Article by Ellen McLaren
Photos Courtesy of Keiko Honda
When I arrived at the Marpole-Oakridge Community Center, the mood was busy and the people were bustling, making last minute rearrangements in the gymnasium, where the Vancouver Regional Heritage Fair Showcase would soon be taking place. After the giving the room one final sweep, Wendy Hallinan led Keiko and I toward the rows of projects, explaining that though the Heritage Fair has been an annual event since 2004, last Saturday (May 16) was its public debut. By taking place in the community center, members of the Marpole-Oakridge community were able to share in the knowledge that participating students, grades four through ten, had been readying for presentation since January. An adjudicator herself, Wendy would soon have the difficult task of determining especially standout projects. Hallways made from poster-boards stretched from one end of the gym to the other, each one different from the next, covered in carefully lettered titles and bright illustrations. There were photographs and dioramas, miniature mansions and handmade brochures – some students even dressed for the part: I met a viking, a Scout, a basketball player and a young lady who had drowned on the RMS Empress of Ireland.
Giddy with anticipation, students darted here and there, eyeing their peers’ projects, reevaluating their own, and staying on the lookout for Janet Morely to ask her any last minute questions. Janet, coordinator of Vancouver Heritage Fairs, was doing some juggling of her own, fixing nametags and speaking with fellow organizers, like Marpole-Oakridge Community Association President Mike Burdick, who gave opening remarks at the kickoff ceremony.
Before he welcomed and congratulated participating students, setting the rest of the afternoon into motion, I had the chance to speak with Janet (albeit briefly, her list of things to do only growing as events got underway). From what I knew of the Heritage Fair, it is an opportunity for students to learn more about Canadian history and culture, as well as a chance to practice their research and presentation skills. Janet confirmed these impressions, but added that most importantly, the Heritage Fair projects encourage critical thought. Students have to come up with research questions that look beyond surface level summarizing and demand in depth reflection, connecting historical events with present day issues and seeking to understand the social, cultural, environmental and political implications of their topics.
Given the final presentations that they produced, it was clear that all of the students took the critical thought portion of their projects very seriously. As I wandered through the aisles of posters, research questions, bolded and bulleted, jumped out at me. Often with impressive eloquence, students walked me through their multifaceted project goals, explaining what they had set out to learn and how they were surprised with their findings along the way. And, as each had chosen a subject of interest (within some guidelines set by their teachers), every student was very invested in his or her own material and eager to share, in great detail, everything he or she had concluded. I learned about Chinese immigration during the Gold Rush, historical Japantown and how it was formed, why beavers are Canada’s symbolic animal, what needs to be done to deter the effects of Mountain Pine Beetles, and why storytelling is vital to a community’s cultural preservation.
From speaking with presenter after presenter, the importance of the Heritage Fair projects, and any similar assignments, became clearer and clearer. As young academics, there are countless research projects in these students’ futures; chances are, a good handful of them will be a bit mundane, requiring time and effort that kids (and adults) often find hard to muster. But the Heritage Fair projects are not like this, and instead initiate students into a research mindset that is fueled by enthusiasm and a sense of purpose. By congratulating students for exploring their interests and celebrating their culture, the act of learning is lauded as fun and valuable. Bringing the showcase to the Marpole-Oakridge Community Center adds another level of support, allowing students to share their ideas across age groups and get feedback from an invested community.
This process establishes the basis for independent thinking, as students learn not only about their Canadian heritage, but also how their own impressions of this heritage shape how they participate as members of society. In a time when younger and younger people are stepping into social media, where it’s a simple matter of selection, adopting someone else’s viewpoint as one’s own, the sort of critical thought that Janet Morely asks of these students is vital in the development of their own opinions and positions. This message is very much sinking in. More than ready to look beneath the surface, students chose topics that had the potential for some contention, often highlighting less ideal facts from Canadian history. They looked at Japanese internment camps during World War II; the slow process of welcoming girls into Boy Scouts (and changing the name to the gender neutral “Scouts”); and the discrimination faced by Black Canadians during the construction over Hogan’s Alley. No great sensationalizing occurred: students stuck to the facts and remained reflective, looking for larger lessons in the issues that they explored. Many were inspired by the thought of change, both that which has already taken place as well as new steps that students formulated for further improvement.
I left the event feeling somewhat overwhelmed, trying to recall each of the presentations I’d seen and a bit disappointed that I hadn’t been able to peruse all of them. Overwhelmed, but also rather exhilarated. Seeing students as young as these working so diligently to expand their mindsets and articulate their thoughts reassures me endlessly about the direction that the Vancouver community is moving in. With such well informed and well spoken youths, each of whom are ready to share and act upon their ideas, the future seems very bright indeed. And not just because of the students – all of the adult volunteers and organizers, teachers and adjudicators, parents and board members alike, enthusiastically participating alongside their younger counterparts reiterates what strong mentoring exists across Vancouver proper.
Here in Kerrisdale, we are making similar strides toward encouraging such intergenerational guidance, and hope for the chance to host events similar to those in Marpole-Oakridge. Regardless of how or when that may unfold, our community aspires to provide our youths with the same sort of support demonstrated at the Heritage Fair, prompting them toward critical thought and celebrating what they learn in the process.