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Exemplary OCT

A photo of Catherine MacDonald standing with a shovel and hand on hip.

Breaking New Ground

Catherine MacDonald, OCT, digs into new territory with an archaeology program that has students uncovering their hidden passion for history.

By Trish Snyder
Photos: Joanne K.

Whoever thought history was boring never tiptoed around human bones in Catherine MacDonald’s class. “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen!” says the history and archaeology teacher to 26 visiting Grade 4 to 6 students wearing “Junior CSI-in-Training” badges. “Today you’ll be investigating crime scenes in the woods of northern Ontario.” By that she means right in the classroom: every stick of furniture has been shoved against the walls to make room for potted trees and clues — everything from a travel mug and bug spray to a hard hat and work gloves — strewn across the floor within six quadrants. The task? Teams interpret the evidence in their square to come up with a plausible explanation for what happened.

Clutching magnifying glasses, rubber gloves, digital cameras and measuring tapes, the historians-in-training spend the next three hours photographing, sketching, mapping and logging each item — just like it’s done on archaeological sites. In one quadrant, a girl sorts out the best angle to shoot a dustpan. In another, a boy struggles with measuring the coordinates of bones — until MacDonald arrives to demonstrate with the boundless energy, patience and good nature of a scout leader.

“OMG, that’s a skull!” screeches a bespectacled girl. MacDonald races over. “Now, do you remember what we learned yesterday about using skulls as a road map for identity?” she asks, crouching with the student and her group. “How many of you think this is male?” Nobody moves. “How many think female?” The teacher smiles at the unanimous show of hands. “Good for you! Now, how can you tell?” “Because the jaw is V-shaped, and a man’s is more U-shaped,” answers a girl.

A photo of Catherine MacDonald and three young students kneeling behind a model human skull. Catherine is pointing at the scull and the students are measuring around it.
Cathy MacDonald, OCT, and students investigate a simulated crime scene during CSI Camp at Father Leo J. Austin Catholic SS in Whitby.

Nailed it! And so has MacDonald, with her groundbreaking archaeology classes that have the Durham Catholic DSB literally making history. MacDonald, a 35-year teaching veteran, first pushed her Grade 12 archaeology credit into new territory in 1996 when she put students at Father Leo J. Austin Catholic SS in Whitby to work on actual excavation sites. That senior course was so popular that the board asked her to expand it to juniors in the region. The result is History in Our Hands, a special archaeology program MacDonald runs as an enrichment experience for selected students in Grades 4 to 8. Both the senior archaeology credit and the junior program give young people a personal connection to Canadian history and culminate in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to unearth artifacts at a local excavation site. MacDonald has earned a 2009 Premier’s Award for Teaching Excellence, the Peggi Armstrong Public Archaeology Award in 2011 and the 2013 Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching for her rock-solid efforts.

Arguably higher accolades have come from former students. A number of them have returned to MacDonald’s programs for co-op placements while more than a hundred have studied archaeology at university, snaring jobs as professors and museum curators. “Cathy’s a dynamo,” says special education consultant Michelle Meraw, OCT. “Because of her, students have become lifelong learners and are developing a deep awareness and respect for their heritage.”

MacDonald’s passion for archaeology was stirred at age six when her uncle gave her a book called Lost Worlds. “Digging up the past and ancient civilizations, there was such a great sense of adventure.” At seven, wearing a pith helmet, she invited a dozen friends with shovels to dig for treasures in her backyard. Their excavation was surprisingly effective; they collapsed a flagstone patio and cracked the foundation. “I thought I was going to be in big trouble with my parents,” MacDonald recalls. “Instead, they handed me a membership to the Royal Ontario Museum.” Over the years, additional credentials have followed: she became a member of public education committees for archaeological societies in Canada and the United States, wrote chapters for archaeology books, presented at archaeological conferences and sits on a ROM advisory committee.

MacDonald first witnessed the power of archaeology in the 1980s, when she took her history class to Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, a 1639 Jesuit settlement. “It was like magic. Every student was engaged, no matter what their interests were, how restless they were, or how academic they proved to be.” It’s easy to understand the attraction: exploring for artifacts beats working out of a textbook at a desk. Plus it’s multidisciplinary, which makes it the academic equivalent of a food court — the artsy types can decipher pottery styles, budding scientists like identifying animal bones, math geniuses get into plotting coordinates, and everyone is seduced by the romance of dusting off everyday objects left behind by Canadians hundreds of years ago.

Getting dirty

The first of three stages of History in Our Hands takes place during three fall afternoons for students from a variety of schools. MacDonald eases them into archaeology with hands-on activities that cloak critical thinking skills beneath a veil of fun and games. The crime scenes, for example, have no right or wrong answers, which encourages students to be imaginative and collaborative as they figure things out on their own. (A previous year’s group had bones lodged in trees in their quadrant; they provided credible arguments that a plane crash was to blame.) Students also practise essential archaeology techniques like mapping, which they’ll need on the dig.

“I try to come up with activities that hit that sweet spot — just beyond their reach but not too far that they get frustrated,” says MacDonald. “I’m just helping them discover how talented they really are.”

Even reluctant students get on board. For example, one showed up with zero interest in archaeology and history, and wasn’t shy about expressing it. Undeterred, the teacher coaxed out of the girl that she was interested in at least one thing — jewellery. When MacDonald introduced her to the Crown Jewels and asked if she’d like to research the UK’s famous accessories for a project, the once-reluctant pupil produced an unbelievable display and report — and went on to do a master’s in archaeology. Principal Sue Laforet, OCT, says MacDonald has a gift for reaching the hard to reach. “Cathy is always positive and enthusiastic. She’s able to work with students regardless of their learning styles and achievements in school.”

Each cohort of visiting juniors returns in the winter for a three-day archaeology boot camp to prepare for the excavation. They practise proper troweling in bins filled with soil, and learn to sort and classify objects. They decode ancient languages using shards of pottery, and soon see that unearthing even the smallest piece of clay is significant. “An artifact is a window into a world,” MacDonald says, recalling one parent who attended a dig and wondered when they’d find the good stuff. As she likes to say, “It’s not what you find, it’s what you find out.”

As part of the boot camp, students learn to respect early Aboriginals by simulating their activities. They craft an arrowhead using stone tools and antler bones or make a cooking pot from clay — cumbersome work that takes hours to complete. When MacDonald asks, “What do you think about people who could not only survive under difficult conditions in the cold Canadian climate but build a thriving culture?” she says students are gobsmacked. “It’s a tremendous way to teach empathy. We’re not telling them to admire these people, they discover that for themselves.”

Ethics and law are also on the agenda. MacDonald ensures her groups know how to carry out every step ethically and legally, since there are serious consequences that come with putting a shovel in the ground. “One of my biggest messages is compassionate stewardship of our Canadian past,” she says.

Excavation day arrives in the spring on Native land in north Pickering. With the blessing of Native groups, each team of four excavates a square of earth alongside two university students who are supervised by archaeologists with the Toronto Regional Conservation Authority. Students start by shovel shining — skimming a thin layer of topsoil from the surface. Then they screen for artifacts, retrieving and bagging whatever they encounter in the different layers of soil — everything from pottery to arrowheads to post moulds, which are the circular stays that would have anchored the posts of a longhouse. They measure, map, record, sketch and interpret their findings, which they file in field reports and give to MacDonald. Field reports written by an archaeologist, which include the students’ names, are sent to the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. For MacDonald, it’s all about the thrill of discovery. “I love being with a student in a square and seeing their absolute delight at touching something that may not have been touched for 800 years.”

History in the making

The amazing experience sinks in at a one-day archaeology symposium after the dig. Juniors respond to the excavation and imaginatively recreate the past in Time Traveller Projects. One girl wrote and illustrated a 42-page mystery book about artifacts and the different stages of excavation. Intermediates complete a research-based Discovery Project to prove a hypothesis about a past culture. Another girl who studied Aboriginals crafted a museum-quality diorama complete with hand-dyed clay figures standing in a river and a fish-drying area. Everyone leaves the symposium clutching a certificate proving that they’ve been trained in the principles of archaeology — a rarity in Canada.

Having seen how beautifully students take to history through archaeology, Principal Sue Laforet hopes the program continues on after MacDonald retires. The award-winning teacher plans to pass the torch. “I’d love to see this program catch fire in Ontario, so more students have the opportunity to connect with our past.”

Sites Unseen

You don’t need Cathy MacDonald’s resumé to introduce your students to archaeology. Dust off her five favourite resources and dig in:

  1. Canadian Archaeological Association

    MacDonald bases all of her Grade 12 and Grades 4 to 8 archaeology courses on this association’s curriculum.

  2. Ontario Archaeological Society

    The society occasionally sponsors a public dig for a day. Contact local chapters to keep current on upcoming events and to invite an archaeologist for a visit.

  3. Society for American Archaeology

    Great lesson plans for interpreting artifacts, living in ancient times and more at

  4. Toronto & Region Conservation Authority

    This conservation authority runs the Boyd Archaeological Field School (, where students can earn a Grade 12 archaeology credit in two weeks.

  5. Local Museums

    Be in touch to find out if a staff member will do a local artifact talk at your school.