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Great Teaching

A photo of Robert Flosman sitting with a mannequin dressed in military clothing sitting in the background.

Beyond the History Books

Robert Flosman, OCT, transports students into the past and gives them the gift of human experience, while they find their place in history.

By Stuart Foxman
Photos: Markian Lozowchuk

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For a group of Grade 11 history students at Waterdown District High School, the objects of their lessons are on display. In class they’ve been studying wars and exterminations. Now they’re in a museum on the outskirts of Hamilton, filled with relevant exhibits.

One student holds a Japanese kyu gunto military sword, its scabbard nicked by a bullet. In a corner sits a scale model of the Sobibór concentration camp, which operated in German-occupied Poland during the Second World War. A poster lists the 1935 Nuremberg Laws that institutionalized the racial and anti-Semitic theories of the Nazis. Hanging on a mannequin is a Canadian uniform from the Second World War, with faded blood stains visible. Students walk through a life-sized replica of a First World War trench, encountering a tin cigarette case given to troops and a decorative vase that one soldier crafted from a mortar shell.

Many students visit museums. This one, they’ve created. The Waterdown Museum of History is located in the classroom of Robert Flosman, OCT, a recipient of a 2017 Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Each year, Flosman has his students design and construct displays that matter to them, delve into the people and events behind them, and act as docents for visiting students and the public. The museum, which started in 2013, is open in November and May, and it attracts about 1,000 visitors annually.

If history is just about dates and places, it can be boring, admits Flosman. He turns attention to what life was really like for the protagonists. “History is a story,” he says. “The museum is inquiry-based education. Some kids say that for the first time history has become something real.”

A photo of Robert Flosman. Two young students are smiling and sitting at a table with a record player, airplane model, photograph and old book.
Robert Flosman, OCT, with two students who helped design, construct and collect material for the Waterdown Museum of History.

Flosman teaches Grade 10 Canadian history and civics, and a Grade 11 class called Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. “History is the human experience, the great drama of our time,” he says. “To me, no one can write a novel as exciting as history. What people have done to or for others is both tragic and inspiring.”

The challenge is getting students to share that enthusiasm. Many see the subject as a series of details in a dry text, not as something relatable. So what does Flosman want students to gain? For one, “an appreciation for their family and where they’ve come from.”

History is a continuum, he explains. It’s not just about national or cultural episodes but about family histories. At the start of his Canadian history class, Flosman has students complete a questionnaire. Where did their family come from? When did they come? What socio-political, economic or religious factors drove their ancestors here?

After collecting the results, the 22-year teaching veteran files them away. Later in the semester, he takes them out and sticks them to a Canadian history timeline that’s written across four whiteboards. “Students see that history is on their shoulders,” Flosman says. “They’re shocked to understand the currents that shaped their family. Their family is now a part of Canadian history.”

“He brings history to life and allows students to connect the past to their present,” says Michelle Visca, OCT, principal at Westdale Secondary School in Hamilton and Flosman’s former principal at Waterdown.

There are unexpected ways to help students grasp what previous generations confronted. When covering industrialization and assembly lines, Flosman repurposed an exercise he did in teachers’ college and handed his class a picture of a chicken. First, he gave students 10 minutes to draw the bird in full. Then, in another 10 minutes, each student had to duplicate just one part of the image (as if it’s a section on a grid) as many times as they could.

During a second exercise, the students collectively drew more chickens than in the first. But they griped about the repetition and didn’t feel as proud of copying just one part. This was an eye-opener about the monotony and depersonalization of factory work.

It prompted a discussion that was based on something more tangible than a chapter in a history book.

“How does this affect people? How does it change society?” Flosman asked the class. In a sense, he explained, we traded individualism for mass production. Drawing chickens helped students to see the bigger picture.

The desire to have students feel the forces of history comes across in his Genocide course too. It covers a lot of ground — the world wars, the Holocaust, communism, Armenia, Cambodia, Serbia, Rwanda, residential schools in Canada, and more.

“We look at the roles of the perpetrator, the bystander who watches and does nothing, and the ‘upstander’ — people who put themselves out there to help,” says Flosman.

As much as possible, Flosman likes to make lessons multi-sensory. In tracing the history of communism, he begins with the family tale of Czar Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, their daughter Anastasia and their mystical adviser, Rasputin. “You start with a story,” he says.

To cap it off, the award winner plays the song “Rasputin” by Boney M — which students know from video game dance challenges — and has them do a dance off. Anything to make education memorable.

Other lessons are tactile. On the floor of his class, a wooden puzzle map of Europe covers about nine square metres. Countries are colour-coded. Flosman cut their shapes on a band saw. When learning about the Second World War, students place the pieces in the order of the Germans’ march across the continent.

“It makes it more tangible, you see it happening,” says former student Natalie Brown, who’s now studying history and English at the University of Guelph.

The centrepiece of the class, though, is the museum. The students drive everything that happens in it.

“What Rob gets is that for students to learn they have to teach,” says Dawn Martens, OCT, a colleague who nominated Flosman for the Governor General’s History Award. “To display and present something, you really have to know your stuff.”

The museum has 800 artifacts and counting, many donated by community members. Flosman encourages students to add to the displays with things that are meaningful to them. Many have brought in their grandfather’s medals. Brown researched her grandmother’s uncle, Delmar Fisher, who was held in a Japanese POW camp from 1941–45.

“I had no idea,” said Brown. “The museum lets you take control of your learning and pass on that knowledge to others. You also feel that your family is part of the history.”

Another student, Kathleen Ferns, never expected to embrace history until she had Flosman in Grades 10 and 11. Now she studies the subject at Queen’s University. His classes made her think about how history is the stories of everyday people, and how it can be interactive. “He showed me that it isn’t just about memorizing facts.”

Sometimes, the freedom to explore leads to amazing discoveries. One student knew just bits about his family lore, for instance, that back in Holland his great-grandparents hid young Jewish siblings from the Nazis. Through online sleuthing, he found one of the siblings living in the United States. The sibling and his grandfather ended up reuniting. He turned the story into a display at the museum.

Colleague Nathan Tidridge, OCT, says Flosman grasps the power of student-centred learning. He digs deep, and has students do the same, to find what truly connects with them, and incorporates that into his lessons.

“He makes it an experience,” says Tidridge. “Rob has the gift of making everything a story, and finding a way to fit everyone into a greater story. Everyone feels interested and included.”

That happens at any age, says Martens, who teaches history at Buchanan Park Public School in Hamilton. For three years she has brought students in Grades 3 to 5 to Waterdown to learn from Flosman. “He brings everything down to their level,” she says.

For instance, his students become teachers when they give visiting Grade 8s, who will be coming to the school in Grade 9, different coloured paper and divide them in groups. Then they ask them to imagine they dislike another group based on the colour of their paper. That’s what can happen in conflicts, Flosman explains. His students also have the children remove their shoes and put them in a big stack. Later in the visit, they show them a picture of the shoes of victims piled up in a concentration camp. It hits home.

It’s yet another way of making history seem vivid and perhaps not quite so distant, whether imagining yourself in another time or finding out about your family’s place in it.

Flosman has a keen sense of his own family history. When his father was 11, in 1948, his family fled from what’s now the Czech Republic and settled in the Hamilton area. “It was a perilous escape from the Iron Curtain,” he says

His story didn’t start with him. That’s what he tries to convey to students who, as is common, often think that everything is about them. This is the imperative: “Get them excited about their past.” By doing so, his class is filled not just with history students but with historians.

The Ontario Certified Teacher featured in this profile has been recognized with a teaching award and exemplifies the high standards of practice to which the College holds the teaching profession.

Learning on display

When students have the chance to exhibit what they’re learning, it can promote new engagement. Rob Flosman, OCT, offers advice for making it happen.

  1. Create a dedicated space

    “Students need to have ownership of their school space,” he says. Look for ways to showcase what students have researched and studied, whether in a corner of the class, on the shelves of a display case, or along a wall of heroes or a wall of fame. It lets students take pride in and share their work.”

  2. Find cross-curricular connections

    Departments can work together to create experiential learning opportunities. For instance, history students who want to make a display on chlorine gas used during the First World War can partner with science students to understand its chemical structure and effects.

  3. Focus on the learning benefits

    When students mount an exhibit, they’re also learning a host of other skills, from design to hands-on construction to presentation.

  4. Involve the broader community

    Any subject can lend itself to a display. Parents and community members will likely have a trove of cool pieces related to history, science, the environment, technology, literature and more. Put the call out. Challenge students to find these objects and the stories behind them. So many people are looking for a home for their artifacts, and the local school is a perfect repository.