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December 1999

"Effortless" Teaching
Earns Governor-General’s Award

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Alan Skeoch likes to examine the mysteries of history.

By Lois Browne

Alan Skeoch topped an eventful 33-year teaching career in September by winning the 1999 Governor-General’s Award for Excellence in Teaching Canadian History.

The retired teacher was chosen for the national award from among a group of 13 finalists from across Canada. The award is presented to celebrate Canadian history and to encourage and recognize excellence in teaching Canadian history.

Skeoch travelled to Quebec City to receive the award from Governor-General Roméo LeBlanc in the Citadel, the historically rich site next to the Plains of Abraham. Prime Minister Mackenzie King met there with Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt during World War II.

"That was a powerful experience," says Skeoch. "I hadn’t been to the Citadel before and was embarrassed that as a Canadian historian I knew so little about it. You can stand in the same place that Wolfe and Montcalm stood, and see this stupendous view up the St. Lawrence. It made me proud to be a Canadian."

Skeoch was nominated by the principal of Forest Hill Collegiate, where he had agreed to temporarily come out of retirement to teach three Grade 10 classes of immigrant children, many of whom were still learning English. "He made them laugh and he taught them history effortlessly, because he possesses an incredible talent for making Canadian history important to new Canadian children," principal Marilyn Shanoff wrote in nominating him.


Skeoch began the year by assigning the students the task of interviewing their parents and writing about them when they were teenagers. "The students really threw themselves into it," he said. "One girl joked about the fact that her father would come home every night, haul her and her tape recorder into the dining room, and just wouldn’t let it go. It was a great bonding experience for all the students and their parents, and they each ended up with a document they will keep all their lives."

Two other students decided they wanted to write about the life of Oscar Peterson, a musician they greatly admired. "They researched and wrote his biography, and brought his music to the class," said Skeoch, who had a surprise for them. Coincidentally, Peterson was the neighbour of a friend and Skeoch arranged for him to correct the essay. "Some of the information they had got from the Internet wasn’t right, so that provided another good lesson for them."


"I don’t like looking at history as a series of dates and events," he says. "You need to know those things, but I like to examine the mysteries that are behind every event and that intrigues students." This approach provokes lively discussion, says Skeoch, about questions like "Does hatred ever end?" and "Why did John A. Macdonald allow the rebel Métis leader, Louis Riel, to be hanged?"

For more conventional topics, such as the origins of World War I, Skeoch uses one of his favourite metaphors – peeling an onion. Only after removing layer after layer can you get at the core, he says. "There is never a single cause for any event – everything has multiple reasons."

Alan Skeoch traces his interest in Canada’s past back to his grandparents, farmers who had little in the way of money but whose hardscrabble farm seemed a mysterious place to a young boy. "My grandfather was a very skilled carpenter who seemed to know so much, and seemed to have so many interesting things on the farm. Everything he showed me seemed to lead to something else. It was only later in life that I realized that the things I had developed such an interest in always led to people. And it was the
people who interested me."

Skeoch’s interest in history has provided him with multiple careers. He is a prolific writer, the author of three books and two more that will be published in the coming months. One is about John A. Macdonald, a major Canadian figure Skeoch thinks is not well treated by most historians. Skeoch is also a CBC radio columnist, a writer and producer of historical videos. He continues to teach occasionally and acts as a consultant. He has also received other awards during his teaching career – the Marshall McLuhan Outstanding Teacher Award for Communications and the Paul Harris Fellow Award.

The Governor-General’s Award carries a $5,000 cash prize plus another $5,000 for the purchase of computers. Skeoch split the computer prize between Parkdale Collegiate and Forest Hill Collegiate.


Four other College members were nominated for the 1999 Governor-General’s Award For Excellence in Teaching Canadian History. They are:

• Nick Brune, who teaches history at Iroquois Ridge High School in Oakville

• Paul Delaney, who teaches history in Grades 4 and 5 in Victoria Harbour

• Garfield Newman, who teaches at Vaughan Secondary School in Thornhill

• Herns Pierre-Jérôme, who is head of French immersion and a history teacher at Lawrence Park Collegiate in Toronto.

More information about the Governor-General’s Award For Excellence in Teaching Canadian History can be found at the web site www.e-mediakits.com/gghistoryaward .