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History shows students that Canada 'does have a voice'

Teacher who helps bring to Canadian history to life is a finalist for prestigious national teaching award
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Shannon Rankin brings Canadian history to life for her students. The Upper Grand history teacher has been nominated for a 2016 Governor General's History Award of Excellence in Teaching. (Supplied photo).

Understanding Canada’s history helps articulate the country’s present, says an Upper Grand District School Board history teacher.

Shannon Rankin, who teaches Grade 10 English and history at Centre Dufferin District High School in Shelburne, is a finalist in the prestigious 2016 Governor General’s History Awards for Excellence in Teaching.

Her engaging approach to teaching, her capacity to make the past relevant for today’s youth, and her innovative and interactive teaching approach, were cited as reasons for her inclusion among the 25 finalists. There will be six recipients of the national honour.   

Canada’s war history is one of Rankin’s focus areas. “It is really engaging the kids, and there are so many different lessons to be learned from the different wars,” she said in a telephone interview.

The lessons she imparts aren’t necessarily centred on the details of specific battles, but more so on ways in which those battles that took place in the formative days of the Canadian identity, shaped who we are today and our place in international relations.

History is personal for Rankin. “So I do have that personal connection,” she said, adding that teaching about Canada’s involvement in past wars helps student understand Canada’s current role in the world. Rankin’s great-grandfather and his brother fought in the First World War. The brother died in the Great War. Rankin once visited his grave in France.

“It’s kind of cliché to say that history repeats itself, but there is a degree of truth in that,” she said. “There are lessons to be learn from history that are very relevant to different applications in life today, whether it be specifically from one war to the next, or what you can learn about being Canadian and contributing, and what sacrifice actually means.”

She said that although Canada is often viewed as a small country that follows the lead of larger NATO powers, the country has a strong international role to play as a peacekeeper and as a middle power. That role may not be chronicled in the history books, but nevertheless Canada plays a part.

“Canada was and is present in these conflicts,” she said. “Canada was and does have a voice. If Canada wasn’t there in the past, if it is not there now, things will play out differently.”

Rankin involves her students in the study of artifacts, and in the exploration of the First World War landscapes shaped by the historic conflicts Canadian soldiers were involved in. She has her students recreate those scenes on the school grounds and in the community, where they are photographed.  

She said the study of history can seem very abstract, and at times it seems too big for kids to absorb. It’s not enough to study history from a book. Through things like contact with artifacts and role playing, history becomes more personal and engaging for young people.

“I have this appreciation for what has come before, how things have been shaped, and I like that the more you dig into history, the more you understand what’s happening today,” she added.