Rachel Collishaw brings history to life at Glebe Collegiate

By Caroline O’Neill

Rachel Collishaw, history teacher at Glebe Collegiate and recipient of a 2013 Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching, holds up recently rediscovered Honour Rolls listing the GCI students and teachers who served in the Second World War. Photo: Soo Hum.

Rachel Collishaw, history teacher at Glebe Collegiate and recipient of a 2013 Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching, holds up recently rediscovered Honour Rolls listing the GCI students and teachers who served in the Second World War. Photo: Soo Hum.

Meet Rachel Collishaw, a history teacher who is both engaged and engaging. She can be found in room 311 at Glebe Collegiate Institute (CGI), happily shepherding her Grade 10 students through the corridors of Canadian history. She brings history to life for her class. Instead of focusing solely on key figures and facts from Canadian history, Collishaw teaches her class about the lesser-known players who might resonate with students. In the photo above, she is seen holding a beautifully illustrated Roll of Honour that commemorates approximately 1,500 teachers and students from Glebe Collegiate who served in the Second World War. Some 200 of those perished and their names are cast in two bronze plaques that adorn both sides of the school’s entrance. The question hangs in the air – who were the people behind the names?

On the day of my recent interview with Collishaw, she was skillfully managing a balancing act – offering guidance to her class of 32 students as they examined research documents, answering questions from a number of reporters and graciously receiving an award for her work from TD Bank. What is all the excitement about? She, as one of just six in the country, is the recipient of the 2013 Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching. Listed as one of 25 finalists earlier this year, her work will be celebrated with the other winners on November 19 at Rideau Hall, and she will receive a gold medal, $2,500 and $1,000 for Glebe Collegiate Institute.

The highlight of her Grade 10 history class is the online cenotaph that she has been working on for the past three years with her students. This endeavour was inspired by the work of Smith Falls Collegiate teacher Blake Seward, who created a cenotaph for First World War soldiers in that Ontario town. Glebe Collegiate Institute opened its doors to young men in 1922, so Collishaw’s cenotaph project is dedicated to Second World War soldiers.

PA56880 Cutline : A representative from Toronto Dominion Bank (centre) presents  Rachel Collishaw (left) with an award of $2500 as recipient of the Governor General’s  History Award for Excellence in Teaching and Principal France Thibodeau with a  $1000 prize on behalf of Glebe Collegiate Institute. Photo: Soo Hum

A representative from Toronto Dominion Bank (centre) presents Rachel Collishaw (left) with an award of $2500 as recipient of the Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching and Principal France Thibodeau with a $1000 prize on behalf of Glebe Collegiate Institute. Photo: Soo Hum

Collishaw uses a range of primary and secondary resources to learn about the fallen soldiers – yearbooks, school certificates and letters of progress. “We really are a team effort here,” said Collishaw, who is quick to praise the help she has received with her project. Arlene Brown, the teacher-librarian at the school, has provided many resources and primary sources for the cenotaph. “She spent hours photocopying all of those files,” Collishaw said. An average file that a student may work with could contain over 20 documents ranging from pilot training manuals to telegrams confirming a soldier’s death.

Rachel Collishaw and Arlene Brown, teacher-librarian at Glebe Collegiate, examine a document as part of the Second World War online cenotaph project. Photo: Soo Hum

Rachel Collishaw and Arlene Brown, teacher-librarian at Glebe Collegiate, examine a document as part of the Second World War online cenotaph project. Photo: Soo Hum

“I have to maintain the database,” Collishaw explained, one of her many duties. The website, the Glebe CI Second War Memorial, is a work-inprogress that showcases the research of her students, helpers and herself. Significantly, the website asks for contributions of knowledge, and Collishaw expresses a keen interest in having the cenotaph include more information from the Glebe community. Some residents have already brought in copies of newspaper clippings and documents about relatives who died in the line of duty. This kind of information makes history feel more personal. The students are able to find out details about the soldiers such as their favourite sports and hobbies, and what they were like as students attending Glebe Collegiate.

These two bronze plaques, affixed to the wall on either side of the entrance of the Glebe Collegiate Institute, list the 200 students and teachers who perished in the Second world War. A history sleuth has pointed out the mysterious fact that two names have been removed from each of the plaques. Photo: Soo Hum

One of two bronze plaques, affixed to the wall on either side of the entrance of the Glebe Collegiate Institute, lists the 200 students and teachers who perished in the Second world War. A history sleuth has pointed out the mysterious fact that two names have been removed from each of the plaques. Photo: Soo Hum

GREGORY ROSS BOURDON

One example of a case that Collishaw and her students successfully investigated is that of Gregory Ross Bourdon. From his file, a Glebe Grade 10 history student today can easily identify with the former Glebe Collegiate student who, because of historical circumstances, became a fallen soldier.

Numerous primary sources in Bourdon’s file create the image of a young man in Ottawa fully living his life. The students had access to Bourdon’s Royal Canadian Air Force attestation papers, his occupational history form, a report from his interview when he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, a service record from his time as a pilot, his pilot training log, pilot training theory, pictures of Bourdon and other primary and secondary sources.

These sources reveal that Gregory Ross Bourdon was born May 4, 1922, lived at 257 Carling Avenue and before enlisting, had worked as a laboratory assistant at the Department of Pensions and National Health. He attended Glebe Collegiate for five years and graduated in 1940 with good academic standing. He enjoyed photography, hockey and cricket. He liked making model airplanes, which influenced his decision to become a pilot. Medical records describe Bourdon as a healthy but underweight young man who was expected to get stronger as his training progressed.

There are also pictures of Bourdon smiling in his uniform and with fellow airmen in group photos. He can be seen beside his plane, leaning against the plane’s wing. He enlisted September 8, 1941 and after completing his flight training, was posted to England to join Bomber Command in 1942. There he received further training in heavy bombers, night flying, and took part in 15 night raids on munitions targets in Germany and Italy. Just after his promotion to Pilot Officer in 1943, he and his crew of six were part of a mass bombing raid of 628 aircraft to Mannheim, Germany. Their plane, one of 18 Lancasters lost on that raid, was shot down near Worms. Four of the crew were able to parachute to safety and were taken prisoner; Greg and two of the crew did not survive the crash. His parents, Zepherin and Doris Kathleen Bourdon, received notice that their son was missing in action and presumed dead before the confirmation of his death. He was 21 years old.

Bourdon is one of many fallen soldiers studied by Collishaw’s Grade 10 class, and his story renders the study of history more personal, familiar and understandable to the students, and more relevant to the Glebe community. It is easy to envision him studying botany or English composition, or wandering the streets of the Glebe on his way to a cricket practice. He is more than a faceless statistic or number.

Collishaw’s online cenotaph honours the fallen soldiers through their shared history in the Glebe and Glebe Collegiate. It also might be a way to connect with members of the Glebe community who can contribute their own perspective.

These two bronze plaques, affixed to the wall on either side of the entrance of the Glebe Collegiate Institute, list the 200 students and teachers who perished in the Second world War. A history sleuth has pointed out the mysterious fact that two names have been removed from each of the plaques. Photo: Soo Hum

One of two bronze plaques, affixed to the wall on either side of the entrance of the Glebe Collegiate Institute, lists the 200 students and teachers who perished in the Second world War. A history sleuth has pointed out the mysterious fact that two names have been removed from each of the plaques. Photo: Soo Hum

CURRENT CASES: GEORGE MURRAY MACLEAN AND JOHN EDWIN GARDNER

“They love it,” Collishaw said of her class’s response to the cenotaph. The students work individually or in pairs on a file about one of the soldiers who died in the line of action. “It’s a fun project,” said Maya Hessel. “It’s very hands on.” Hessel and her partner, Emily Blackwell, are two of Collishaw’s Grade 10 students and have been working on the file of deceased pilot George MacLean. Blackwell has learned that MacLean enjoyed hockey, basket

ball and golf. “You learn about this person who went to this school,” Blackwell said, adding that it is interesting to learn about people who may have had similar high school experiences. Blackwell and Hessel have determined that MacLean died in a plane accident in England on January 20, 1945.

Meanwhile, Taylor Walker, a classmate of Hessel and Blackwell, has learned that her case study, John Gardiner, lived close to the school. He enjoyed sports and enlisted when he was 21. He later died in Dieppe.

HISTORICAL CONCEPTS

Inspired by the Historical Thinking Project that aims to inculcate historical literacy in youth, Collishaw underpins the project with six historical concepts.

Historical significance looks beyond key events and key players. It focuses on how one person, like a munitions factory worker, can play an important part in Canadian history.

Primary sources are historical documents from which students garner evidence. They offer a direct look at Canadian life in historical times, allowing students a taste of ideologies and opinions from a different time.

Continuity and change provides a lens to look at history as a mix of established patterns and changes, as opposed to separate events. For example, Canadian politics may have changed with time, but still maintains some of its early traditions.

Cause and consequence considers multi-layered causes in the lead-up to tragic events. Japanese internment camps can be analyzed from a cause and consequence perspective because they came from a set of prejudices, opinions and ideas.

Historical perspective opens the door to understanding the context for a way of life that seems foreign to present-day Canadians. Living in accordance with today’s norms can make it hard to understand why, for example, early settlers lived such disciplined lives; taking a historical perspective makes it clear that discipline was necessary for the early settlers’ survival.

Ethical dimensions are defined in terms of the line between decisions made in the past and society’s view of these decisions today. Some decisions made in Canada may not mirror what Canadians today accept as ethical treatment; an understanding of history could explain the decision within the context of the times.

Grade 10 students in Rachel Collishaw’s history class discuss their cases and primary source documents. Photo: Soo Hum

Grade 10 students in Rachel Collishaw’s history class discuss their cases and primary source documents. Photo: Soo Hum

The online cenotaph project incorporates each of the six concepts in different ways. Each file, for example, draws from multiple primary sources and the students must examine them to find key information. “You sit there reading things and living them,” Collishaw said of her students’ work. After reading old yearbooks and information from Library and Archives Canada, the class writes and posts memorials about their fallen soldiers on the online cenotaph.

“They need to understand who they are,” Collishaw said of the importance of teaching history to high school students. Their study of the soldiers helps students to develop their own sense of identity and to connect with the people they study. They attend the same school as the soldiers and live in the same community. Their work might even lead to discovery of a shared hobby like hockey or photography. Some students may find that they share a birthday or live on the same street as the young man from their file.

“Both of my grandfathers were in the war,” Collishaw said, one a radio operator and the other a motorcycle courier. She also said that her uncle married a Belgian woman who played a large role in the resistance movement. Her own mother-in-law, a child during the war, took ballet lessons with Dutch princesses who were in Canada for their own safety. The example of Collishaw’s family suggests that many of us have ties to Canadian history and to a shared world history like the Second World War.

Title page of the Roll of Honour of Glebe Collegiate students and teachers who served “for King and Country” from 1939 - 1945. Photo: Soo Hum

Title page of the Roll of Honour of
Glebe Collegiate students and teachers
who served “for King and Country” from 1939 – 1945. Photo: Soo Hum

At its core, the project turns on the rich shared history of the Glebe Collegiate Institute and members of the Glebe community. It follows that Rachel Collishaw is excited to invite members of the Glebe community to share information they may have on any fallen soldiers and contribute to the ever-expanding website. In the same way that the project has created a tie between the past and current students of Glebe Collegiate Institute, it could allow the school and the community to connect more strongly through their interest in a common history. Further, as Canada prepares for Remembrance Day, the online cenotaph reminds Canadians of the importance of remembering and honouring the contributions of forgotten individuals. Collishaw’s cenotaph ensures that we remember the courage, sacrifice and humanity of the people who shaped the country that we are so lucky to call our own.

For more on this project, visit http://bit.ly/1dZD1Oj or historicalthinking.ca

Caroline O’Neill is a second-year journalism and human rights student at Carleton University.

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