Rural teachers’ award one for the history books
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Tracey Salamondra and Carla Cooke are used to teaching history, not making it.
The public school teachers put instruction at a K-12 school in Hartney, a town in southwestern Manitoba whose population is under 500, on a national stage this year.
They were named 2022 recipients of the Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching — one of the most prestigious social science prizes in Canada — in recognition of an assignment they created to challenge students to explore local legacies and the benefits of living rurally in the 21st century.
“There’s some stigma that comes with a rural education. A lot of people look down on that, and see it as lesser than an education that you’d get in the city,” said Faith Thomas, a member of Hartney School’s Class of 2022.
“This whole project was a whole new experience for us, to really be a part of our community and communities near us, and get to know people and their story, and how it fits into Canada’s history. It just made me appreciate my rural education so much more.”
Salamondra, who primarily teaches social studies and mathematics, was approached in 2020 with an opportunity to have her students create placards for an interpretive trail in Elgin, a neighbouring agricultural community with an even smaller number of residents than Hartney.
It was then she connected with Cooke, her colleague in charge of English Language Arts, to turn the initiative into a cross-curricular project.
A cohort of Grade 11 students was tasked with researching Elgin to choose key historical events worthy of being inscribed on commemorative plaques and later, writing complementary narratives that have since been posted for the public.
Salamondra noted history courses typically revolve around textbooks that outline noteworthy events that happened far away.
“Students started to see bigger themes that we talk about in history and realize that it happened here. Instead of starting from the outside looking in, I think it helped to start from the inside looking out,” she said.
The project required students to visit the Elgin & District Historical Museum, undertake research via newspaper archives, call up local leaders, find interview subjects via social media, and ask neighbours about their hometown’s history.
One of the 23 final interpretive panels centres around the life of an Elgin soldier whose diary is an artifact in the community’s museum. Although the journal entries detail an individual’s experience in the Second World War, the social studies teacher said the universality of his story became clear to her students.
Elgin’s heyday in the 1920s and ‘30s, owing to massive wheat production and the railway, its decline due to the automobile industry and several devastating fires, as well as the resilience of entrepreneurial residents who braved change, were among key takeaways for pupils.
“As soon as they can connect themselves to the community, they take complete ownership and pride in what they’re doing and the learning is exponential,” Cooke said, adding she watched students become more confident learners and responsible citizens throughout the process.
It is projects like these that allow students to understand the “unwritten advantages” of growing up in a rural area, Cooked noted.
When reached by phone in Calgary, where Peyton Boulanger moved to pursue post-secondary education after graduating from high school, the 18-year-old said she missed her tight-knit hometown.
“Of course, there’s things you miss out on: you have to drive to get clothes, we have one grocery store, but also… if something happened to someone, everyone was there to support you,” Boulanger said.
As she researched the region with classmates in 2020-21, Boulanger said she learned about the historic popularity of legions in the area and how Indigenous people, including her Red River Métis relatives, were subject to forced assimilation, not unlike racialized people living in urban centres.
Ultimately, she said the assignment and related award have renewed her appreciation for the place where she grew up.
“No one knows what Hartney is ever so I think it’s just really cool that a tiny school could reach the same level of education that other big schools with all the resources (did),” she added.
Other projects that earned educators a 2022 Governor General’s History Award were based in cities including Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax.
Salamondra and Cooke earned a $2,500 prize. Their school received an additional $1,000 in recognition of their work.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.