Blake Seward teaches history at Smiths Falls District Collegiate Institute where his Grade 10 Canadian history students research the soldiers whose names appear on the town's cenotaph. This, his Lest We Forget project, has garnered great praise and widespread attention.
"It's a hands-on project using primary research. Each student becomes an expert on one soldier from Smiths Falls who fought in World War I. Real people - that's what engages and motivates them," he explains.
Seward finds that if you just stick to the textbook kids get bored and by the upper years you'll have 20 yawning kids in your classroom. "I have to go beyond textbooks to make learning real." His Lest We Forget project does just that. And as both a particular project and a model for teaching history, Seward's approach has been taken up by teachers across Canada.
Seward talks about his work with unequivocal enthusiasm. "Teaching is the best job in the world and history is the best subject to teach." We all know that enthusiasm can be infectious but Seward combines his with an award-winning project and an engaging approach to teaching that allows his students to participate and discover this kind of enthusiasm in themselves.
"Most kids think it's boring and many start the year hating it; but they soon love it. We can keep kids motivated and enthusiastic about learning history by being creative and having fun. I have as much fun as they do."
Seward starts by contacting the local public library, newspaper, legion, churches and historical societies to prepare the community to get involved by sharing documents, pictures, medals and information on World War I service personnel. Then he has each student pick a name from the town's cenotaph and find out all they can about the soldier. Students begin researching their soldiers and figure out what they need from the archives. Then they make their requests to the archivists.
"All roads lead to the archives in Ottawa," he explains. "The staff there are amazing and they have embraced this project because it allows students to make use of their massive resources."
It takes about two weeks for the staff to assemble primary material such as battle records and information on where the soldier died and is buried. During this time Seward teaches the World War I unit and students try to obtain photos, letters and other personal items from community contacts, including families, the legion, local archives and historical societies. Once the archival material is ready Seward takes his students to Ottawa where they conduct research and make notes, sifting through primary materials (at times wearing white gloves to help preserve artifacts).
He describes the effect of this trip: "On the way there the kids are bored, often napping and talking about what they are going to have for lunch. On the way home they are so enthusiastic about what they have found." Conversation departs from typical teenager topics as they share the day's discoveries with their fellow historians: My guy had eight fillings. My guy was wounded. My guy died two weeks before the armistice." As Seward says, "They've discovered that these soldiers were often young men, just 18 or 19 years old, so they can really relate."
Once back in Smiths Falls they continue to work toward the unit's culminating activity - the final project. They write five-paragraph essays on what they learned and make oral presentations.
Seward says, "Meeting the curriculum expectations, required skills and assessment requirements is easy because with valid performance-based tasks like this, kids must use primary resources and demonstrate the requisite research and writing skills to be successful, and they do."
Students Own Their Knowledge
One of the best outcomes of this project is that students learn the power of knowledge. Last Remembrance Day, CBC Radio's As It Happens profiled Seward's cenotaph project. The discussion touched on a digital copy of a strange half photo one student had come across at the archives. Following the show a man called the school and arranged to meet the student who had done the research. "That's my great uncle," said the man, showing the student the original.
The soldier in the photo had been killed one week before the armistice. His devastated young widow, who had married him just weeks before he went overseas, had ripped the photo in half, kept her own picture and given the other half to her husband's family. The man had inherited it but didn't know much about his great uncle's war experiences.
When this man and the student got together the student was able to tell the man a great deal about his ancestor. In return the man told the student about the family history and together they created a portrait of a young man who was tragically killed just before the war ended. "It was empowering for the student because she was the expert and her expertise, all the research and writing she had done, was valued and applicable outside of the school setting."
Another benefit for students is the connections they make with their community. They work with the local legion, historical societies and other organizations and individuals to put together a history of their own community's war participation.
Seward proudly notes, "At school we now have a 1,500-page document about the Smiths Falls men who fought and died during World War I and it grows each semester." The students will have researched and written about all the names on the cenotaph sometime in the next two years. And a local printer has agreed to print and bind the document for free. The school plans to donate copies to interested local organizations like the legion, historical society, public library and churches.
Marianne McLean, an archivist with Library and Archives Canada (LAC), formerly the National Archives and National Library, explains: "What's most significant is the social-development role of Blake's project and how archives and libraries help connect communities. In Smiths Falls local newspapers are writing articles about these students and their projects. The students' work is being published and community members are sharing treasured family photos and letters. It's a wonderful coming together of school and community with kids leading the way. It's fantastic."
Seward adds: "This project can be modified to suit communities throughout the province, that's what's so exciting. Each community has its own history and meaningful school-community links are always being sought. This really works because everyone involved benefits and kids both learn and enjoy themselves. It doesn't get much better than that."
Seward continues to work with the community to find other cross-curricular learning opportunities for his students. "We're working on partnering with Cogeco (a national cable company) and hoping that they will give our students access to a studio so they can interview World War II veterans as part of the Lest We Forget Talking to Veterans project for the World War II unit." The kids will learn about shooting video while they gain vital historical information from our decreasing numbers of World War II vets. And they will then have both notes and video to draw on when preparing their written assignments.
Evolving & Expanding
Seward explains how he got the idea for this project. "A cousin asked me what I knew about our great uncle, who fought and died at Passchendaele. As a history teacher I was embarrassed that I knew absolutely nothing so I started digging in the archives and it soon became apparent that I could extend this to my classroom."
Students are encouraged to research their own families' war-time histories, as Seward does not limit students to the names on the cenotaph. One girl researched her grandmother's two older brothers, who were both wounded during World War I, and presented the research project to her grandmother as a birthday present. "It's just fantastic when history becomes meaningful to kids."
This past fall Justin Duhamel, one of Seward's students, visited France with a member of a local veteran's organization. He was chosen from over 100 applicants and they visited World War I cemeteries and the Vimy Memorial. "One of Justin's assignments was to visit the 14 graves where Smiths Falls vets are buried and take rubbings of the headstones. They will be displayed in our school with students' reports, photos and other war memorabilia. There's such pride evident, both in our students' work and in the accomplishments of our community's ancestors."
Good teachers know that the best teaching and learning activities are always evolving, and Seward is not resting on his laurels. He continues to modify and extend the cenotaph project.
Like many teachers Seward and his colleagues have embraced project-oriented hands-on activity in all their history classes, not just in Grade 10. In Grade 12 students start their World History: The West course on the 16th century with a unit on the scientific revolution. This is a difficult and potentially dry unit but they've found an approach that is working.
"We have the students work in science labs recreating the experiments of Galileo and Newton. Then they show their peers the experiments and talk and write about their historical significance. The kids love it so we get off to a great start."
Teachers who work in larger urban centres where students are not as homogeneous as in Smiths Falls still find this project of interest. "We're piloting the program in Toronto where many students have fewer generational links. And we're finding that they too are motivated to find out all they can about a person, even if they themselves were born in another country and have no links to this person, this community or this war.
"Kids love being detectives. It's the fun of the research, not the personal or community link, that motivates them."
When asked what's next for this creative and energetic teacher and his students, Seward explains: "Teachers' and students' guides in both English and French are being developed to help teachers who want to do their own cenotaph projects. They will be available on the LAC web site in the spring. Work is also being co-ordinated by the Department of Veteran's Affairs and Dominion Command (the legion's national organizing body) to create a national cenotaph project web site that will encourage legions and high schools throughout Canada to work together to complete their own cenotaph projects." Locally, we've been asked to do similar research for neighbouring communities. I would also like to do work on the Canadian nurses who served in the wars, and do the same thing for World War II personnel who served in the navy, air force and army.
"This is just the beginning; I could easily have a ten-year project in my community alone. I'll be able to keep my students engaged and motivated for years to come."