An Assignment Using Storytelling to Teach and Learn History

Published on September 21, 2021

Jo McCutcheon

For many years, I have wondered whether or not learning resources and in undergraduate courses related to the state-supported, religious-run institutions established to separate Indigenous children from their families, communities, and cultures would continue to have resonance among students.  I felt that they may have covered this topic extensively in both elementary, middle, high school and other university courses.  However, it has been important to remind my teaching self that we have core curriculum items we must always include in undergraduate survey classes. Teaching about these institutions remains central to helping students obtain the tools to research, think, write critically, and understand historical contexts of the past.

One assignment that has helped when teaching about the experiences of those who attended these institutions focuses on learning from either first-person accounts or works of fiction. In the past year, I have drawn from works published in Australia, Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Canada. In almost all survey classes that I teach at the undergraduate level, three to six hours of lectures directly related to colonial policies, education, and culture. These lectures and related activities support this assignment outlined and is presented as several options for students’ major research project. 

This assignment is built on the premise that learning about the past can be enriched by reading novels and first-person accounts.[1] Each year, I’ve added and removed books from the list students can read, and invited students to suggest titles in cases where I have not yet read them. Here is a recent example of the selected works students may choose from:  

Beatrice Culleton Mosionier, In Search of April Raintree, 1983
Richard Wagamese, Indian Horse, 2012 or Medicine Walk, 2014
Michelle Good, Five Little Indians, 2020 (Award Winning)
Maria Campbell, Halfbreed, 1973 (updated and re-released, 2019)
Joseph Auguste Merasty with David Carpenter, The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir Saskatchewan: University of Regina Press, 2015
Bev Sellers, They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School, 2013
Jesse Thistle, From the Ashes: My Story of Being Métis, Homeless, And Finding My Way. 2019

Kim Scott, Taboo. Boston: Small Beer Press, 2019.
Claire G. Coleman, Terra Nullis. Boston: Small Beer Press, 2018.
Jane Harrison, Becoming Kirrali LewisMagabala Books Aboriginal Corporation, 2016

As part of the students’ major research project, students write an essay and analysis that focuses on what can be learned about the past from a novel or memoir. Leading up to the assignment students are provided with the assessment rubric and time is taken to provide examples of how they can approach this research and analysis. Each section below explains how their submissions are evaluated using four criteria.

Knowledge and understanding of the historical theme or period: 40 marks

As a preliminary step students are asked to submit the selected topic, novel, or book and identify at least five secondary sources and relevant primary sources that support the analysis of their selected book. This initial step provides an opportunity to engage with students about their selected topic, to ensure they have identified key secondary sources, and to assess whether students can identify secondary sources using course materials. The syllabus includes a section of key resources, documents, and materials that are relevant to multiple course topics. In classes where a textbook is used, students are asked to identify secondary sources mentioned in the textbook. Students should demonstrate that they have undertaken historical research to deepen their understanding of the book they are analyzing. They are also directed to follow-up on sources noted in the author’s acknowledgement or notes on sources.  In this section, students are asked to demonstrate an understanding of the historical events, issues, people the story or narrative depicts. Students are expected to ensure that any suggested sources have been used in their final assignment.

Knowledge and understanding of the novel/book: 35 marks

This section asks students to demonstrate their careful reading of the book. They should demonstrate an understanding of historical thinking by focusing on change over time, as well as the importance of place, time, and perspective. They are directed to provide sufficient information and context about the novel so that the value of the novel as a source for understanding a specific historical topic is understood. They are also asked to include a description of a/the main character(s) of the novel. Students should also think about when the story takes place, considering both the span of time and historical events. Location and place are important for understanding the context of the work students are analysing.  Students are encouraged to consider how language about time and place may have changed. Finally, students are required to consider the focus of the story and what can be learned about Indigenous People, women, children or other communities. Students assess how effectively the work provides insight into a specific event/challenge/issue from an Indigenous, gendered or child’s perspective. They are encouraged to effectively summarize the work they have read and to also identify key quotations that support their analysis. 

Knowledge and research about the author: 15 marks

This element focuses on the development of strong critical research and thinking skills throughout the course. One way to demonstrate this is to conduct research about the author including biographical information, a consideration of their education, and their body of work. Students are also asked to consider how the selected book or novel was received by various media. For authors writing in Canada, radio programs like The Next Chapter, hosted by Shelagh Rogers on CBC, can be an excellent resource (this program exists as a podcast as well).  A new podcast, StoryKeepers hosted by Waubgeshig Rice and Jennifer David provides a resource from Indigenous perspectives for students to consider. In particular, the first episode with Daniel Heath Justice, “Why Indigenous Literatures Matter” provides further support for this assignment as it articulates and describes the importance of these stories. Students are also encouraged to consider the social media presence of authors and websites focused on literature, storytelling, and first-person experiences. By encouraging students to listen to the conversations focused on their selected book, a different way of learning is supported.   

Presentation and Mechanics: 10 marks

Finally, students are evaluated on how clearly they have written their analysis and assessment.  In class, we take some time to discuss writing well-organized paragraphs with specific details from their selected books and novels. They are expected to present their work using clear organization and include basic elements like pagination, an assignment title, and digital file saving conventions for work submitted online.[2]  These elements also reinforce good habits for other classes and future work activities

In some classes, a class group in Zotero or Facebook is used to share sources and to encourage students to collaborate and share their ideas.[3] In recognition of the importance of learning to document and cite research, students are directed to use Chicago Manual of Style references. In the first two weeks of class, students are introduced to research and reference management skills. Some students choose to use Zotero for the class and they learn how to save their websites, podcasts, book reviews and other sources so that the reference style is not overwhelming when they submit their major research project. Throughout the term, students also undertake shorter written reflections and receive feedback that can be applied to their final projects. Feedback for all submitted work, reinforces the importance of consistency and applying feedback to future assignments.  I reiterate the importance of ensuring that all resources accessed are included in their bibliography and this practice opens-up discussions about annotated footnotes that provide students with an opportunity to engage in a dialogue with their reader when appropriate. I also provide specific stylistic guidelines about contractions and colloquial language.

This assignment does not work for all students and is not appropriate for all students. The undergraduate courses I teach are organized around finding ways and work to accommodate students.  Students have the option of writing a history essay, creating history (material culture projects, podcasts, digital projects like websites and Omeka exhibits), or initiating a direct-action project that requires historical research to understand contemporary issues. However, this assignment has been one successful avenue for teaching the history of the state-supported, religious-run institutions established to separate Indigenous children from their families, communities and cultures. It also allows students some flexibility to choose a novel that they are interested in and expands their understanding and interest in history beyond a traditional history paper, while still learning critical research and thinking skills.

Do you have other suggestions for works that could be included on this list? We’d love to hear them! Let us know by tagging @CndHistAssoc on Twitter and using the hashtag #CHATeachingResourcesChat

[1] When I first developed this assignment, the focus was only on works of fiction.  Over the past several years, this assignment has been adapted to include first-person accounts. 
[2] This element teaches students to manage and organize their digital files with information in their saved file information. Files like, “my history paper” simply the book tile or date are standardized for students with the date, their name and assignment information for example.
[3] I have been adapting this assignment for about 10 years.  I have used it to teach women’s history, the history of children and youth, histories of First Nations, Inuit and Métis, comparative Indigenous Nations and colonial states and in US survey courses.

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