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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Film about Edmonton’s Indigenous history no walk in the park

Originally published on UAlberta News.

Conor McNally above the historic Garneau Theatre

Conor McNally above the historic Garneau Theatre

Making a film isn’t a walk in the park, but Conor McNally (BA’15) may have found a way to make it about a walk.

The graduate from the Faculty of Native Studies was in his final semester when he was encouraged to go on a river valley walk with Education professor Dwayne Donald. Donald uses the walks to paint a picture of the Indigenous history of the river valley surrounding the University of Alberta’s North Campus and tell traditional Cree stories. The film, ôtênaw, which is Cree for “a settlement” or “a city”, gives viewers the chance to explore what Donald calls “the pentimento” or layers of Edmonton.

“The thing that really struck me was the delivery,” says McNally about Donald’s walks. “Presenting that history on the land, in the locations he’s talking about and interweaving it with Cree philosophies– I thought, ‘This is the best!’”

The experience inspired McNally to pitch the idea of filming the walk to Donald. McNally sees natural similarities between oral storytelling and film-making, which is why he thought it would make a perfect documentary.

“For Indigenous storytelling, there are limitations to the written word,” McNally explains. “A lot of it is being with people and people feel it differently as opposed to reading it in bed, wearing pyjamas. There’s more respect in person.”

The film, which is screening at Metro Cinema as part of April’s FAVA Fest, was awarded the festival’s Award of Excellence for “Outstanding Long-Form Documentary”.

ôtênaw: uncovering the layers of community

otenawfilmstill

Film still of Dr. Dwayne Donald

Once he got the green light, McNally leveraged some additional resources, such as a freezer full of 16mm film and grants from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts and the Edmonton Arts Council.  In ôtênaw, McNally superimposes different shots of the river valley and archival images over Donald’s storytelling. McNally explains that Donald’s narration lead the way for the visuals.

“Looking at the rough edit I had, I’d say ‘it’d be great if I went down to the EPCOR power plant and shot some stuff there’,” says McNally.

McNally utilized another valuable resource while making the film– his community and their artistic skills. With the help of a friend, he reused animated painted slides from another project to emphasize Donald uncovering layers of Edmonton’s history. He also brought in other film-making friends to help him collect extra footage.

“It’s weird to call it ‘my film’ when there’s so many other people involved in every step of it,” says McNally. “The day we filmed Dwayne’s walk, I had this whole crew of people helping. My parents were watching my daughter and they invited the team  over for chili after the walk.”

McNally notes that it was easy to connect with Donald beyond the film’s subject matter, bonding over their favourite hockey team, the Oilers.

“We had this moment where Dwayne thought he’d met me before and I was sure we hadn’t, but sometimes you meet someone and you think ‘We could be old friends’,” says McNally.

“I feel like I’ve learned so much from him, especially after watching the film a trillion times!”

The feeling of respect forged between McNally and Donald is mutual.

“Conor is a pretty cool guy and I admire him a lot,” says Donald. “He’s very passionate and committed to doing work that shows connectivities. To be a self-taught filmmaker and employ the sensibilities he does in this film– I love the music, the Elder’s words and the artfullness of it all.”

While Donald wasn’t originally comfortable with the idea of making a film about the river walks and storytelling he shares, he had the sense that something good could come of McNally’s initiative, and trusted him. McNally hopes that viewers take home a little more knowledge about their city and its story.

“All my films are about Edmonton in some way– I was born here and I’m not leaving anytime soon,” explains McNally. “I just want to raise awareness about these stories, because so many Edmontonians have no clue about any of this history. While Dwayne’s walks are free and open to the public, with film, one advantage is that it can be shown across the country. In that regard, I think it’s cool to tell very local stories and share them with a global audience.”


ôtênaw will screen at FAVA Fest on Wednesday, April 19 at Metro Cinema and at Vancouver’s DOXA Film Festival in May.

Weaving Indigenous culture into elementary music curriculum

Originally posted in Illuminate – June 2016.  A special thank you to the workshop facilitators and organizers: Nicole Schutz, Laurel Nikolai, Jeremy Albert, Holly Yuzicapi and Dr. Kathy Robinson. All photos by k.barnes.

Dr. Randy Wimmer (Dean of Education), Holly Yuzicapi, Jeremy Albert, Laurel Nikolai, Nicole Schutz and Dr. Kathy Robinson

Dr. Randy Wimmer (Dean of Education), Holly Yuzicapi, Jeremy Albert, Laurel Nikolai, Nicole Schutz and Dr. Kathy Robinson

A two-part professional development workshop focused on integrating First Nations, Métis and Inuit music and culture into elementary music education had a successful launch at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Education this June and is expected to return to campus in the fall 2016 term.

At the recent workshop, current Education graduate student Nicole Schutz and alumna Laurel Nikolai (MEd ‘09) showed more than 20 local music teachers and 10 current students in the elementary education program different ways to weave Indigenous music and culture into their kindergarten to Grade 6 classrooms by making flutes and teaching them how to play songs.

Learning by doing

The hands-on workshop encouraged participants to decorate and play their flutes, much like they would with their students. Schutz, who is Métis herself, said that making the workshop as interactive as possible was a deliberate choice.

“We move, sing and dance all the time with our students,” said Schutz. “Why not do it with the First music of Canada? We want them to feel it and know it through the way it is supposed to be done.”

Both Schutz and Nikolai’s personal experiences teaching music in schools with large First Nations, Métis and Inuit populations provided a frame of reference when designing the workshop. It also illustrated the need to educate teachers on how to integrate First Nations, Métis and Inuit content and perspectives into the curriculum.

“As music teachers and elementary teachers, we learn through doing it and experiencing the songs and dance. We really want to connect to this through stories and [enable students to] have their own stories of making the instruments that they are putting love and time into, then pass these stories on,” said Nikolai.

“It is our job as educators to do as much as we can, share as much as we can, find accessible resources and people who can pass teachings and experience onto us so we can be comfortably educated to share this with our students,” she adds.

IMG_2316

Participants learning to play songs on their flutes

Responding to the Calls to Action

Workshop participants point to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’sfinal report, released last year, as well as the provincial government’s promise to focus more on including Indigenous culture and history into Alberta’s curriculum as two reasons—among many—why professional development like this is needed.

“With the release of the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, this workshop is a response to some of those calls by learning more about Indigenous ways of knowing and being which will translate to their students,” explained event collaborator Jeremy Albert, who is a First Nations, Métis and Inuit consultant with Edmonton Public Schools (EPSB).

“We’re looking to build from here and get these teachings into our schools so our First Nations, Métis and Inuit and non-Indigenous students can be exposed to this education.”

The importance of good materials

As well as receiving a lesson in making, painting and playing Indigenous flutes, workshop participants also received a walk-through of an Edukit for music teachers, developed by EPSB. The kit consists of detailed lesson plans including songs, dances, picture books, poems, and stories that can be used throughout the school year.

“We’re crying out for materials and understanding to bring this music to our students,” said Kathy Robinson, associate professor of elementary education and workshop facilitator.

All of the workshop facilitators expressed a desire for the workshop’s positive impact to spread to classrooms across Edmonton. Event collaborator and EPSB First Nations, Métis and Inuit consultant Holly Yuzicapi explained that learning about First Nations, Métis and Inuit art and culture could teach students another way to express themselves.

“Every culture has forms of expression—art, music, singing, dance—it’s really people having the ability to share feelings and stories,” said Yuzicapi.

“You hear people say ‘I’m dancing for healing’, or there is history and significance behind certain songs or stories. When we turn to those things, we are acknowledging expression,” she explained. “When we deal with traumatic things in our life, we can turn to art to help us express feelings, but we don’t teach it that way. When you think about all of our cultural songs, the songwriter is sharing their feelings. So, technically everyone is a songwriter, a dancer and an artist.”


The EPSB Edukit will be available for loan at the H.T. Coutts Education Library. Part two of the workshop, to be led by Elder Francis Whiskeyjack, is expected to take place at UAlberta in the fall term and will focus on drumming and drum-making. To learn more about the course, contact Laurel Nikolai or Nicole Schutz.

Goodbye, Advanced Online

For my final story in Advanced Online, I was very lucky– I got to host Humber News ExpressHNE is a more casual and quick dose of the top headlines of the day. I was responsible for choosing the stories, writing them, lining them up, hosting, and cutting the video. I did have help from my friend, Justin Vasko, who was a fantastic videographer and human teleprompter.

Pro tip: make sure your human teleprompter holds your sheets of paper *just below* the camera lens. Or make sure you have a real teleprompter. Either way, I’m still pretty happy with how it turned out, -17 C and all.

For two minutes of Friday’s top headlines, check it out:

Words of inspiration

Boyden degree

I recently had the opportunity to talk to author Joseph Boyden when he received his honorary degree from Humber College, and he was shared some words of wisdom with me before his convocation speech and talked about Idle No More.

To read my Humber News Online article, click here.

Radio interview below. (Apologies for the less-than-optimal audio quality; conference centres aren’t great locations for interviews)

Interview with NWAC President Michele Audette

It always excites and amazes me when I get a great interview– even if it is short.  I had one today with Michele Audette, the President of the Native Women’s Association of Canada.  I had lined up a quick interview for our radio show @Humber to give a recap to the UN Special Rapporteur for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ visit to Canada.

Her first answer blew me away and I’m so glad that we were able to get the piece to air today, despite a tight line-up. (h/t to our @Humber crew and Prof Judy Charles who helped me get there and Lorna at NWAC for arranging the interview.)