By Paula Waatainen
If you are taking a few minutes to read this blog, there’s a better than average chance that we share the habit of orienting ourselves to place when we go somewhere new. Who else has walked this path? What was here before they put in that strip mall? Why is this here, and not over there? In 2020 “somewhere new” involved rediscovering places in our own communities, a glimmer of a silver lining in a dark year. In the fall of 2020 I introduced a new assignment to my EDTE 419 (Curriculum and Instruction: Social Studies) course for my Bachelor of Education students at Vancouver Island University (VIU). This new assignment was my way to share in the spirit of local discovery while building an understanding of historical and geographic thinking concepts. Although this assignment came from necessity, it has been a positive development in how I teach future social studies teachers that I will continue in the future.
In a normal year, many of my colleagues in the Faculty of Education at Vancouver Island University would organize interdisciplinary place-based field trips and collaborate with Cowichan, Snuneymuxw and Metis Elders in land-based work. As someone who has always thought about place-based education (PBE), this faculty is a great home for me. I grew up in Nanaimo with an ever-present mental map of my town deeply connected to family history. I recall my Dad and Grandpa driving past the old family farm in North Oyster, and having us stop to look at a parking lot at 110 Fry Street where my grandparents’ first home had stood. My wonderful grade 3 teacher Mrs. Phyllis Brett took my class on a walk to explore the history of the neighbourhood, and, pointing at my house, told us that there had been a dynamite and black powder storage hut in roughly that spot. Explosive news for an 8-year-old!
As Covid brought university classes online, the change I mourned most was the loss of PBE opportunities. Teresa Farrell and I took our students on PBE trips to the Fraser Canyon in 2018 and 2019, and planning for the 2020 trip was underway before COVID hit. Knowing that the Fraser Canyon is a place where geography and human history intersect in striking ways, we had taken students there to deepen principled practical knowledge (Bereiter, 2013) of PBE and historical and geographical thinking concepts. An article about this research project is forthcoming in an upcoming issue of Canadian Social Studies. In 2020 there would be no Canyon trip – not even a chance for optional downtown Nanaimo field trips for students living in the area.
I started to explore alternate ways of using my students’ prior PBE work to strengthen their understanding of historical and geographic thinking concepts. Could being apart let us do something richer than we could do face to face? After brainstorming with Lindsay Gibson from UBC and Glen Thielmann from UNBC, I drafted a new assignment. Students would film themselves visiting a potential field trip site in their community and would explain how they could engage students with relevant historical and geographical thinking concepts. I hoped that applying the concepts in real-world contexts would make them more tangible in the first weeks of the course.
The students created an impressive array of videos. Lyric imagines her students along the Nechako River in Prince George contemplating different perceptions of progress, while Jesse discusses how different peoples over time would perceive the significance of the Campbell River. Students would be invited wear their evidence detective hats to examine petroglyphs with Sarah, forestry equipment with Samantha, and when inferring the purpose for different floors in Nanaimo’s historic Bastion with Janay. Zach connected the causes and consequences of the demolition of a church for a condo project to demographic changes in the city, Sarah asks why Cumberland’s Chinatown no longer exists, while Adrienne invites students to learn about the significance of canoes at a workshop her Grandfather built at Stzuminus First Nation.
I wrote to some students to provide feedback and ask questions about their activity plans. Some accurately identified a connection to a concept, but assumed a role that was more tour guide than designers of inquiries or provocations that invited historical or geographic thinking. My suggestions were the typical nudges that teacher educators provide to their students. What really struck me about these videos is the infectious curiosity for a new place or era, like Brooke’s investigation into the long-disappeared Nanaimo Chinatown, or Emily’s enthusiastic spirit of inquiry about the black sand beaches of Ladysmith. Also, there is an ease with which all students began to experience place with a historical or geographic lens. More than 40 years after Mrs. Brett connected me to an element of the history of Departure Bay, Maggi paints a vivid picture of the Snuneymuxw winter village and burial ground that predated coal mine operations by 4,000 years, and asks students to consider continuity and change in that place. Perhaps this assignment also signals changes and continuities in how teachers engage students with place and history on field trips.
Will I use this assignment again next semester? Absolutely. In January I will be teaching post-baccalaureate students who began our program in September and have been learning exclusively online, so a PBE assignment may have even more value for them. As I tinker with the assignment, one aspect that I will keep is that the video is assigned early in the course, despite the cold January weather. The literature related to situating learning in authentic learning environments supports having students apply concepts as they first learn them, rather than building up to this later in the course. Assigning this video assignment in the second class of the fall semester meant that fewer of my students connected to concepts that we had yet to discuss in class, so this is a design flaw that I will try to work around next time.
I would like to thank my students for their generosity in allowing me to share their work. Please check out additional student videos at this site.
Paula Waatainen is a Social Studies Methods teacher educator at VIU and an Ed.D Candidate in the Learning Sciences at the University of Calgary.