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September 11, 2015

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From learning Gaelic to building igloos: Six innovative high school electives in Canada

Forget making ashtrays in shop class — these days, high school students can choose from an array of unique electives, whether they’re learning how to build an igloo, produce their own film, construct flying machines with the help of 3D printers, or critically analyze the implications of genocide.

By: Deena Douara Metro Published on Thursday, September 10, 2015

There may have been a time when the most radical thing you did in school was dissect a frog. Today’s students, though, are exposed to electives enticing enough to consider going back to school for. Across the country, teachers are striving to create unique experiences for their students. The following is a sampling of what some high school students will be signing up for this year.

Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity — Toronto District School Board

Rather than simply teaching past horrors that we’ve supposedly risen above and evolved from, teacher Raneem Azzam for three years challenged her students at Avondale Secondary Alternative to examine whether they may be complicit in modern injustices in a course being offered in select schools across the TDSB this year. Through analysis of colonialism, racism, dehumanization and ultimately, genocide, her students are equipped to critically analyze the present.

“It’s important for students to have a chance to look at history from a social-justice lens as opposed to seeing it through militaristic or nationalistic perspectives,” says Azzam, who is not teaching the course this year. After looking at identity formation, discrimination, and the roles of bystanders, rescuers, and opportunists, the course culminates with students selecting a case study and formulating their own thesis about how and why genocide took place and the implications for future generations.

“It can be overwhelming or disheartening at times, but I think … can make students hopeful instead of fatalistic because when you understand how individuals and societies can participate in such atrocities, you have a better sense of how to prevent and stop them.”

Igloo Building, Kayak Making, Introduction to Archeology — Netsilik Ilihakvik School, Taloyoak, Nunavut

While many of us have only seen igloos depicted in picture books, Inuit people need a better understanding. Knowing how to make one is a life-saving skill, explains principal Gina Pizzo. “People get lost and stranded every year,” she says.

At Netsilik Ilihakvik School, elders teach students to test snow for strength, evaluate depth, measure, cut and stack blocks at the appropriate angles, create a sleeping platform and fill gaps.

Students even go out in January, when temperatures can reach -40 C.

Igloo-making is just one of three lessons under the cultural-studies elective. Students also become archaeologists, exploring the land for artifacts after the community has moved on, such as ancient fox traps, tent rings, caches used to preserve meats, and rock structures used to hide hunters from caribou. Finally, Pizzo says students learn the nearly lost art of kayak-making.

“The cultural knowledge and language is part of who the people are,” she says. “It’s important to preserve that knowledge, and from time to time that knowledge of being on the land ... comes in pretty handy.”

Gaelic — Citadel High School, Halifax School District, Nova Scotia

Gaelic culture is an important part of the history of Nova Scotia, but as recently as 10 years ago, the culture appeared to be at risk, Gaelic program co-ordinator Melissa Shaw says.

“But the momentum is strong right now.” She says due to “phenomenal” interest, her school offers both Gaelic history and language courses.

Shaw explains that Gaels were told their language was backwards and were widely discouraged to teach it to their children to instead focus on English. As a result, an entire generation has little or no knowledge of the language, while the next generation attempts to reclaim it. “It’s time,” says Shaw.

Many of the students enrol because it’s important to them on a personal level.

Alysha Danielle Mogensen, 17, is enrolled for her third year of Gaelic and plans to continue after graduating. “It became really important to me as I started taking it and got to know the community,” she says. “It’s a very cool culture and language and it’s been dying out more and more. I think it’s important we keep it going.”

Mogensen and her peers learn through songs and stories while also learning about Gaelic music, drama and technology. The learnings culminate in a final fèis, or festival, where the entire community is invited to partake in fiddle, step dance, highland dance, storytelling and language workshops.

The Delta Film Acting Academy and Production Academy — Delta School District, B.C.

Secondary students across Delta School District get the opportunity to study acting and film production in an intensive, practical way with the aim of helping them launch careers in the industry.
In the production stream, aspiring film, television and documentary makers actually produce a movie, starting with a concept and concluding with a gala screening.

 “There’s an overwhelming sense of pride that they could take an idea and work together … to take it all the way to the end,” says Paige Hansen, co-founder and district vice-principal of academy programs. “I think it’s extremely empowering for young people to go ‘Wow, look at what I just did and look what I can do.’ And it’s something they walk away with, forever.”
 
“My favourite is probably writing and directing,” says Kama Sood, who has visited his actor father on sets. “When I joined the Academy is when I really realized I do want to work in the film industry.”
Throughout the year, students learn from film professionals like storyboard artists, visual effects artists, directors, agents and actors, while also attending sets, industry events and career expos. Delta is ideally situated, Hansen explains, due to its high volume of film production.

Intro to Engineering — W.P. Wagner, Edmonton Public Schools, Alberta

Things that buzz are left to go on their merry way in Victor Wong’s classroom. That’s because there’s a good chance the thing is a student-made nano-quadcopter (more commonly referred to as drones).
In W.P. Wagner’s inaugural Intro to Engineering last year, Wong helped Grade 10 students use gadgets, tools and technology toward the production of functional products.

He says the experiential pass-fail course is unique in how it integrates engineering concepts with chemistry, physics and biochemistry. Students work in the computer lab, lab room and a workshop equipped with a 3D printer.

“The best part is getting out of the classroom and into the shop where we could really use our own ideas and put them to the test,” says Tomas Spasiuk, who took the course last year. “It was fully hands-on and at the end you always had something substantial.”

Vice-principal Martin Fechner, who helped develop the course, explains that post-secondary institutions were complaining that students “can’t collaborate, they can’t think on their own, and can’t be creative.”

He says the course pushes students to work together to problem-solve, independent of the teacher. “You have the resources, you figure it out,” says Fechner of their approach. Wong adds that the experience of “constructive failure” is transformational for some students accustomed to constant success.

STEAM Program (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math education) — Winnipeg School Division

Some lucky students in Winnipeg will walk into a beanbag-chair and standing-desk classroom with iPads, SMART boards, Lego robotics, a green screen, recording devices and studio lights at their disposal.

“We’re really pushing the idea of students as makers and tinkerers who are driving their own learning,” explains Shauna Cornwell, WSP enrichment and innovation consultant.

The STEAM enrichment program, launched last year, takes select students in grades 4 to 6 from across the division to an off-site classroom-lab to pursue self-generated inquiry projects while also coming together for “instant challenges” and smaller projects, like creating Rube Goldberg machines, weekly news broadcasts and stop-motion films.

“They have to use design thinking to solve problems and answer questions,” says Cornwell, adding that the emphasis is on critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.