Classroom Practice

Acknowledging the Past

Acknowledging the past.

When it comes time to reflect on the past in our History and Social Studies class, it is not always easy as educators to know how to acknowledge injustices that have occurred. We have special days, and even months, set aside for us to collectively reflect on the past, and to try to celebrate where we are today by learning about the ways identity have impacted the history of North America. Sometimes, however, we just do not know where to start when introducing students to tough topics like racism, civil rights, the Holocaust, and genocide. To help, we’re going to walk you through a few examples of topics you can introduce on these subjects in your classroom. There are three specific remembrances that we’d like to share with you as examples, and talk a little bit about what Learning Bird is doing to showcase educational resources on them.

Black History Month

Schools across North America are celebrating and honouring the histories, struggles, challenges and successes of peoples of African descent. This special focus is often referred to as Black History month. In Canada, we have important citizens we can use to talk about injustices that have been a part of our history, and ways African Canadians have overcome challenging experiences in their struggle for civil liberties. Viola Desmond, for example, has just been nominated as the first Canadian woman to be represented on Canadian money this past year. But did you know the reason why? Viola fought against segregation of the races, and the injustices placed upon people who were not white. She opened a beauty school for black women who wished to be hair stylists but could not go to regular beauty schools because of the colour of their skin. Viola is also famous for a notorious event that led to her arrest, when she insisted she had the right to sit wherever she pleased in a movie theatre in New Glasgow Nova Scotia on November 8th, 1946. She was arrested for this offense and was eventually charged with tax evasion (for the 1 cent difference between a main floor regular seat, and the balcony ‘coloured’ people seat).

Viola passed away before the Government of Canada officially exonerated her for this ‘crime’, but her memory is now honoured by all of Canada through her presence on the new edition of our ten dollar bill. It is important to showcase African Canadians throughout the year in our history and social studies classes so that we can share the successes and challenges of all Canadians. When preparing to introduce Black History month in school, try to integrate some of these excellent resources on African Canadians, and the experiences they have had in building Canada. One resource in particular, on the experiences of relocation and racism of the people of Africville in Nova Scotia, Canada, is an example of how important it is for us to recognize and acknowledge the poor treatment and abuse African Canadians have suffered at the hands of the government.

The Holocaust

January 27, 2017 was the day many in North America and Europe recognized the atrocities committed against European Jews during the Holocaust on International Holocaust Memorial Day. In most North American education curriculum, we teach the Holocaust from a historical perspective, sharing stories and narratives of survivors and victims of the Third Reich and its allies. Another way we as educators can help our students to better understand such an impactful historical event is to integrate it into other areas of our classrooms. When we bridge connections to current events and topics when discussing important historical events, the elements that can at times be lost to young people are brought to life. Novel studies, for example, create excellent opportunities for students to situate themselves in the events of the past. Novels such as Night by Elie Wiesel and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak can be used to broach the difficult subjects surrounding the Holocaust through the voices of young people.Preparing students to tackle such a tough topic, even in a novel, is an important first step. Balancing the events of the Holocaust with the individual experiences of novel characters is key.

Another interesting link educators can make is to compare other instances of injustice with the evidence of persecution during WWII. We can use texts such as Shakespeare’s A Merchant of Venice to discuss what discrimination can feel like, as evidenced in Shylock’s speech “do we not bleed”. Ask students to compare Shylock’s speech to what they know about the Holocaust and Germany’s treatment of Jewish people. Once this link has been established, introduce news articles and instances of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in our current day climate. Showing students how history repeats itself in different yet similar ways will better help them connect to the events of the past. For some help with how to do this in your classroom, see the following resources on integrating cross-curricular approaches to the Holocaust

Reflecting on Genocide: Canada

In September of 2015, the United Nations General Assembly designated the December 9th as the “International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime”. On this day in 1948, in the wake of the crimes committed against humanity during World War II and the Nazi Holocaust, the UN adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Still in effect today, the Genocide Convention provides the central definitions of genocide crimes in international law. It serves as the international community’s primary tool for identifying the wide range of genocidal acts and taking steps to make sure they never happen again.

The Genocide Convention positions genocide as a global atrocity – a crime against individual humans and a crime against humanity. On December 9th, the UN encourages states, communities, and educators to continue drawing attention to the Genocide Convention and the international community’s responsibility for fighting genocide in our past, present, and future. This day is also meant to be an opportunity to reflect on and honour the victims of past genocidal crimes.

When discussing genocide in the classroom, educators might want to consider taking extra care to highlight the wide spectrum of genocidal acts and the people that they impact. Learners should be challenged to exercise their research skills, broaden their own understanding of genocide, and draw connections between individual case studies and global patterns. One particularly constructive project, especially in the Canadian context, might be to apply these new critical lenses to Indigenous histories. Drawing parallels between genocide narratives across the world and the lived experience of the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island might lead to learners toward a greater understanding of recognized genocides – and a stronger awareness of the work that still remains to be done.

Through these and other case studies, educators should also help their students cultivate a balance of empathy, historical objectivity, and self-care. Building this toolkit can equip learners to bring a new perspective to events in global history, recognizing that genocides are not isolated crimes against humanity and violations of international law, but symptoms of much larger systemic and holistic problems that need to be acknowledged and healed.

Here are also a few classroom activities from the Canadian Museum of Human Rights that can best help explore human rights in all these cases:


About the author

Kelsey Catherine Schmitz

A PhD, researcher and educator in the field of technology integration and digital identities, Kelsey Catherine explores the impact digital media has on young people, and what role youth culture has on classroom practice. She also spends far too much time playing League of Legends. You can follow her on Twitter @KelseyCMS.

Leave a Comment