Keep Them Guessing... and Engaged
The millions of high school kids who have dozed through a unit on the economy of New France have clearly never experienced a history class with Mel Greif. This Governor Generalís Award winner teaches with heart and soul.
By Wendy Harris
Students are perched on the edges of their seats, laughing at Mel Greifís jokes and shouting out answers to the riddle he has just posed about wealth and leisure in 17th century Quebec. "Here youíve got this lagging economy and these buggers werenít doing anything," he says. "It was a very bizarre economy, it made no sense."
It isnít just the occasional colourful expression that keeps Greifís OAC students at Humberside Collegiate in Torontoís west end engaged. Itís his method. In setting up todayís lesson, he has created a central mystery around an economy that wasnít based on agriculture, fishing, hunting, trading or any of the other usual suspects. And he keeps his students pecking and guessing at the mystery until the end of the lesson. By then, they really want to know.
In the process, he circles around the period between 1663 and 1763, looking at how various historians have interpreted French Canadaís economic origins and attempting to separate the myths of New France from the realities. His passion for the subject is boldly and sometimes profanely communicated. And it is totally infectious.
OBLIGED TO LISTEN
As one student puts it, even if youíre not in the mood for Canadian history, Greif sucks you in with his enthusiasm. "He always keeps you interested and you feel obliged to listen." Not only that, says this student, he is "way smarter than you" so there is no fooling around.
Students arenít the only ones who share a high opinion of Greifís abilities as a teacher. His fan club is now officially national with the notable addition of Adrienne Clarkson who presented him with the Governor Generalís Award for Excellence in Teaching History in October 2001. In addition to a huge bronze medallion, he received two cheques Ė $5,000 in his name (which he will use to set up a student award) and $5,000 for the school.
Established in 1996 by Canadaís National History Society, the award is designed to reward outstanding Canadian history teachers and their teaching ideas. This year, 122 teachers were nominated from across the country from which 12 finalists and the winner were chosen.
Born in Prague shortly after the Second World War, Greif spent his first six years in European refugee camps before arriving in Canada. That experience has given him a lifelong immigrantís perspective and a powerful streak of self-confessed cynicism and subversion. So while he bristles at rules, authority and "inside the box" thinking, he continues to bring a childlike wonder at the possibilities in this country, its richness, its diversity and its noble history.
After graduating in history from the University of Toronto, Greif began teaching at Humberside as a student teacher. Unlike so many of his more restless compatriots, Greif saw an opportunity at Humberside to use the school as his personal research lab to pursue what really fires him Ė turning students on to the heritage that is found in local churches, streets, schools and neighbourhoods so they can take ownership of their history in a real way.
During his 31 years there, and as head of the History and Contemporary Studies Department since 1989, he has built the largest teaching department in the school with a cohort of 17 dedicated teachers. By his own accounting, he re-invents himself every five years or so in time to embark on yet another seemingly impossible historical project.
Several years ago, he raised more than $100,000 to "repatriate" a massive mural by Group of Seven artist Arthur Lismer that had hung in the school for decades but had been dismantled, damaged and partially lost during a misguided renovation in the 1960s. It is displayed proudly in what is now called Lismer Hall.
In preparation for the schoolís centennial in 1992, Greif involved hundreds of students over a five-year period in preparing a school history book, expanding the archives and most spectacularly, fundraising for and commissioning six Canadian history-based stained glass windows now hanging in the staff room.
But itís really in the everyday stuff of teaching where Greifís imagination soars. Besides the usual array of essays, history seminars and debates, Greif has led his students to the battlefields of Queenston Heights near Niagara-on-the-Lake for an 1812 picnic, to murder mystery events at historic houses in downtown Toronto, as well as towards independent study projects that often focus on the buried history lurking below the surface of the school area.
Despite his loyal following, however, Greif isnít looking for disciples. Heís not even that interested in seeing his students pursue careers in history. "What I really want to do is to encourage a sense of the past, of traditions and an appreciation for past achievements," he says. "I want them to have a sense of wonderment about the Canadian condition Ė a sense of pride and patriotism."
If ever he had any off-hours, Greif says he would paint watercolours or do more gardening or indulge himself in designing and making jewellery. But that will have to wait until later. For now, he focuses most of his creative initiatives into encouraging his students towards finding their own artistic muses. For nearly two decades, he has overseen the painting of huge murals on the walls of every floor of Humberside depicting aspects of Canadian history Ė like the 60-foot Native Peoples Homage on the third floor Ė or reflecting flights of fancy, like the William BlakeĖ inspired Danteís Inferno or Shakespeareís A Midsummer Nightís Dream.
What remaining wall space is left has been devoted to a collection of archival photos showing the history of the school and west Toronto. He has plastered other walls with images of an assortment of famous Canadian historians, including some Humberside Collegiate alumni like Donald Creighton and A.L. Burt, who graduated in 1906. Not content with introducing his students exclusively to a bunch of historic "dead white guys," Greif spearheaded a collection of photos and biographies of Canadianfemale historical figures and role models, including Adrienne Clarkson, Roberta Bondar, Rosalie Abella and Nellie McClung.
Thatís the same Nellie McClung who famously said "Never retract, never explain, never apologize, get the thing done and let them howl." Itís a quote that can easily be applied to Greif himself. While they sometimes howl, more often than not they are cheering him loudly on.
Mel Greifís Governer Generalís Award for Excellence in Teaching History is just one of many achievements in an illustrious 31-year career.
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