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Northview Heights SS teacher nets prestigious national award

Northview Heights SS teacher nets prestigious national award

Thursday, October 01, 2015
Categories: Great Things, Happenings @ TDSB, School Web Stories

Katy Whitfield, a teacher at Northview Heights Secondary School, has won a Governor General's History Award for Excellence in Teaching. The prestigious award recognizes the outstanding contributions of Canada’s history and social studies teachers. Whitfield was one of just six winners selected from across Canada, and the only recipient from Ontario.

No stranger to success, the 13-year Toronto District School Board (TDSB) teaching veteran has previously been recognized for her work through a number of awards , including a TDSB Excellence Award in 2011, a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012, nominations for the Premier’s Award for Teaching Excellence and Excellence in Leadership in 2011 and 2012 and a previous top 25 finalist selection for the Governor General’s History Award in 2006. 

Whitfield won this year’s edition of the Governor General's History Award for her “Historical Thinking Missions Project,” a project that involves hands-on, inquiry-based fieldwork to gather evidence documenting the experiences of a community's residents, how that area has changed over a period of time, and who and what is part of that history. While that historical thinking framework can be applied in a number of different local communities anywhere in Canada to explore the history of change and continuity of a space, she and her students focussed their work on Toronto’s St. John’s Ward during the early twentieth century. Bounded by University Ave., Yonge St., College St., and Queen St., the area is also known simply as “the Ward” and is considered the city’s first urban “slum.”

Whitfield’s students looked at who lived in the Ward and how land was used for private and personal use. They explored a number of primary source documents, such as archival photographs, government reports, and a variety of insurance and other types of maps, such as Goad’s Fire Insurance Maps. Then, working in teams of 4 or 5, they visited the space to find the location where a particular archival photo was taken. They also undertook “intersection studies,” comparing and contrasting an intersection as it looked in 1911 and 1912 with how it appears today. Students wrote about what life would have been like in the Ward at that time and what it is like in the present and created commemorations, designing monuments, historical walking tours, plaques, murals, and exhibits. 

“I often say that, when learning about history, you have to go where it happened; go beyond the textbooks and start exploring,” Whitfield said. “If you walk in a space, it speaks to you.” That approach is informed by Whitfield’s own background as an education tour guide. It is also an approach that can effectively engage students and allow them opportunities to leverage their own areas of interest that then guide their enquiries. “It’s all about telling stories,” she continued, and giving voice to those who are now long gone,” and that stirred students’ passions.

Students related to the project in a variety of personal ways, including ethnicity and issues like revitalization and displacement, issues that resonate and are topical currently. Students were permitted to examine their own areas of interest in their writings and creative work, exploring topics such as science and health through disease, or culture through festivals and celebrations. And that too inspired students. “They bring their own perspectives—whatever that is—to the project,” said Whitfield. 

The Governor General’s History Award provides a ringing endorsement for the project, but for Whitfield there’s no better validation than her own students’ responses. “I don’t ever think I’ve seen students so engaged,” she said. 

Principal Pete Paputsis agreed. "Katy brilliantly engaged her students by allowing them to take control of their learning,” he said.  “The students fully immersed themselves in this journey and were able to satisfy their curiosities through an authentic learning experience," he said, adding that the entire school is proud of his teacher’s accomplishment.

School Superintendent Peter Chang said that Whitfield is very deserving of the award. “She is a tireless, hard-working teacher who loves what she does and cares deeply about her students,” he said. “She is one of those educators that students will remember for a lifetime—that’s the kind of impact she has. Northview Heights SS and the TDSB are lucky to have her.”

For her part, Whitfield said that she was thrilled to hear that she’d won the award for her project, and especially about the prospect that educators across the country could potentially use the structure in their own classrooms and communities. “We want students to learn in meaningful ways and I’m really excited this will open conversations about how we do history differently.”

Governor General David Johnston will present the 2015 Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching to recipients at a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on October 16. The winners and their schools will also receive a cash prize.

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