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Teaching Residential Schools

I've just spent the last eight classes working with a group of four young men in my grade ten social studies course learning about residential schools in Canada. I have to admit, residential schools is the hardest topic that I teach. It always brings out a variety of emotions from students and myself. Everything from anger to sadness to feeling the urgency to act is displayed in my classroom when we learn about residential schools.

For those outside of Canada, and even those within Canada for that matter, Residential schools were a genocidal policy committed by the federal Canadian government in order to "kill the Indian in the child". The government's goal was to assimilate Indigenous children into the white mainstream society by forcibly removing children from their families to attend church run residential schools. Students at residential schools were not allowed to speak their traditional languages or practice their cultural traditions. If a student attempted either of these acts, they often faced physical, sexual, or verbal abuse. Many students never returned to their families as their lives were taken or lost at residential schools. The horror of attending these schools has caused trauma for many of the survivors, which can be passed down from generation to generation. Residential schools are a legacy of Canada's colonial past and present with the effects of residential schools still being felt today in many Indigenous communities.

Before teachers attempt to take on an issue that is so highly emotional and traumatic, we need to ensure that our learning environment is a safe space for students. It's essential that we talk to our students about what to expect when learning about these types of issues and how we can make sure that our language and actions inside the classroom can be used to make sure everyone is safe, respected and valued.

Once I was able to establish a sense of community in the classroom, I began teaching about residential schools and noticed that it was having a greater than usual impact on my students. My class size is a bit smaller with only four students (for those that don't know, I work at a school for high-risk youth and my class size usually hovers around 10-12 students), which has given me a ton of flexibility as to how we approached learning about residential schools.

Out of the four young men, two of them are First Nations and two are Caucasian. About 90% of my school's population is Aboriginal, so it is important that I cover this topic in a delicate manner as many students have relatives who attended residential schools or understand the impacts that residential schools have had on their communities and families. What was interesting this year was the growing solidarity between all four of my students as each day passed while learning about residential schools. The four young men demonstrated the usual range of emotions, but the two young white men became increasingly angry towards the Canadian governments treatment of Aboriginal people in Canada. This anger was compounded when my First Nations students told stories about the current conditions on reserves and how their communities have been impacted by this historical and continuing injustice.

As most social studies teachers know, we can't just get our students worked up about an issue without providing hope and a way forward. My students and I talked at length about the idea of reconciliation. All four students believed and know that it's possible for both settlers and Aboriginal peoples to share and prosper from the land together peacefully. The hard part was, how do we get there?

After a lengthy discussion about reconciliation and brainstorming a number of ideas, my students felt that their best course of action was to write a personal letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper about this issue. Each student felt very passionate about doing this so they all wrote their own individual letter, which I will be mailing off to Mr. Harper very soon. On top of this though, is an art project that we will be completing together as a class to demonstrate what reconciliation and justice can look like for our country. It's extremely important that when you teach about residential schools that you do not just show the horrors of the past, but also couple it with a social justice/reconciliation action that students can participate in to make sure they are part of the process that can move our country forward. If we just leave learning to the four walls of the classroom, then we limit our students experiences. Allow their ideas and expressions to be heard by as many people as possible, especially when it comes to issues like these.

I was extremely proud of these four young men as I watched them come together as a class this week. They reminded me of the power that education can have for students when the learning is meaningful to their lives and communities.

Every teacher in Canada has a responsibility to teach the truth about Canada's history. It does not matter if the curriculum you follow has incorporated residential schools into it or not, you have to teach about it if you want your students to truly understand how Canada was founded and how those past events impact our world today. It's also imperative that we don't just give a few classes to this topic but ensure that it is a continuing part of our conversations in social studies as it not only impacts the past, but also the present.

I'll leave you with a list of resources that I use to teach about Residential Schools. I hope you find them useful for both you and your students.

Residential School Teaching Resources:

1. Project of Heart - I encourage every teacher to go through this process for teaching about residential schools. Packed full of amazing resources.

2. Where Are The Children? - On-line art and education exhibit about Residential Schools.

3. Stephen Harper's Apology

4. The 8th Fire - This is a great four part documentary about the state of relations in Canada between Aboriginal people and settlers. I usually show at least episode two as it deals with some of the more historical issues, however, it is a great series to show in full to get students talking about reconciliation.

5. We Were Children - Excellent film about the horrors of residential schools.