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Teacher turns new page on native studies in schools

A Project of Heart initiative that netted a teacher national attention started with one student.

Sylvia Smith, along with her Grade 10 class, was studying residential schools. For at least one student, the history of the institutions and their lasting impact on Aboriginals in Canada was new.

Finding the textbook inadequate, Smith said the student delved further into the topic, uncovering the history of assimilation and physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

The student was appalled, said Smith.

“History for many students is a pretty boring subject and I guess I found out pretty quickly that it’s not boring if you bring out the stuff that’s never been taught before,” she said.

The 63 words in the textbook weren’t enough but before she could address this in the classroom, the well travelled history and native studies teacher from Allan, Sask., had to go back to school herself.

“The invisibility of indigenous people, coming from that sort of farming background where it’s pretty European-Canadian, it didn’t hit the radar,” said Smith. “I was terribly embarrassed. I couldn’t believe that I could’ve missed this. I know my family didn’t tell me much, but neither did my teachers and neither did my university.”

With that impetus, Smith, with guidance from University of Regina faculty where she’s doing graduate work, set about creating Project of Heart, a hands-on and interactive education toolkit designed to engage students “in a deeper exploration of indigenous traditions in Canada and the history of Indian residential schools.”

It’s a project for which Smith was awarded the 2011 Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching in December.

Educational resources already exist, such as the Treaty Kit that looks at the treaty relationship between First Nations and Canada, but Smith’s project specifically addresses residential schools, combining several disciplines and connecting students/participants with the Aboriginal community.

Participants learn more about residential schools before conducting further research into a specific school. There’s also an art component involving small wooden tiles. Elders or survivors are also active participants, interacting with the group.

Since undertaking the project in 2007, more than 50 schools and community groups across the country have taken part. The project was also featured at an event held by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“It is hoped that POH will impact on the hearts and minds of those who know little about the devastating effect of the residential school experience on generations of people and will move us from knowledge to action,” according to the Project of Heart website.

“It really resonated with me, because I realized how ignorant I was,” said Smith. “I’ve been teaching history for 20 years and I didn’t know any of this stuff.”

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