A few days ago, I had the gift of time to absorb a riveting and deeply moving presentation by a retired Surrey teacher who is now a documentary film maker. Myra Ottewell is a native Mississippian and former Queen Elizabeth Secondary School teacher who shared with a local group her journey of reflection and re-discovery. It started in 2004 following an invitation to be a guest speaker in a class at another local high school. A colleague had asked her to provide perspective to senior students on the film Mississippi Burning. She gave the students her view that while the film was an accurate portrayal of the civil rights issues and events of that era, it did not represent the Mississippi of her own formative years.
Simply put, it was not Myra’s lived experience in her southern town. She recalled the peaceful and harmonious streets, neighbourhoods and schools from her childhood memories. But as the guest presentation unfolded, her audience wasn’t buying it! They didn’t believe her and couldn’t fathom the juxtaposition of the realities presented in the film with her description of her old home. That abrupt and unsettling assessment caused Myra to seize the opportunity rather than let it pass. She initiated a journey of enquiry that resulted in five years of research, interviews and assembly of documentary footage in her home state, resulting in a dramatic reframing of an old perspective: her peaceful and positive childhood and adolescent years seemed so because everything appeared to be in its rightful place. The social/civil rulebook was well understood and compliance was at its foundations. All the while, just outside the personal and comfortable cocoon of family and segregated social experience, Mississippi roiled. Her documentary Mississippi ReMixed is that story.
Myra’s film is a powerful resource, activating and awakening layers of emotion and of learning in her audience. In addition to my own deeper understanding made possible through the resonance of real narrative, it also reinforced for me the importance of this genre as a methodology to enable deep learning for students. By nature, learners (all of us) are open to engaging with stories and with the realities that are discovered through those stories.
I know a little bit about the U.S. civil rights movement… or do I? I can recall a few facts, cite some underlying causes, recognize big events and identify some of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quotes. All of that might meet the test of learning of a sort but it is no more than a superficial coverage, mostly factoids with little substance. Essentially, I know nothing about the U.S. civil rights story. My original “learning” didn’t lead to anything substantial on that subject. The exact opposite was true when I and others in the audience at Myra’s documentary presentation saw and heard the riveting truths from people who lived that experience. We learned, were impacted emotionally and we won’t soon forget the meaning that emerged from the stories. Quite naturally, there was also learning across contexts. It was quickly apparent how transferable the civil rights movement stories are to other social issues and current events.
That recent experience was timely as our province engages in substantial curriculum transformation. Educators are working to create clearer, better and more profound learning pathways to inform our students’ intellectual, social and emotional experiences. Curriculum circa 21C has to engage, be relevant and resonate in ways that connect and affirm or cause curiosity or dissonance with the learner’s beliefs and understandings. There is a rich treasure trove of stories to be shared – for their own deep meaning and for how they allow us to reframe what we see today and what we create in the future. Good stories, those complex and well told narratives, open the mind and the heart to substantial learning. They bring learning to life and life to learning and yes, they take time; worth every minute.