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Teaching the Tangible:
Student Learning through Local Heritage Studies

David Ridley
Director of Research and Youth Programs, 
Heritage Community Foundation

February 2001

The things that we can see and touch are those that awaken our imagination… 
to learn the abstractions of history and never to observe the concrete reality is to throw away local bread under the impression that imported stones are more nourishing.

- Lewis Mumford

A small mountain of waste coal is all that remains of the Imperial Mine where sixteen miners were trapped and killed in a 1935 methane explosion. Seeing "The Dump" through her window at Coalhurst High School, language arts and drama teacher Arlene Purcell set out to "capture the essence of the town that had existed here [and] to appeal to the old, who remembered the past, and to the young, who needed to know their history." So began the staging of a student drama production based on the coal-mining heritage of the town. 

In researching and developing the play, Purcell and her students visited people in their homes and taped their recollections. Students saw photographs in family albums and read newspaper clippings. They studied artifacts from the Galt Museum in Lethbridge in order to recreate props and costumes for the production. 

At the Provincial Archives, Purcell studied the minutes of the inquiry into the disaster. In the process, she and her students steeped themselves in the national, international and labour politics of the day, as well as the chemistry and geology of coal mining and the history of immigration and popular trends in the region. The script turned into a production with 22 actors and drew on the rest of the school and entire community for help and support. 

On opening night, the response was overwhelming. The production connected with all the different generations of people in the audience. Purcell realized, "that we had done something more than just create a high school play… we had come together with a common vision and our audience had joined us." The production, Firedamp, ran for eight full house performances. But something else happened after each performance. The student cast came to a deeper understanding of the lives, events and times they were portraying. Students asked parents about grandparents and great grandparents. Many of the students discovered they had family connections with experiences similar to those brought to life on stage. 

Teachers like Arlene Purcell are using a relatively modest idea in their work, with big consequences: make the study of the local community a key part of student learning and curriculum. Further, they involve parents and community members in the common project of studying, documenting and interpreting the experience of the local community. By drawing on the range of family, community, natural and cultural histories present in virtually every city, town and rural district, teachers find that student understanding and engagement increases as connections are made with the near-at-hand world. The approach brings together different subject areas, amply demonstrated by the work of Arlene Purcell and her students.

With the success of projects like Arlene Purcell's, a new heritage organization is helping teachers initiate their own local heritage study projects. Beginning in 1999, the Heritage Community Foundation helped seed a number of local studies projects across the province, providing teaching resources, project support and grants to teachers and schools. 


  • In Edmonton, Strathcona Composite High School teacher Craig Wallace and his students studied the historic Rossdale Power Plant. The site has been a subject of local debate over its historic value as an industrial installation on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River in the heart of the city. Remains of the second Fort Edmonton, built in 1802, and a First Nations burial ground have been located on the site, exposed in an archaeological dig being conducted on one of the days the students were present at Rossdale. 

  • Nona Lynn Barker's Grade 11 English class at Will Sinclair High School in Rocky Mountain House researched and presented a video production on the lives and experiences of ten influential citizens through the 200 year history of the fur trading post and subsequent town. 

  • At Lucy Baker School near Warburg, teacher Simon Jeynes and his students investigated nearby abandoned farmsteads, eventually piecing together the story of the people who had lived there. Through artifacts found in the houses, conversations with people in the community and reading community history books, the students created a web site to make their work more widely available to the community. 

  • In Olds, Doug Shaw's and Carolyn Mah's Grade 10 Social Studies students met and interviewed older citizens about their experiences through economic depression and wartime. After interviewing an older woman in the community, a female student noted that, "She [the older woman] was born and raised a farm girl, just like me. I could really relate-- she was isolated from the city, her family was large and very close, they liked to do things together-just like me and my family." In this instance, the meeting of women of different generations resulted in an appreciation for the circumstances and challenges of each other. 

    Shaw's students conducted further research on particular community events that came up in their interviews with elders. They drew on family and public archives and created temporary exhibits at the community museum. Shaw noted "this project stopped being just school work where the issue of evaluation is important. The students were engaged in learning in a far wider sense than other topics, without the sole concern for "what does teacher want?" The ownership was really with the students." Mah, now teaching at Lamont, reported that, "before the project, my students said 'I don't want to interview seniors' but after the initial contact, both students and seniors were ecstatic about this approach to study. The people who were interviewed visited the classes afterwards and said "Thank you" -- they were flattered and said as much when we first approached them for their help. It helped change their perspective on teenagers and vice versa."






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