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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 1, September 2007

From the heart

By Charles Hou

In October 2005, I received a phone call from the Burnaby School Board. Would I be interested in sitting on a committee to prepare a documentary on the lives of five Burnaby veterans? They were looking for a teacher who could prepare an educational package of materials to accompany the film.

Since retiring, I have been trying to put the experiences I acquired in 34 years of teaching social studies to good use. My father was a veteran of the Second World War, and since his death I have regretted not asking him more about his experiences. Here was an opportunity I could not resist.

I was hooked after my first meeting with the committee. I was immediately struck by the professional competence and dedication of the committee members. They were committed to producing something of value. They respected my expertise as a teacher, and, most important of all, they promised me access to a colour photocopier and a research budget—neither of which I’d had as a teacher.

The focus of the project, ably set out by a Burnaby councillor, was to produce a documentary on the lives of five of Burnaby’s Freemen (outstanding citizens) who were also veterans. The documentary was unique as far as I was concerned. It would focus not only on the war experiences of the veterans, but also on their early years and on what they did after they returned from the war. The councillor wanted to record the veterans’ experiences before it was too late, and to create a documentary that would focus on citizenship. The latter objective intrigued me. I felt that I had never done a proper job of teaching citizenship. Here was an opportunity to make amends. During my career, I did my best to make Canadian history as interesting as possible to my students. Was it possible to make citizenship interesting and meaningful?

As a retired teacher, I now have the time to do the detailed research necessary to find interesting primary sources. I quickly focussed on the lives of the five veterans when they were close to the age of the students. I believed that students would relate to this period of their lives. I first set out to find out why over 750,000 young men volunteered for the hazardous work involved in the armed forces. I looked for clues and high-interest-level primary sources in the University of BC Library and Special Collections, the City of Vancouver archives, the Vancouver Public Library archives, and the City of Burnaby archives.

I also interviewed each of the five Freemen and their wives to find out why the five volunteered for service in the armed forces. I wanted the students to compare the reasons suggested by the primary sources with the personal experiences of the Freemen. Three of the Freemen had served in the army, one in the air force, and one in the navy.

Experts from Simon Fraser University’s Learning and Instructional Development Centre searched archives for film that would illustrate and supplement the stories told by the Freemen, and spent over 100 hours filming the men themselves. They eventually produced a powerful documentary. It told the story of the Freemen as young men growing up in the Depression and becoming involved in the war, and of their experiences after they returned to Canada. All of the men were motivated by their experiences to become heavily involved in community affairs designed to make Burnaby a better place.

In my opinion, the documentary does a first class job of telling the story of five model citizens. The Freemen’s prewar and postwar experiences make this war story unique. I am an avid watcher of the History Channel and the CBC, which tend to specialize in war stories around Remembrance Day. I do not remember seeing a documentary that went beyond the veterans’ wartime experiences.

I am confident that students will enjoy the documentary. In my experience as a teacher the students always found a film about Burnaby citizens particularly interesting. However, I think the documentary will also work outside of Burnaby. Every community across Canada has veterans with similar stories to tell.

I enjoyed working with a highly motivated group of people on the project, but the best part of my experience was meeting the five Freemen and their families. I saw family photographs, heard their stories, and learned a lot about five outstanding citizens. I hope that other communities across Canada take the time to preserve the experiences of veterans, both men and women, in their communities. It is a rewarding experience.

The Burnaby project resulted in documentaries, educational packages of memorabilia, a wonderful web site, www.burnaby.ca/fromtheheart, and a group of interactive games that are useable at both the elementary and secondary levels. The web site includes information on how to order, at cost, DVD or VHS copies of the documentary and hard copies of the Education Kit and Teacher’s Guide (the materials are also available from Lesson Aids). The project received support from the federal government, and everything was produced in both English and French. A post-release evaluation undertaken by SFU deemed the project a success as an educational resource, and SFU’s Learning and Instructional Development Centre project was nominated for an Education Technology User Group Innovation Award in 2007.

Charles Hou is a retired Burnaby teacher.

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