson primarily asked “what are we to do now?”  How do we make things better, how do we reconcile?  She introduced and discussed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, its purpose, and its role in Canada today.  For many of my students the role of the TRC was to act as a guide for the Canadian government to follow. They agreed that education was paramount and felt that more support networks should be provided for the survivors and their families. The main question my students had was why now; why has it taken until now for this part of our history to become exposed and these issues to only now be seriously discussed?

Topics: Teaching Strategies, Teaching Resources, Residential Schools, CHG, CHC, trc


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