Education strategist and author of the UBC Press-published book Transforming the Canadian History Classroom: Imagining a New “We,”Samantha Cutrara says today’s students often wonder how they are supposed to get excited about studying a past that doesn’t reflect their present.
As we settle into Black History Month, the Toronto-based Cutrara’s work is an important reminder that we are an ethnically and culturally diverse place and that needs to be represented in our discussions about our past.
Question: What is the universal transformation that all history classrooms can benefit from?
Answer: For the adults in the room to be OK with not knowing everything and to be open to historical exploration with their students. In other words, educators don’t own the stories. It is not for them to bestow these stories onto ignorant youth. Youth aren’t ignorant. They are full of questions and are bursting to understand the world around them. How can we develop our teaching based on their desire for learning?
Q: When a student is able to connect their own experience with the past, how does that benefit their future?
A: The past is far more diverse than we think it is. The more students can understand the diversity of experiences, the more they learn about resistance and reliance in the past, the more they can say “they did it, so can I,” the more students can start mapping a future with more options than they may see in their present. But it isn’t just about this connection, but rather connect to the complexities of history, just like they are exploring the complexities in their own lives.
Q: What is the first step a teacher should take in a bid to excite students about history?
A: Believe that students are already excited!
Don’t make a separation about students’ non-school interests and school-based content. As I explore in the book, it is important to demonstrate to students how their interests are important and scholastic. This is the way in. I taught about archives using student-generated examples of fast food and video games — you’ve never seen students so interested in archives.
Q: You say in the beginning of the book that you left a comfortable job in your field to fulfill a commitment you made to a group of 15-year-old students. Can you expand on that and the actual commitment?
A: It takes a lot to take 15-year-olds to trust you, especially 15-year-olds who haven’t had good experiences in school. I was so privileged to gain the trust of students in the schools in which I worked. I told them that I wanted them to participate in the research because what they told me could change the way people taught history in the future. One student said in one of the group interviews that she wanted participate to help make these changes, but then she said, “if anyone actually listens.” This phrase haunted me after my research and I knew it was my responsibility to share their experiences with as wide an audience as possible. My goal for this research, and this book, was to bring these students’ voices closer to the surface of conversations about Canadian history education. And to respect their desire for learning at the core of how we teach.
Q: What can people who do not teach history take away from this book and put to use in their daily lives?
A: I think this book is really about Canadian identity and the ways we need to rethink what and who is part of the ways we understand Canadian identity. I think that being explicit about how we understand nation and national identity can allow all of us — whether we formally teach Canadian history or not — to take action toward being more inclusive and equity-focused in the future.
Q: Can’t let a history expert get by without asking: What do you think historians will write about 2020?
A: I’ve spoken with a lot of historians and history educators about this question in my YouTube series Pandemic Pedagogy.
I think historians will write about the crucible of anxieties during this time. I would like that historians also write about the widespread changes that were made following COVID and the resurgence of widespread Black Lives Matter protests, but we’re not there yet. But one thing we’ve spoken about a lot in the video series is how we are able to see the brokenness of the system in a much more augmented way than we did before COVID. How we will use this information to chart a new future remains to be seen.
Q: As a student yourself, were you a true history nerd (good thing obviously)?
A: Haha! You know, I wasn’t. I was most enamoured by English courses. I’m really drawn into storytelling. I learned histories that were taught through immersive storytelling: The Anne of Green Gables movies, the American Girl book series, and dress-up and living history museums. This is still a vision for how I like to think about the possibilities of history education.
Q: Do you have an era or time you are drawn to? In other words, what subject matter is most repeated in your book collection?
A: As the list above suggests, I am drawn to the mid-19th century, but also the mid-20th century. I have a large collection of vintage-style glasses and dresses and my favourite TV shows are from the 1960s.
Books most repeated in my book collection are on/about women, histories across the Black diaspora, transnational journeys and archives or traces of the past.
I loved The Meeting Point book series written by Austin Clarke about the experiences of Caribbean women who came to Canada as part of the West Indian Domestic Scheme in the 1950s and ’60s. In 1961, Maclean’s magazine called these women the loneliest immigrants, and Clarke explores this aspect of experience but also community building amongst the women. We also got to talk about these novels in the research I feature in my book.
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