• Newfoundland teacher

    Clode Sound in Terra Nova National Park is a popular stop for Sarah Oakley and her family when they travel around Newfoundland.

Teaching empathy is at the core of everything that Sarah Oakley does in her classroom and community. Oakley teaches grades 7, 8 and 9 French Immersion Social Studies at St. Peter's Junior High in Mount Pearl, N.L. She recently attended Can Geo Education’s Summer Institute on Indigenous issues and educational resources and will be sharing what she learned with fellow educators in her province through professional development workshops. 

On having a place-based teaching approach

Our grade 8 curriculum has a focus on Newfoundland and Labrador, on the social aspects of our history as a province. This is definitely a passion of mine, but in regard to all the courses that I teach, I try to teach from a place-based perspective — I want the students to see from our perspective as a province, but then I move outwards from there. Sometimes that involves field trips, such as the one we do in grade 8 to Ferryland, one of the oldest fishing settlements in North America, about an hour outside of St. John’s. We spend the day there and students get to see what’s been unearthed through the archeological research that’s been done there on the original settlement, but they also get to see what it would have been like for the settlers that moved into that place. They had it set up there so students could walk into what would have been the kitchen in the 1700s and learn about how cooking was done, and that sort of thing.

On providing different perspectives

One thing I’ve been working really hard to do is to incorporate Indigenous perspectives in everything I teach and to change the way that I approach things. It’s always been evident to me that the history and geography that we teach is very Euro-centric, from a settler perspective. Trying to get students to understand this, like if it were them living in a place and somebody else moved in and they had more numbers and resources, how would that affect their lives?

My overall goal is for students to understand and appreciate where we come from and how much change has occurred in Newfoundland. I think from a social standpoint, it’s really important for youth to understand that their perspective is not the only perspective. And you can develop empathy in students by facilitating the opportunity for them to see other perspectives, and to understand that there’s more than one side to every story, who has what to gain from each side that’s being told and understanding that sometimes it’s not as straightforward as just reading out of the textbook.

On teaching Indigenous history in Newfoundland

I’m spending a lot more time on Indigenous populations, the Beothuk in particular, who were here in Newfoundland. They’re no longer in existence because of the way that European settlement impacted them. We talk about why the Beothuk people had chosen that particular place for settlement, what it meant to them and what it would have taken to drive them out of that settlement. The Beothuk have no voice left and I’m really making an effort to have students appreciate and understand the gravity of that.

Every year I show them a film called “Stealing Mary,” which is about the last known documented group of Beothuk, their interactions with a group of European settlers and how they were brought to St.John’s and died within 10 years of that meeting. I do activities with the students and I have them tell the story as if they were European and if they were Beothuk, and then they compare and contrast those two perspectives. They understand how history can tell a story, but that the story is very different depending on who’s telling it.

On going beyond the classroom

Every year, I do a little a campaign with my students, particularly in grade 7. There’s a number of shelters in our community and Christmas is a very hectic time for these shelters. We talk about "needs" versus "wants" in grade 7, focusing on the difference between the two, and how there is a number of people in our community who do not have the economic empowerment to provide for their own needs. Every year, I give the students a list of very basic items like toothpaste and shampoo and I ask them to bring in one, or as many items as they like, from the list. We deliver the bags of necessities to shelters in the community. We get thank-you letters and I read them to the class and it really sticks with them. I always get students coming back who want to participate in it years after. I find that students really take ownership of that — they really dive into it.

The goal with social studies is that you try to approach it from looking at the whole student rather than just delivering the curriculum. How can you make a lasting impact so that they are contributing members within our society and have empathy?