An inspirational project has helped Swift Current Comprehensive High School teacher Christopher Garner be selected as one of 25 finalists for the 2013 Governor General's History Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Garner is the lone Saskatchewan finalist for this prestigious recognition, with the Governor General's History Award for Excellence in Teaching program saluting the outstanding contributions of history and social studies teachers over the past 17 years.
Garner, a third year teacher at SCCHS, helped bring Canadian history from the 18th century alive to his Grade 12 students through a multi-discipline project where students painted classroom ceiling tiles with artwork reflecting the historical events they were studying. He previously did this visual essay project during the first year at the High School.
"Time and time again when you're teaching history you hear the same thing - this is boring, it's not fun, it's not engaging. And with this project it turns from boring and not fun to, hey, now we're having a hands-on approach with our learning. We're actually owning a piece of the learning," Garner said during an interview during the final week of classes in June. "To see students have that ownership when they can walk in the room two years later and still see their product hanging on the ceiling, they have that sense of pride. And when you have that sense of pride you seem to want to be more engaged with the material."
By challenging his students with more than just repeating key dates and facts, his assignment is a recognition that teachers do have to learn how to reach students with different learning styles.
"There has to be a differentiated approach so that you can create and teach and almost cater to the different learning styles of each student. If you can do that, whether it's even just differentiating your lessons with a lecture in a text book, and a video, and then a project. And then at the end of all that have a test. Or in a mini lesson you might have a brief introduction where you're lecturing just very briefly, followed by a short textbook reading and a video clip, all three of those combined you're getting three different learning styles all in one."
The Grade 12 duo of Sean Campbell and Austin Plewis were part of a five-student group that produced one ceiling panel reflecting the Quebec Act of 1774, with their project symbolizing the Act's impact on that period of Canadian history.
"For me, I'm a visual person," Plewis said. "It allowed me to understand it quite a bit better by putting an actual picture in front of me rather than just words."
Campbell said their visual project was made more vivid when combined with a written essay.
"For me there was both the essay portion and this helped out because the essay, I understand things through writing it out, learning about the subject that way. But also the ceiling tile helped bring a picture to it, so when I'm trying to think of what the Quebec Act did, I remember more of the symbols that I used on there than the actual information that I wrote in the essay. So both of them really worked together to help further my learning of the subject," Campbell explained.
Grade 12 student Shay Smith was part of a group presenting a tile on the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which occurred 250 years ago but, its impact on Canadian history still resonates today.
"I'm kind of a visual learner as well. Having to draw it out and apply it in a way that wasn't just drawing out what happened, you have to apply it to something (tangible)...it just kind of helps you understand how everything sort of fell together."
Smith had also done a visual essay project in Grade 10 and enjoyed the chance to do it for a second time.
"I personally liked it. I had fun," she said, compared to simply writing a history essay. "It just helps you learn everything a whole lot better."
She said the project sticks with you, and she noted she could still remember all the symbolism on her former tile
"You kind of leave a piece of yourself here," she added.
Garner said having an engaging strategy for teaching history helps make the subject relevant to students.
"Anytime you sit down and say 'take these notes down, memorize these facts, memorize these dates', you're missing out on understanding," he said, adding students need to know why history is important and understand its overall impact, and not just reciting facts.
"That's really the direction that educators are trying to go, it's right now I think just a new movement that we're trying to get on board with is the whole differentiated instruction."
"It's really about creating a community of learning, rather than just a linear, teacher-centred approach."
Garner answered there is no specific term to describe his teaching style, but he does have a simple philosophy when entering the classroom.
"Honestly, when I enter in a classroom, if I'm not having fun the student's aren't having fun."
"You need to be enthusiastic. You need to be flexible. You need to understand that kids today have a lot going on in their lives. If I can get the learning across in a fun way, where there is understanding and there is learning, then it's meaningful."
Garner thanked Canada's History Society for this recognition, but was quick to deflect the spotlight.
"It's not about personal recognition. I think it really showcases what teachers across the country...it's the recognition of the profession that I think goes a long way."
"In our school, I know for a fact that if there was a science award or an english award or a math award, we have several candidates that are all doing high quality, creative approaches to their teaching."
"With or without a public recognition, I owe it to myself and the students and the community, to always be pushing myself and never be caught standing still. If I'm not looking to improve, or if I stop trying to improve in my practice, I'm not achieving what I want to achieve."
A national panel of judges will select six recipients out of the list of 25 finalists. Those selected as winners will receive $2,500, a gold medal and a trip this fall to the Awards ceremonies in Ottawa. Their respective schools will also be awarded $1,000. The six recipients will also be invited to participate in the 70th anniversary commemorations of D-Day in Normandy in June 2014.