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Giving History a Face: A Grade 8 Class Visits Canada's Archives

Deanne Wilson
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Last winter, on the recommendation of a parent, I took my rather large and demanding class to the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) to take part in its  Lest We Forget project. It was my first year teaching grade 8 and I was struggling a bit to choose a field trip venue that would link to the history curriculum and be interesting for my students. It was near the end of term and I was determined to have a wrap-up that would leave my students thinking.

I had some reservations about the venue, as did most of my students, who wanted to go to the movies. We were all proven wrong: the experience exceeded all our expectations.

Lest We Forget is a project that provides students with access to original military documents of individuals who served in the First and Second World Wars. Students research the life and compile a biography of one person. (See sidebar for more details.)

Some classes begin their Lest We Forget project by finding names of veterans in their community. I began by contacting Debbie Jiang, a former teacher who co-ordinates the project. I provided her with information about the learning needs/exceptionalities and genders of my students. This helped her select names of the First World War soldiers and nurses my students would research.

Once we arrived at the LAC we were ushered into a conference room and treated like historians. Debbie Jiang gave a brief multimedia presentation to refresh students’ understanding and to provide a context in which to view the original service files they would be receiving.

The students were amazed when they received the original documents. These included attestation papers, medal cards, memorial cross cards, and records of service. Students didn’t have to wear gloves (on smaller hands gloves can do more damage), but they did receive some guidelines for handling the files. Despite my initial apprehension about my students handling primary source documents, they did so with incredible care and focus.

So often students are handed secondary source documents and instructed to understand historical personalities and events. Receiving primary source documents made the experience real for them and fostered a genuine willingness to figure things out for themselves – the ultimate goal that we have for all our students.

The process of piecing together lives from folders full of handwritten military forms and medical certificates was a powerful experience on many levels. Students were keen and focused on getting all the information that they could extract from the files. LAC staff made available secondary source documents for further investigation. These included various books, both fiction and non-fiction, and a video clip.

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