Rachel Collishaw teaches Grade 10 history at Glebe Collegiate Institute in Ottawa.
Her fun approach to teaching her students about World War II — helping them make a local connection first — has won her a Governor-General's Award for Excellence in Teaching.
For the past three years, Collishaw has been giving her students WWII archival records of the 200 Glebe students who died while serving in the Second World War. Her students then research the lives of the soldiers using archival material and old yearbooks and create memorials to the men.
"They don't really get the national picture unless they have a local connection," Collishaw told CBC News on Friday. "For me this project and everything I'm doing is really about engaging the kids, showing them that history can be fun and relevant."
"History has typically been taught where teachers tell kids, 'Here, learn all of this information,' and then they regurgitate it and everybody forgets it the next year. There’s been a lot of research done in the educational community around what is it that historians actually do, and can we get kids doing some of that same stuff?" Collishaw, who has been teaching at Glebe Collegiate Institute for 14 years, told the Ottawa Citizen.
"It's really a big focus on having students work with primary-source documents and try to figure out their own conclusions," she added.
Collishaw told CBC News that her students take their assignments seriously.
"Someone who actually participated in World War Two went to Glebe [Collegiate Institute], in the same school, walked the same places I walked," Josh Routh, a student who was assigned the records of former student James R. Millar, said. "It's neat how Glebe [Collegiate Institute] has that kind of history."
Collishaw's students have had feedback from historians and some of the men's relatives, which has helped fill out the former students' stories online.
"It's really about engaging kids and having them see the fun in history. When you present it like a mystery to be solved, or like a big puzzle, then they get engaged. To me, that's where education needs to be going...so that they can see the relevance of education in their own life," she told the Ottawa Citizen.
Collishaw will be personally awarded $2,500 and be given an additional $1,000 for her school at the award ceremony at Rideau Hall in November. She is one of seven Canadian teachers to be given the award, all of whom will be given the opportunity to join a teachers' tour of historical sites in Europe next summer.