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Historically above and beyond for students

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Matt Henderson just wants to be the opposite of his history teacher when he was in high school. He wants, in short, to be dynamic, engaging, and knowledgeable. 

"My experience in high school history was dismal," said Henderson. "It was brutal. I can’t even articulate how useless it was. Our teacher did not even have the content knowledge to just tell stories."

For his efforts, the St. John’s-Ravenscourt School Canadian history teacher has been nominated for, and placed on, a 26-candidate-long short list for the Governor General’s History Awards for Excellence in Teaching.

"I feel a little foolish about it," said the modest Henderson, who believes he was just doing his job. "We’re supposed to engage kids and provide them with (educational) experiences so they become curious and so they want to produce things in an authentic way in a public realm. So when people ask ‘how do you do this?’ or ‘why do you do this?’ I think it’s just, that’s what we’re paid to (do). It’s kind of nice as well, though."

Of the top 26, six winners will receive $2,500, a gold medal, and a trip to Ottawa for the award ceremonies Nov. 19.

The final six will be chosen later this summer and the announcement will be made closer to the ceremony, said Deborah Morrison, president and CEO of Canada’s History Society, based in Winnipeg.

"Matt Henderson did an exceptional job at putting the kids actually at the centre of the learning by actually having them go and research the history, write the history. That was an extraordinary event in itself," Morrison said. "But Matt even took it one step forward to actually demonstrate the impact that history can have. He worked with the kids to publish the book, and then have them go to the broader public and have them speak about what they’ve learned." 

After bringing his Grade 11 Canadian history students to the archives at Canada’s History Society and seeing how engaged they were, he asked them if they would be interested in writing a book about Red River (now Winnipeg), the first European settlement in Manitoba.
Henderson and his students found that the 19th-century treaty issues related greatly to the Idle No More Movement.

"We thought ‘whoa, this is really weird,’" Henderson said. "Because there were treaties signed back then between Peguis and Selkirk that are still not honoured, and these are grievances that First Nations have from then. So we thought, how did people sort of get along in Red River and how do people get along now?"

Each student wrote a segment of the book,  called "Because of a Hat," and then spoke to the public and media about it.

"That was great for me because I could just sit here and just listen to a kid talk about what they learned," said Henderson. "I just thought ‘wow, this is way better than an exam or any other assessment.’"

The book was released on Louis Riel Day, and though he doesn’t anticipate writing another book next year, a benefit of being nominated for the award is that Henderson has been able to exchange ideas with other nominees. He said he’s found some he may use.

Henderson said the most important thing a teacher can do to engage their students is, simply, to talk to them.

"Talk to your students. What’s interesting to them? What are they interested in? What are their experiences? What have they experienced in the world?" said Henderson. "Don’t just lecture about the War of 1812 . . . To connect with each experience of each student is really critical, or you’re going to lose them."

Connie Wyatt Anderson of Oscar Lathlin Collegiate in Opaskwayak Cree Nation, and Jennifer Janzen of the University of Winnipeg Collegiate in Winnipeg, also feature on the short list.

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