Jennifer Leduc is big on making real world connections and storytelling as a way to get her students to engage with material that may not always have an apparent link to their everyday lives. Leduc teaches geography and history in Secondary 1 and 2 at Rosemere High School, in Rosemère, Que. She took some time out of her class preparations, for what is sure to be a challenging school year, to talk about her teaching approach in the classroom.
On encouraging conversations in the classroom
Sometimes, especially at the beginning of the year, when you don't know your groups very well, it can be challenging to get kids to open up. So it's about asking probing or prompting questions. And then once I know what kind of a group I have, and what kind of a discussion we can have, sometimes I'll write a statement on the board that I think might spark some controversy and then see where the kids go with it. I try to make it a safe space, a space where students can be free to express themselves openly, respectfully. That they can share their opinions, no matter how controversial, and we can debate it and go back and forth. I truly try to give the kids a chance to participate in the conversation. I tell them all the time, I don't like listening to myself talk for 75 minutes so please, interject, ask questions, and be involved.
On discussing current issues
My first year of teaching was 2001 and I was teaching in a computer lab on September 11, when the first plane flew into the first tower, and I'll never forget this as long as they live, all the kids instantly went to CNN and we watched the second plane fly into the second tower. In that moment, I'm watching this and thinking, this is like something out of make-believe or a movie, and we watched our world change forever in a moment — our lives have never been the same since 9/11. And our lives will never be the same after COVID-19. I think that's the importance of social studies and of history and geography, the understanding that our world has an impact on us as much as we have an impact on our world and that understanding our past can shape our future.
It is going to be interesting this year, because we're living history, right? At one point in history class we touch on the bubonic plague during the Middle Ages. So I'm sure we'll make some relevant connections. And in the metropolis unit in Grade 7 geography, we look at the health of the residents of cities around the world. So I'm sure that's going to come up, like how our cities in North America are doing compared to cities in Asia or cities in Europe, as far as dealing with the pandemic and looking at issues of level of development and access to health care. I'm sure those conversations are going to be had in our classrooms, and I welcome them, I encourage them, as long as it's done in a polite and respectful manner.
On the value of field trips
It's really important that the kids have a connection to what they're studying, to see it and experience it as much as possible. When I talk in a classroom about how mechanical energy is created with the spinning of a turbine and the force of the water, you can start to see their eyes roll in the back of their heads, because it's like if they don't see it, they can't picture it because it's not something that is part of their everyday lives. The topic of energy, which can be a little dry, is such an important topic in our society with global warming and climate change and looking at alternative sources of energy, and so it's really important that they understand it. So we took a trip to a hydroelectric facility, donned our hard hats and our protective gear, and we were able to tour the facility. They could see how the electricity is actually created. When we came back to the classroom, the kids were like, okay, we get it. Seeing it helps them to make the connection.
On engaging students when travel is out of reach
I've realized over the years that social studies is a love-it or hate-it discipline for the most part. Either kids really love it, or they really don't — there's not a lot in between. I try to show them that there's a lot of fun to be had and make it hands-on and make it interactive. I try to do it through my own personal experiences travelling or through videos and documentaries. There are a lot of great virtual things that have come out over the last few months and I bring that into the classroom as much as possible, to make it as real as possible.
A few years ago, I was teaching a class of students with special needs and I was able to find a virtual tour of the Cairo Museum in Egypt. At one point the video actually takes you live to the pyramids in Giza. Sometimes when it's on the screen and you can kind of move the Google Earth viewer around, it makes it more tangible. I know, in the spring, there were a number of museums that have made tours available virtually. So I might need to tap into some of that this year because I don't think with all the restrictions that we'll be able to take them out too much.
On overcoming challenges and the 'aha' moment
One of the challenges I think is trying to change the mindset of students that come in who may have had a negative experience in the subject beforehand and maybe don't see the value in it. So trying to open them up to seeing the potential. You know, maybe that maybe that topic didn't speak to you, but maybe something we're going to do this here does. Even if I teach the same subject every year, it never unfolds in the same way, it never comes out the same way. For many years, and for many students, history was learning about dead people and dates and things that were foreign to them and it didn't have any relevance. I do obviously incorporate that, but that's not my focus. My focus is trying to tell it like a story and to make it as interesting and dynamic as possible. It's all about the audience that I have in front of me and how I adjust to them and the interest that the kids have. Some years, I've had students that were passionate about ancient Egypt and mummies, so we spent a lot of time studying that. And then other years, I had a group of boys and so I showed them all kinds of documentaries about the Roman army, their strategies and warfare and they loved it. You have to adapt, find your angle.
And when you get that buy in, that's when the connection starts to happen. It's when the light bulb goes off and all of a sudden you can tell that they got it, when they can speak it back to you in their own language, they show that they understand the topic that you've been talking about. Sometimes, you have kids that just regurgitate the notes that you give them, but then when they actually can tell the story back to me, but using their own words, even if it’s not the most sophisticated vocabulary, it shows that they understand it. That for me is the best moment.