By Sue Tiffin
While the books being read in Christine Carr’s Grade 9 English class are works of fiction, the topics and themes they introduce are leading the students to dig deeper and learn more about residential schools.
After the students read The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, a science fiction novel set in a post-apocalyptic Canada in which Indigenous people are hunted for their marrow, they created posters using quotes from the book to help bring awareness to the importance of Orange Shirt Day. On the posters, which were hung around the school, they included a QR code [a type of barcode that when scanned can link to more information] that led fellow students and staff at HHSS to websites featuring news articles and stories from survivors of residential schools.
Now, while studying As Long as the Rivers Flow, by James Bartleman, which is loosely based on residential schools that existed in northern Ontario, the students have studied residential schools and created an informative display to show what they’ve learned and help others understand what happened at those schools throughout Canada where unmarked graves are being found.
“A lot of students are surprised by that – they picture the odd one, but then learn they were all over Canada,” said Carr. “I think a lot of them have been surprised by how much went on at the schools. They knew the basics, that there were residential schools, that they were not good. We’ve had that discussion in class, with the role of fiction, and whether or not it’s good to tell these kinds of stories. A lot of students have expressed that it really makes it more real for them, even if it’s not a real person, you’re still getting how they felt, what they went through, and it kind of makes the experience more real. A lot of them have actually said so far that they’ve learned more about it and have been surprised by how much they’ve learned, how horrible the trauma was.”
Carr, alongside her fellow HHSS teachers and with a school board consultant, have been giving much consideration to which books are studied in class.
“We’re really trying to look at all the texts we do in English classes, and really see what the students can get out of them,” she said. “A lot of them have different perspectives, and really bring different equity and justice issues rather than the classic texts they might be used to. Within the last few years, a lot of teachers have been trying to incorporate texts by different authors.”
Discussions during study of the texts can be difficult, and Carr wrote home prior to beginning the book study to let parents know the students would be reading about and talking about difficult topics. Parents were all on board, with some noting they thought it was important to talk about this.
“It can be hard at times, really trying to make sure the classrooms are basically a safe space,” she said. “These types of books also come with some difficult topics to talk about. I’ve found that the students really seem to like learning about things that they feel matter. We talk about the role that youth can play in creating change in the world.”
The students are also reading short stories, poems and will read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare. Carr notes there has been much debate on whether students should continue reading Shakespeare nowadays.
“You can use it as a way to connect with Shakespeare’s time, but a lot of the themes are universal – that’s the approach I try to take to it, because there’s a lot of things you can still connect to today’s world and still learn,” she said. “You can learn the impact he made on literature.”
Carr said a mix of texts that include contemporary books works well for the students in her class.
“For me I’m just trying to find things that students connect with, and that they walk away feeling they learned something,” she said. “Not just, OK, check off another book read. And hopefully it helps inspire them to keep learning and keep growing their own knowledge as well after they leave the classroom. I’m hoping – what I’d love – is that students then seek out books from other authors and different perspectives. Hopefully it helps broadens their reading.”