Approaching the Past Workshop: Encounters with the First World War Outside the Classroom
11 October 2011 - 10:01am
From talk of wounded soldiers at Spadina House to pictures of the No. 2 Construction Battalion at the City of Toronto Archives, the first Approaching the Past workshop in Toronto on October 5 engaged over fifty-five teacher candidates, teachers, and educators with the history of Toronto and the First World War. By focusing on the importance of primary sources, both parts of the workshop illustrated the ways in which the study of history can be contextualized and nuanced to expose the intricacies of the past outside the often static print of textbooks. The workshop also focused on how stories about the past can be localized for students. The stories we examined didn’t take place in far off places or high levels of government; they happened to and were experienced by Torontonian families both in Canada and overseas.
May I also mention how much I truly enjoyed being a student again? I was reminded of the value of navigating through primary sources with a group, and the rich discussion and points that arise through brainstorming. In short, I was reminded what it felt like to be a ‘student’ in the student-teacher divide; and this is an important perspective I’d like to keep with me as I plan classes and engage students with history.
The workshop stressed the importance not only of getting students and teachers into the archives, but also of bringing primary sources into the classroom. Every participant received copies of primary source First World War posters to use in their educational endeavours and copies of lesson plans developed by TDSB teacher Kathy Whitfield. At the City of Toronto we were introduced to the great resources available through their online archival database, including digitized photographs and map of the city, and their education programming geared towards elementary, secondary, university and ESL groups. Workshop participants then took a peek at and discussed original primary source documents, including a panoramic photograph of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, the only segregated all black-unit in Canadian military history, and letters about the repatriation of First World War soldiers from war cemeteries in France.
Climbing up the Baldwin Steps and into Spadina House, a Toronto Historic Museum, workshop participants then engaged in a First World War program developed for grade 10 students. Following the life of the Austin family, we explored experiences of the war in Toronto and overseas from three different perspectives: that of a mother left at home, a son sent to the front, and a daughter working as a nurses aid in military hospitals near the front. Using postcards, photographs, and letters as the springboard for our discussion we brainstormed what the sources ‘told’ us about the past and how that fit in with the information provided by the program. From these sources we sussed out information about shellshock, conditions at the front, life on the homefront, propaganda and the difficulties of returning to civilian life after the demobilization.
Do you also relish in every opportunity to talk and “do” history outside the classroom? The next Approaching the Past workshop is November 29th, keep your eye on Approaching the Past website for more information.