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Learning Difficult Lessons from a School Desk

Posted by Kate Zankowicz
19 September 2012 - 12:03pm

"What's a desk doing in the gallery?"



As a museum educator who has led young children through the First Peoples gallery at the Royal Ontario Museum, this question often comes up. The desk is part of a haunting art installation by Cree/Dene artist Jane Ash Poitras that explores the violence and cultural loss brought on by colonization. The school desk is small and wooden and familiar. On its corner an inkwell waits expectantly, as if its occupant has just momentarily left. The children seem drawn to it the moment they see it.  


The desk is from a residential school.  


I often speak with my colleagues about when it's appropriate to bring up difficult or traumatic pasts. Some say they do it "when it's age appropriate", which invariably seems to mean that they only go there with high school students. Other colleagues express fear that they will "say the wrong thing" and because they feel uncomfortable with difficult topics, they do what they can to avoid them. I spend an inordinate amount of time with seven-year-olds who are, as Keith Barton has shown, extremely capable of historically consciousness and who are some of the most empathetic and ethically aware human beings I know.

 I personally believe that, as a museum educator, I'm in a unique position to engage students with historical narratives that may not be part of the curriculum, but that will challenge them to ask difficult questions. These are the questions that will stimulate conversations once they get back into the classroom and that they will remember long after the museum visit is over.

So how do we begin the conversation about residential schooling with a younger student?  


One might begin with the familiar. The desk, in this case, provides the ideal entry point. This desk might look just like yours. This desk is from a school. What do you do in school? What kinds of things do you learn? What is your day at school like?
After students have told you about reading and gym and all their friends (and their friends' pets), they will generally conclude that they "learn lots of stuff" at school, and that they get a lot from the experience. By asking the students to reflect on what school means to them, you've provided a frame for the discussion.

 Now one might ask: what if school didn't give you all those great things? What if school took things from you?

In my experience, the students will often give you cues about how deeply to delve into an issue.
You can talk about the children in residential schools losing their languages, traditional cultures and spirituality. You can ask the students how they might feel if they weren't allowed to speak their native language in class. You can ask them how they might feel if they were forcibly separated from their families.  These injustices are deeply felt by children and they are injustices that young students are able to understand. The last residential school closed in recent history- 1996. The devastating effects on the First Nations, Inuit and Metis children that were aggressively ‘assimilated’, and the ramifications of that trauma, are still being felt in communities across Canada.  


That desk carries an important lesson. "What's a desk doing in the gallery?" is a question that we need to answer.


What are some pedagogical strategies that you might use to talk about difficult histories with younger students?


 Photo: By Author