A good teacher can lift history off the page.
Scott Masters goes much further, inviting live history into his classroom.
The head of social studies at Crestwood Preparatory College near York Mills Road and the Don Valley Parkway, Masters has created an innovative program called the Oral History Project.
Students interview Second World War veterans and Holocaust survivors.
Guests are invited into the classroom to tell their stories or students visit them at places like the veterans’ unit of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre or Baycrest Geriatric Health Care System.
So far, about 200 interviews have been recorded and posted on the school’s website at www.crestwood.on.ca/ohp
“Everyone has a story to tell,” Masters told The Mirror after stepping into the hall outside his classroom one morning earlier this month.
Inside the classroom, 90-year-old veteran George MacDonell was telling students his life story, from his childhood in a small town delivering bread on his bicycle and gathering around the radio to cheer on the Toronto Maple Leafs, to his determination to join the army underage and the barbaric treatment he and fellow soldiers faced in a prisoner of war camp in Hong Kong.
On Dec. 10, Masters will be rewarded for his dedication to making history come alive for his students when he receives a 2012 Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Governor General David Johnston will present awards to seven teachers, including Milena Ivkovic of North York’s Newtonbrook Secondary School, in recognition of their efforts to further interest in and understanding of Canadian history and heritage.
The teachers will each win $2,500 and their schools will each be awarded $1,000, donated by TD Bank Group.
Deborah Morrison, president of Canada’s History Society, said the awards show the importance of teaching history in a compelling way.
“We all win if the next generation of Canadians has a better understanding and a greater interest in our past because they had a great history teacher. The teachers recognized through the Governor General’s History Awards have exceptional abilities to make the past more relevant and interesting for their students,” she said in a statement.
“This program celebrates those achievements, but also creates opportunities to share their knowledge so more teachers and young Canadians will benefit from their expertise.”
Masters is thrilled to win the award.
“It is very much a surprise and a great honour to be recognized by Canada’s History Society,” he said.
The Oral History Project focuses on the Second World War because it was a transformational period in Canadian history, Masters said.
Without the Oral History Project, students may not have the opportunity to get first-hand accounts of the war. After all, their grandparents were children at that time.
“It’s really important to get students to speak directly to somebody from this period,” Masters said.
“It gives them that real, personal, emotional, empathetic connection. It’s an up-close, personal view of history. It’s not just history, it’s somebody’s story.”
Grade 11 student Michael Lawee, who has participated in more than 15 sessions, is a savvy interviewer.
As the class listened to MacDonell’s story, he was adept at asking questions from the pre-arranged list but also in finding ways to get additional information from the veteran.
Lawee is impressed with the Oral History Project.
“I’m learning a lot about history, not just from a textbook. You can’t get this from a textbook. You can get it from living, breathing people,” he said.
“We have the ability to save what is going to be lost...(It’s important to keep history alive because) we have to learn from our mistakes.”