Flashing through history

Originally published on UAlberta News and Medium.

Education professor Lindsay Gibson’s Canada 150 flash cards. Photo by Kateryna Barnes.

Education professor Lindsay Gibson’s Canada 150 flash cards. Photo by Kateryna Barnes.

Dry history lessons that don’t resonate with students may be a thing of the past if a University of Alberta professor can get a new, interactive learning tool into classrooms.

In advance of the 150th anniversary of Canadian confederation, social studies education professor Lindsay Gibson is releasing a set of 150 flash cards focusing on events in Canadian history. One side of each card names a historical event paired with an archival image; the other has the date, a further description of the event and its consequences. Gibson’s goal with the cards is to discover if K-12 students’ accounts of Canadian history could be improved.

“Students have difficulty putting the various events they have learned about in their K-12 education into a meaningful narrative. These cards are a tool that will help them build some coherence and understanding of Canadian history,” explained Gibson.

“We’re storytelling animals. It’s how we make sense of the past. Is it possible, with a tiny bit of instruction, to completely change the stories students might tell about Canada?”

The concept of the flash cards came to Gibson when a friend’s six-year-old daughter invited him to play a “history game” called Timeline. The game’s cards have illustrations of a historic event on one side and the date on the other. Players correctly place cards in a timeline with the goal of getting cards out of their hands. Gibson wondered how something similar could work in a Canadian context.

Chinese-Canadian flash cards developed for teachers in British Columbia. Photo by Kateryna Barnes.

Inspired, Gibson created a set of similar cards to help British Columbia teachers bring Chinese-Canadian history into their classrooms. After the positive response, he expanded the project to cover Canadian history just in time for the 150th anniversary.

After developing a list of 150 events with the help of Canadian historians, Gibson created his first prototype. He chose to work with Grade 11 students who had finished studying the entirety of Canadian history in British Columbia’s social studies curriculum. Before he brought the cards into the classroom, he asked students to list the most important events in Canadian history and write Canada’s story. The results surprised him: only two students mentioned Indigenous peoples occupying the land prior to European contact and there were numerous historically-inaccurate claims.

“Students would make egregious errors,” said Gibson, “such as Pierre Trudeau being the Prime Minister who led Confederation and also brought in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms at the same time. At the end of 12 years of social studies, this is what you think?”

As part of his study, Gibson also asked the students to make their own timelines of what they thought were the most historically significant events and discuss them with classmates.

Graeme Stacey, the class’ teacher, was impressed by how the cards changed the landscape of his classroom.

“It was a totally engaging activity,” said Stacey. “There was no downtime, no kids on their phones or working on something else.”

“At the end of the day, we hope that students can tell a coherent, plausible narrative of Canadian history, but also one that is nuanced.”

The next step is for Gibson to get the cards into Alberta classrooms and discover what teachers here do with them and the degree they impact students’ ability to develop a logical narrative. Though he has already designed some accompanying lesson ideas focused on different historical thinking concepts, he recognized that there are many potential ways for a class to use the cards.

“I’m really excited to get them into the hands of teachers,” said Gibson. “What will they do with them? They are bound to come up with ideas that I haven’t even contemplated.”

While Gibson is excited to see what other teachers do with the flash cards, he also hopes students start to build their own stories of the past.

“At the end of the day, we hope that students can tell a coherent, plausible narrative of Canadian history, but also one that is nuanced,” said Gibson.

“I really want students to think critically about Canada’s 150th anniversary. Is it historically significant? With these cards, I hope to deepen their understanding of history and build this framework so they can deconstruct and or reconstruct the story they tell, rather than tell them ‘here’s the story.’”

Gibson’s flash cards will be available in mid-June through The Critical Thinking Consortium.


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Comics draw out classroom discussion of hate speech

Originally posted on illuminate and cross-posted to UAlberta News.

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Illustration from Learning to Hate: An Anti-Hate Comic Project (2016)

For some students, school can feel like the furthest thing from a “safe space.” As anyone who has gone through the K-12 system can attest, school is sometimes a site of persistent anxiety and antagonistic social interactions that can follow students from the classroom to the home—especially in the age of social media.

“The way that hate lives with students and the way it can be such a crushing and suffocating force—it becomes all consuming,” says Jason Wallin, associate professor of curriculum and youth culture in the Faculty of Education’s Department of Secondary Education.

“Forget all the other parts of school. I remember enough about being a teenager to remember that much.”

An anti-hate comic project

Hateful attacks are particularly damaging when they are made against a young person’s racial, cultural, gender or sexual identity. The large, instantly accessible audience provided by social media platforms makes things that much worse.

“What has become common sense on social media often carries underlying messages of discrimination and alienation,” says Wallin. “It also has the staying power to last forever. If someone attacks you online, there is an archive of it that can be brought up at any time. There are no take-backs.”

Although many of these conflicts take place outside of the classroom, Wallin wants to help teachers move the conversation about hate and hate speech into the curriculum with a graphic resource for teachers. Learning to Hate: An Anti-Hate Comic Project is designed to help pre-service and practicing teachers discuss tough topics such as cyberbullying, microaggressions and harmful labelling with their students.

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Illustration from Learning to Hate: An Anti-Hate Comic Project (2016)

The comics are a part of Project Someone, an anti-hate pedagogy initiative based at Montreal’s Concordia University that involves more than 20 collaborators across Canada.

After Wallin’s experience with a graduate course focusing on graphic novels, he knew he wanted to incorporate comic books into this project.

“Comic books are a successful medium in terms of reaching people with its ease of communication,” Wallin says. “Anyone can pick it up and engage with it. And that’s what we wanted for these comics––we wanted them to produce questions. That was our major intent with these comics––to create resources that would catalyze conversation around how hate lives and is encountered by youth today.”

Research produced by students in another one of Wallin’s graduate courses was ultimately translated into comic book format by artist and Faculty of Education doctoral student Jessie Beier.

“The goal was to really focus on youth experiences and what youth have to deal with daily in terms of small instances of discrimination and hate,” Beier says. “I worked with lots of different formats––for some I created infographics, some are like comic book pages, there’s a Mad Magazine-style fold-in. I drew on a lot of popular culture and things I see online, what I think youth are engaging with, the formats they’re familiar with, turning those on their heads so people have to look closer and see that those platforms are maybe not so neutral.”

Wallin plans to use the comics in his classroom with his undergraduate students in the hope that these materials will inspire the next generation of teachers to find their own ways to start the discussion with students about hate speech.

“These teachers don’t necessarily need to use the comics,” he says, “but they can take on their own process as a way to begin to uncover a curriculum that is often quite hidden in schools.”

Watch an interview with Jessie Beier and Jason Wallin of University of Alberta about Learning to Hate: An Anti-Hate Comic Project on Vimeo.

Embracing math raps, Minecraft and Star Wars in the classroom

Originally published on illuminate

Minecraft

Created by Mojang, a games studio based in Sweden, Minecraft is described as a “sandbox video game”, allowing the player to choose what, when and how they want to approach the available choices in content. Activities in the game include building, exploration, resource gathering, crafting and combat. Source: minecraft.net.

Step into Jessica Maloughney’s (BEd’11) Grade 2 classroom at St. Patrick’s Community School in Red Deer, Alta., and you may be reminded of a six-year-old’s bedroom. Minecraft posters decorate the walls, Lego figurines are tucked around the classroom, and collections of Star Wars and Frozen books populate the bookshelf.

These aren’t just classroom accessories. They’re part of Maloughney’s teaching practice. When she teaches her 18 students about math, for example, she might get them to channel their “inner Kanye” with backwards caps, spouting rhymes about numbers as “Math Rappers.”

“The basic foundation of my job as a teacher is communication,” says Maloughney. “To communicate with a student, you need to meet them where they are. They aren’t going to come up to your level at age six to meet you. You need to enter their world.”

Bringing ‘home’ into the classroom

For Maloughney, entering the world of her students means engaging with a wide variety of realities. More than half of her students speak English as a second language, and three are absolutely new to to the language. Many of the children are from low-income families and live in a variety of home situations. They have different medical concerns and a range of behavioural disorders.

Maloughney says integrating popular media her students enjoy into her classroom is one of the best tools she has available to connect with them and help them tackle challenging circumstances.

“The classroom is their home away from home,” she says. “For some of them, this is the most stable place that they know, and seeing things that they choose or enjoy, it makes them feel more welcome in our ‘classroom-home.’”

Jason Wallin, a professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Secondary Education who studies media and youth culture in curriculum, agrees that breaking down the walls between a student’s school life and life outside the classroom should be a major focus for teachers. When a teacher considers education as existing in a different sphere from the lives of students, students can feel alienated.

“We take this really important youth identity component that’s developed outside of school, and we largely divorce that from the classroom where we have more formal curriculum concerns,” says Wallin. “When a teacher begins to break down the false dichotomy between the informal curriculum of popular culture and the formal curriculum of the school, you’re dis-alienating the students from those identity constructs that they form elsewhere, and they can bring them into the classroom itself.”

The language of pop culture

One major potential source of alienation that concerns Maloughney is the language barrier faced by her English language-learning students. When she started integrating popular kid-friendly movies, video games and fictional characters into her teaching, she saw a marked improvement with these students.

“It’s a scary thing to come to a new country and sit in a classroom where you are just meeting the other kids and you don’t know the language,” she says. “It’s amazing to see these kids who have been in Canada for a month who can’t tell you the names of basic objects in the classroom, but they can quote things from The Lego Movie. When you see their faces when they recognize something, it’s special.”

Lydia Menna, a language and literacy professor in the Department of Elementary Education, is not surprised that Maloughney’s English language-learning students pick up television, game or movie references in English more quickly than they do some of the formal curriculum. Teachers need to provide multiple entry points into literacy learning so students can see themselves as readers and writers, Menna says.

“That whole idea of connecting with students’ interests—diverse literacy practices and cultural experiences can make for more meaningful learning,” explains Menna. “As a learner, often your most memorable learning experiences are the ones that connect to something that you are interested in.”

Bringing popular stories and characters into the classroom also makes social interaction with English speakers easier for the English language learners.

“For them, being able to gauge what their classmates are interested in and realize that it’s the same things they enjoy, it gives them a starting point,” Maloughney says. “It also gives them more language, since they might know the references in their language, but not necessarily in English. Hearing the reference in English helps them pick up the words for concepts they already know.”

Flipping the teacher-student hierarchy

All young learners can benefit when the popular culture they draw from to construct their identities outside the classroom is treated as valid curriculum content by educators, says Wallin.

“It’s important as educators that we attend to this complex life-world of students outside of the school and say ‘This matters and is deeply relevant to what we should be doing in the classroom,” he explains.

Maloughney agrees. “Kids are so much more ‘with it’ than people give them credit for. At six years old, a lot of them already understand that the adults in their lives don’t want to hear about how they got to the next level in Minecraft, or how they drew a picture of Iron Man because he’s their favourite Avenger. It’s sad. But if you give them the opportunity to talk about things that they are passionate about, they are over the moon.”

When teachers take their students’ interests more seriously, it also presents the opportunity for teachable moments where students can start questioning their consumption of media and develop critical thinking skills.

“As adults, we’re sometimes out of touch with children’s culture, and it’s important to understand the way things are marketed and how those forms carry ideological meaning,” says Wallin.

“Adding youth and pop culture into your teaching is not going to cost you more time, energy or effort,” says Maloughney. “Students know what they are passionate about and they will happily take their turn to be the teacher and teach you about something that maybe you don’t know.”