Historical Reminiscents EP 40: Place Based Learning

Woman showing two children a tree

Last week I spent time with undergraduate students from Huron University College’s history program.  As part of the “Documenting early residential schools” a SSHRC Partnership Engage project between Huron University College, the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, and the Woodland Cultural Centre students were able to visit the Shingwauk site to learn about the early history and work with some of the archival records documenting the Shingwauk School.  In this episode I talk about the power of place based learning, experiential learning, and the role of archives in teaching history.

I would love to hear your thoughts about place based learning as a tool for teaching history. Leave a comment or send me a message on Twitter.

Mentioned in this episode:
-Hay T. Johnson, “Place-based learning and knowing: critical pedagogies grounded in Indigeneity
-Ryerson University, Best Practices in Experiential Learning

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Reflections on an Undergraduate Public History Course

Ryan Gosling Sitting at a bar. Words written "Hey Girl, Combining my image with theory is an outstanding exercise in Public History praxis"

This fall I had the opportunity to teach “Select Topics in Community-Based Public History”, a third-year history course at Algoma University.  This was my first time designing and being the sole instructor for a course.  Now that the dust has settled and all my marks are in I thought I would use this post to reflect on how the course went.

As some background, I approached this course with the desire to provide students with a grounding in collaborative practice and community engagement, while introducing them to the range of possibilities within the public history field. This was only the second time this course has been offered at AlgomaU. I also had a really small class of under ten students.  The class was a mixture of history majors and folks who were taking this as an elective.  The class met twice a week for 1.5 hours each session in a standard classroom space on campus.  Some of the activities and approaches I took would likely have to be adjusted for a larger class size.

Planning the Course

When I found out that I was the selected as the instructor for this course I had a whole lot of squee and excitement (I may have actually jumped up and down). Once that initial excitement dulled I immediately dove into research mode. I looked at the syllabus from the 2015 iteration of this course and scoured the internet for undergraduate level public history syllabi. I also reached out to a couple of folks who I knew were teaching public history at the undergraduate level in Canada.  My goal was to see how other folks had structured their classes, while looking for Canadian specific public history content to create a syllabus around. I also wanted to use open access readings and avoid assigning a textbook.

I also started scoping out what topics I needed to know more about in order to effectively teach them in the classroom.  I had strong ideas about what I wanted to include in relation to archives, digital history, museums and oral history.  But, I was much less certain in how I would present material relating to Parks Canada, commemoration, and built heritage. One of the best parts of preparing for this class was that I got to embark on a public history reading binge.

For me public history is all about collaboration and community outreach. In each week I underpinned our discussion in relationship to public outreach, accessibility, and community facilitation. This meant that though we might be talking about archives one week and built heritage the next week there were underlying themes which were woven into the entire the course. For most classes I lectured for approximately 45 minutes and the remainder of the class was spent on either discussion or hands-on learning activities.  One of my goals of this class was to provide skill building opportunities for the students. This meant thinking creatively about how to engage students in activities where they could practice what they were learning.

Building Assignments

I included a couple of assignments that allowed students the opportunity to explore formats that weren’t a traditional essay.  The inclusion of these assignments went back to the idea that I wanted students to come away from the class with some hands-on skills and to have had the opportunity to think about public history critically. The short written assignment for this class focused on interpreting a local heritage plaque.  Students were required to pick a plaque from an approved list of Ontario Heritage Trust and Canadian Heritage Site plaques.  They were then required to analyze the plaque and come up with alternate wording for the plaque text.  The catch – they had to keep the plaque within 5 words of its current number.  This was a 2-4 double spaced assignment and I was impressed with the work the students put into developing new plaque language and researching the historical significance of their chosen marker.

The final assignment for the class allowed students the option of completing either a traditional research paper or creating a digital history exhibit.  The students were evenly split – with half of them deciding to do a paper and half opting to create an exhibit. I warned students that though the exhibit might seem like the easier of the options, the exhibit assignment actually required the use of a number of skillets including historical research, concise writing, digital history tools, and exhibit curation. The exhibit assignment required them to develop a historical narrative/argument, pick 10-15 images to illustrate their exhibit, and develop fulsome captions based on their research to accompany the images.  I was impressed by the creativity, research, and narrative building of the students who picked the exhibit option.  Many of the students picked Tumblr as their exhibit platform.  This worked okay but there are definitely other platforms that would have worked better for this project. If I was using this assignment again I might spend more time in class exposing students to open source CMS and exhibit software such as OMEKA. I might also consider moving the classes on digital history into a computer lab space so there could be more hands-on learning activities while walking through examples.

Collaboration in Practice

Most classes involved group work either in the form of small group discussions or working in pairs to complete a hands-on task.  Since collaboration is such an important part of public history work I wanted to make sure my students had multiple opportunities to build teamwork skills and work in groups, something that isn’t always emphasized in humanities education.  In addition to in-class activities students worked in small groups for a presentation assignment and our participation in the Canada-wide Wikipedia edit-a-thon helped foster a communal spirit.

I also took a collaborative approach to teaching the class.  I reached out to a number of local heritage professionals and invited them to collaborate on the course.  In some instances that involved us visiting their heritage space and working on a reflective activity there. See my Active History post for details on how we used Anarchist Museum tags to encourage students to critically think about heritage spaces. In other cases, professionals came into my class to speak with students or spoke to students by Skype. I had a couple of goals with this approach: I wanted students to meet local public history practitioners and expose them to some of the great work that is happening locally, I wanted to showcase the range of possibilities within the public history field, and I wanted to continue to build partnerships between AlgomaU and community organizations.

One of the best examples of how this collaboration worked out to enhance the course was when Miranda Bouchard of Thinking Rock Community Arts visited our class.  Prior to Miranda’s visit we had spent a couple of classes talking about community engagement and oral history.  During Miranda’s visit she talked about her role in the Rivers Speak Community Play, an initiative that based around gathering community memories of water and crafting them into a community created play.  Miranda’s work was an excellent example of public history skills used in practice and her work illustrated the potential of community engaged oral history practice.  We also used this opportunity to talk about some of the real struggles of community work – learning how to facilitate community dialogue, grant writing, ethics, and all the admin work.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

As with any course there were some weeks that went better than others.  There are definitely readings I would switch and a couple of lectures that missed the mark that I would approach from different angles. I talk to groups a lot as part of my day job, but getting up in front of a class on a regular basis has a different feel.  It took me a while to work my way through my feelings around the performative nature of teaching and I learned a lot about myself during this class.

If teaching this course again I would also build in a more structured participation model for the seminar portion of the course, as in many cases students desired a more concrete guidelines around how they were expected to participate in the classroom discussions. I might also consider running a workshop on how to cite sources for a public history assignment.  Many of the students in my class hasn’t cited archival photographs before. Providing in-class support or a written guide on how to do this would have been helpful when it came time to do their final assignment.

Photo Credit: Image from the Public History Ryan Gosling Project created by Rachel Boyle and Anne E. Culle.  Go check out their project. So many fantastic memes.

Science North – The Child Edition

I’m definitely more of a history buff than a science person, but as you might have guessed by the numerous times I’ve written about it I think Science North is a pretty awesome place.  It’s rarely crazy busy, encourages hands on learning, and is a perfect size to cover in an afternoon.  This past weekend my partner and I teamed up with some relatives and visited Science North with our daughter for the first time.

This was our daughter’s first foray into any time of museum, gallery, or science centre.  Our visit went pretty well – she’s only 1.5 years so her favourite parts were walking up the ramp, a sketch of a dog, the glass elevator, balls, and the water table.  She also liked the toddler specific areas that had toys geared to her size.  I imagine in a short time she will be loving Science North for completely different reasons.  Some of the highlights for me this time around were the Bufferfly Gallery and a couple of the hands on learn about the physical body exhibits on the third floor.

I was also really impressed with Imaginate, the special exhibit that is currently in the lobby of Science North.  Developed by the Ontario Science Centre Imaginate is all about innovation, seeing ideas come to life, and hands on learning.  It was great to see all the creative ideas that children and other visitors had created and were now part of the exhibit itself.  I loved the sound panel area where visitors could create a personal soundscape using touch panels. There was also a really interesting piece of interactive art at the entrance to Imaginate that invited users to hold onto sensor bars and the visuals in the sculpture then adapted to their heartbeat.

Overall this was another great visit to a place I love.  I’m looking forward to future visits as my daughter grows and watching the ways in which she interacts with museums, galleries, and science centres changes over the years.

Project of Heart: Hands on History

Comparable to the (official denial) trade value in progress sewing actions I wrote about last week, Project of Heart is a commemoration project which combines an artistic activity with history education.  Project of Heart aims to educate Canadians about the lasting impact of the Indian Residential School system.  The project places an emphasis remembering those students who passed away while at Residential School.

Participants in Project of Heart learn about Residential Schools and are then asked to decorate a small wooden title to represent the death of one child at Residential School.  The education component of Project of Heart focuses on learning through oral history and experiential learning.  Residential Schools Survivors are invited by school and community groups to tell their personal experiences, and give voice to language and traditions that were suppressed by Residential Schools.  The Project of Heart website also offers a great list of educational resources and discussion questions for those facilitating education activities.

Project of Heart also requests that each group focus on a specific Residential School.  Focusing on a particular school and on the students who attended that specific school held make the topic more tangible and less abstract.  The name of the school studied is written on the back of each title decorated by participants.

The artistic activity of the project, decorating a small wooden tile using sharpie markers, emphasizes creating something to remember and commemorate a child who died at Residential School.  Allowing students to express what they have learned through a creative medium makes this project appealing to many educators and the hands on component helps make the history lesson increasingly memorable. 

Interactive Canadian History: Sewing Responses to the Past

This week the archive I work at hosted a sewing action as part of the (official denial) trade value in progress project.   This project engages people in discussion and reflection relating to reconciliation, truth telling, and Canada’s history of colonialism and Residential Schools.  This interactive art project stimulates discussion about Canada’s history while allowing participants to engage in a tactile activity.

The work initiated by Leah Dector and curated by Jamie Isaac, features a 12×14 feet composite of Hudson Bay blankets sewn together, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2009 statement that “we also have no history of Colonialism” sewn at the center of the blankets.

At exhibitions and public showings of the work, the general public is invited to write down their responses to the piece in an accompanying book.  These responses are then taken to sewing actions, where participants can choose any response and hand-sew it onto the blanket.

The interactive component of this project means that the visual appearance of the Hudson Bay blankets are constantly evolving based on what participants decide to sew into the blanket. The project reflects the thoughts and decisions of the sewing participants and the visitors who wrote down their responses to the work.  The interactive component of this project resonated with me in  terms of educational programming and public history. 

The individuals who participated in the sewing action this week talked a lot about history based topics while sewing their chosen words into the blanket.  Much of the discussion revolved around Residential Schools, land rights, the history of the Hudson Bay Company, the continued marginalization of Indigenous people, and a variety of other historically informed topics.

The sewing action actively engaged participants in an interactive art project, Canadian history and engaging discussions about Indigenous rights in Canada.  Learning in a less structured environment combined with a tactile activity has the potential to be much more memorable than a traditional lecture about Canadian history or presentation about the Hudson Bay Company.  It’s great to see creative projects engaging people with the past.

Hands on Learning at Science North

This past weekend I spent the better part of the day at Science North.  I have fond memories of Science North from family outings as a child and my recent visit rekindled a lot of my enthusiasm for hands on learning. I work in an archive where most visitors have very little hands on exposure to the archival material.  Science North reminded me of the importance of interactive learning and making information accessible in creative ways.

One of my favourite parts of my visit included the floor dedicated to the landscape, animals, and ecosystems of Northern Ontario.  This floor includes a ‘forest lab’ with trees, a nocturnal room complete with flying squirrels, and a number of other common Northern Ontario animals.  The majority of the animals on this floor have spent their entire lives at Science North and are quite friendly — I actually saw a staff person petting a porcupine.  This floor also includes an ‘erosion table’ that I remember loving as a kid.  The erosion table is a giant sand and water table that allows children to see the impact of streams and running water on soil.  Lots of messy fun.  Overall, this floor allows visitors to see first hand distinct features of Northern Ontario’s landscape and to touch and feel a variety of Northern animals and plants.

One of the special exhibits currently at Science Norther is Wildfire! A Firefighting Adventure in 4D. This exhibit was created in conjunction with the Ministry of Natural Resource (MNR) and the Ontario government and focuses on the MNR’s forest fighting efforts.  The 3D movie and accompanying motion seats provide insight into the workings of water bombers and forest fighting ground crews work.  This was a really well done experience; though I do not recommend taking small children to to see Wildfire! as a couple of the smaller children in the audience found the experience on the frightening side.  The Wildfire! trailer can be seen here.

Overall, I like Science North because  it is truly a place for both kids and adults.  I went sans children and had a great time, but there are tons of activities for families with children.  Additionally, unlike the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, Science north is rarely swarming with visitors.  Adults can take their time enjoying the hands on stations without worrying about taking a child’s place.  Additionally, I found that I learned a surprising amount about Northern Ontario in a fun and interactive way.  The visit to Science North was well worth the trip to Sudbury.

Hands-On: Experiential Learning at Heritage Sites

The idea of experiential learning (the process of learning through doing) is being heavily promoted in education systems right now. Hands on activities, active involvement in learning exercises, and anything other than listening to people talk are all types of experiential learning. 

Living history sites are excellent examples of heritage organizations which utilize experiential learning.  Visitors to living history sites are often engaged in what life was like at a certain time period.  This might include learning a period dance, learning a song, baking bread the ‘old-fashioned way’, helping harvest a heritage garden, spinning wool, or numerous other activities. Living history sites are designed to immerse people in the past and often do so through experiential learning.

How can (and do) heritage organizations other than living history sites engage visitors in types of experiential learning? Art institutions often provide classes which introduce visitors to a particular art form – be it pottery, drawing, or painting.  An example of this is the Whitney Museum of American Art‘s drop in drawing class, which situates participants in a gallery and provides drawing instruction.

An increasing number of museums are also offering experiential learning based educational programs.  At times these programs take on a feel of a living history and allow visitors to learn a historical skill or participate in a period celebration (eg. Christmas in the 1800s).  Museums also utilize educational reproductions to allow hands on experience with collection material. The Norwegian-American Museum‘s curator for a day program is an example of a museum program which fully dedicates itself to experiential learning.

Some archives have also moved to providing a more experiential based outreach programs for schools.  These programs often focus on introducing students to the value of historical photographs and documents.  For example, students can be sent on a source ‘scavenger hunt’ where they search through reproductions of newspaper clippings, photographs, and other material to find particular information. 


Do you have memories of a particularly good (or bad) experiential learning program at a heritage site?

Photo credit: Olds College