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Taking on Multiple Perspectives in Telling Stories of Canada: A shameless plug for a forthcoming article

Posted by Laurence Abbott
17 October 2011 - 11:57am

There are more histories and more stories of our collective past than the ones most often told in schools. Many of these are fascinating, insightful, and very interesting, revealing aspects of Canada and what it is to be Canadian that are not in textbooks.  How might teachers and students go about finding these stories? Built into the title of my blog entry is the double-entendre 'taking on', which plays on how we assume the role of another-in-the-past-that-is-not-me when we, as teachers and students, try to see through another’s eyes and speak with another’s voice to tell stories of our nation-state’s past we may have never heard, read, or imagined before. But, I also play on the pedagogic and curricular challenges we take on when we try to teach, learn, research, and understand stories of the past that may be hidden, forgotten, denied, suppressed, or, perhaps, never told. In this post, I will offer some insights into this idea reflecting on a study the Dr. Kent den Heyer and I carried out a few years ago that explores the difficulty and challenges student teachers faced in trying to find and tell stories of Canada’s past they had never heard before.

A little bit of background: The social studies program in Alberta calls on teachers to take up course content through multiple perspectives. While calls to teach from multiple perspectives are certainly not new in social studies and history education, in social studies classrooms in Alberta, content must be taught through three perspectives.  Two of these are explicitly identified in the provincial program of studies as Francophone and Aboriginal perspectives, the other perspective, the dominant ‘mainstream’ perspective, hides its presence and ubiquity by not announcing itself. This perspective, through which the curriculum is written, is not readily apparent to the teacher candidates who participated in our study, and, it is not necessarily unreasonable to suggest that the perspective from which many of us teach the past is not apparent to us as a perspective. I make this particular assumption based on my own experience as a social studies teacher, and my doctoral research centers on the challenges we face, as teachers, when we try to identify and unpack elements of our own perspective.

So, about four years ago Dr. Kent den Heyer, a professor in Secondary Education at the University of Alberta shared with me an idea he had for a major assignment in a curriculum course for social studies majors, since I was going to be assisting him with the course in the next term. The assignment asks students to put together short videos that entwined two historical narratives from Canada’s past, each told from the perspective of a marginalized ‘Canadian’ identity.  This would give our students an opportunity to grapple with multiple perspectives, challenges of historical thinking, interconnecting and integrating learning outcomes with technology, and, importantly, challenging them to take on what they know and reconciling it with what they thought they knew, what they didn’t know, and, give some thought to the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of what their knowledge and ignorance.

Neither Kent nor I had an idea what such a video might look like, so I set out to develop a couple of exemplars. This was challenging for me to even imagine the final product at the outset, and I could draw on my experience as a social studies teacher, as a graduate student finishing my MEd in curriculum, and as a former history major in my undergraduate days. So, going into this, we were not naïve about what we were asking future social studies teachers to do. This was a really difficult task. It demanded an investment of time, effort, thinking, and dealing with potentially difficult and unpleasant knowledge. We expected some resistance from our students, punctuated by moments of angst and frustration. We got that and so much more.

The resistance, anger, and angst were as valuable to us as teachers and researchers as the videos the students produced and the stories that they told. Together with our students, we discovered how difficult it is to try to tell a story of the past that we do not identify as ‘our’ story. Part of the assignment involved writing a reflection paper where they reflected on the process of putting their assignments together. Through these we began to better understand the challenges and difficulties they were confronting.  Many students were surprised to learn the notion of the master narrative (or grand narrative), that the history they learned in school and in the mainstream media was a historical account of the past, and that other narratives were possible based on the same evidence. Interpretation of primary sources is a perspective-laden exercise.

While many had encountered and employed historiography and historical thinking as students and had worked with primary sources, many had never thought about how such artifacts became the ‘primary’ sources or whose perspective was at work in establishing the authoritative voice for the narrative they knew. They began to critically question how the history we teach in schools comes to be. They struggled with finding images and online artifacts that might be primary sources for telling other stories if they only knew (or knew of) the stories they did not know. Many students struggled with issues of entitlement to tell a story that did not seem to belong to them as storytellers. They became very uncomfortable as they came to know of other stories that shed an uncomfortable light on Canada.  A lot of students were concerned with what they did not know and felt anxious as they encountered their ignorance. And for some, their career choice became a central consideration as they imagined what it is to teach if learning is about discovering things you, as a teacher, do not know.

The opportunity to get a better, richer and deeper sense of the research, theorizing and findings I mention here is coming soon. The article “Reverberating Echoes: Challenging Teacher Candidates to Tell and Learn From Entwined Narrations of Canadian History,” by Kent den Heyer and Laurence Abbott is coming out in the journal Curriculum Inquiry, volume 41, issue 5, in December of this year.