Monday, May 9, 2011

Heritage Fairs and Passion-Based Learning

"I have a vegetable garden just like my pop did when he was a boy.  Can I do my project about that?"
"Can I do mine about my great aunt?  She used to be a postmistress and she used a telegraph like Marconi!"
"Miss, what was the name of that novel you read from? You know the one about the boy who was in the  Great War.  My great-grandfather was in that war."
" I'm doing mine about going fishing with Pop, even though I'm a girl."

One of the most intensely busy times in my classroom each year is when we take on our annual Heritage Fair projects.  Each student must choose a topic that will include various aspects of research, usually on an aspect of  our rich local history.  The goal is to find some personally interesting story in the closets, collections or cupboards of our homes and share them with classmates and the community at large!

We are fortunate to live in a historic community that has been settled for over four hundred years!  This small community on the most eastern coast of Canada  is said to be the landfall of Giovanni Caboto - John Cabot, the Italian explorer who 'discovered' the new-founde-lande for the King of England in 1947.  Many of the families have been here for generations with strong ties to the inshore fishery.  While much of the original infrastructure has been lost, there are over 1000 houses whose 'bones' are well over one hundred years old.

So...finding a family connection to a story is not difficult.  This year alone topics included  projects about relatives who served in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment,and the Royal Canadian Navy; local built heritage,  and Women's Work with projects focused on Quilting, Doing Laundry, Knitting, Making Bread, and Jam Making.  Hunting and trapping, particularly of rabbits and the more recently- introduced moose; farming traditions with the local connection to the use of root cellars, were also completed.

The students are fascinated to find out how to build these structures, how efficient and necessary they were for keeping vegetables and other foodstuffs over the winter and of course personal stories such as the one about accidently getting shut in one for a few hours!  They often work with family members to build replicas, with removable sod roofs  so visitors can view the interior storage areas.  The hands-on learning involved in the projects is invaluable to the cultural connections made.

Many of the projects link to this area's long association with the fishery- the cod fishery that sustained many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians until a moratorium was declared in 1992.  One of the speakers above has gone out cod fishing with her grandfather since she was five or six.  She is skilled in jigging this creature out of the cold Atlantic and gutting and cleaning it before taking it bake to dry in the wind on her grandfather's flake.  For her, conducting an interview is having a natural conversation!

Asking questions comes naturally to most young people.  Talking to seniors however is not as common an experience as it once was when houses were homes to more than one generation.  One of the most heart-warming consequences of this Heritage Fair process is the opportunities for dialogue between the young and old that are built in.

One student's grandmother came to me several years ago and shook my hand telling me that the collaboration on the project helped her rekindle a relationship with her grand-daughter.  They found a shared interest in stylish clothing as the younger studied old pictures in a collection of photo albums!

Note-taking skills; writing a report; selecting suitable images, creating catchy captions and appealing text boxes and other codes of visual text; planning an oral presentation - these are among the many literacy skills and experiences possible to introduce and/or reinforce with a Heritage Fair but within such an authentic context. All the work that comes before has a very visible purpose and a very satisfying outcome!

A tired but proud group of participants in a Regional Heritage Fair!

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