‘History boxes’ bring national museum to life for rural N.B. students

As the school year wraps up, university and elementary students in the small town of Sackville, N.B., are reflecting on some important discoveries they have made with the help of one another, and a big black box filled with 25 Canadian artifacts.

Grade 1 students Alistair Lutes and Clara Soper remember the day the huge case that contained seven layers of carefully packed treasures from the collection of the Canadian Museum of History arrived in their classroom, all the way from Gatineau, Quebec.

“It was super, super fun,” said Alistair, thinking back to the birch bark moose call that was among the curated collection of artifacts and replica artifacts.

“Oh my goodness,” added Clara, “We love these boxes.”

WATCH | ‘Well what’s in it?’ Grade 1 students experience their first history box:

See inside a box of treasures from the Canadian Museum of History

As the school year comes to a close, a ‘history box’ opens new doors for Sackville students.

The unlikely pairing of an elementary class with university students in a religious studies class at Mount Allison University is the brain child of the always-enthusiastic professor Susie Andrews.

When she heard about the lending project by the Canadian Museum of History she knew it could be the foundation of a new course and a new collaboration.

The History Box contained seven layers of artifacts and replica artifacts from the Canadian Museum of History, including this Indigenous moose call and drum. (Submitted by Brianne Arsenault)

“Our collaborations make learning richer, more meaningful and frankly, more joyful,” Andrews said with a smile. “It brings 25 objects from their world class collection to life for students across the country.…and so this is the box that is the story behind our story here in Sackville.”

Susie Andrews says watching her university students collaborate with elementary teachers and students has been ‘a dream come true.’ (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Step 1: Unpacking

For Brianne Arsenault’s Grade 1 class, it started with the arrival of the history box, and a barrage of questions from her curious students.

“Their eyes got really big because the box was bigger than them,” she laughed. “So it was: ‘What’s it in? Where did it come from? Where’s it going? How long will we have it? What are we doing with it?'”

The history box on the floor, with the secondary boxes created by Mount Allison University students lined up above, waiting for Brianne Arsenault’s Grade 1 class to discover what’s inside. (Submitted by Brianne Arsenault)

Arsenault said it was wonderful to see the children make their own connections with the items, as they unpacked the box layer by layer.

“I have students that their families hunt, so to see a moose call — they knew what that was before I knew what it was. I have students that were born in Nunavut, so to see things that came from up North — they knew what that was,” she said.

“I can’t always give them that in day-to-day teaching…that they could see a real-life object from their own heritage, from what they love.”

The History Box contained seven layers and a total of 25 artifacts from different times in history and different parts of Canada. (Submitted by Brianne Arsenault)

Step 2: Creating

Mount Allison University students also spent time with the big black history box as part of their religious studies course called Sacred Stuff.

Second-year art history major Annabelle Kean didn’t know what to expect when she signed up but admits the name of the course immediately intrigued her. She wondered how a society that is “surrounded every day by staff,” goes about determining what is worthy of such a label.

“Putting the name of sacred on these specific items, I was very interested in why we do that. Why certain items are sacred and others just everyday items?”

When the artifacts from the National Museum arrived in Sackville, Andrews challenged Kean and her classmates to choose one and create a secondary box of activities for the Grade 1 students.

Annabelle Kean, a second year art history major at Mount Allison University, holds the box of activities, inspired by a Pride flag, her team put together for Grade 1 students at Salem Elementary School. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

“Our project was to think about ‘How can we make that joyful and interesting?'” Andrews said. “So the task of Mount A students — their invitation was to create another set of boxes with books and activities and stories that would allow students in our community to keep engaging.”

Step 3: Sharing

Kean says she  “got really lucky” when her group was assigned a small section of a 150-meter rainbow banner, made by a youth group in 2005 to show support for same-sex marriage, to build their box around.

They thought long and hard about how to make the item meaningful to a group of six and seven-year-olds.

“We focused on something that they could understand, which was the idea of pride and being proud of something and identity and knowing who you are within yourself.”

Annabelle Kean and her group created a Pride box which contained activities and books for students to complete, following the themes of family, pride and identity. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

The colours of the pride flag represent different qualities, Kean explained, including life, healing, sunlight, nature, harmony and spirit.

“What colours might they choose?”

Kean is bisexual, and came out seven years ago. She said it meant something to her that there would be queer kids seeing this box and she wanted to introduce it in a “cheerful” and “prideful” way.

“They won’t remember this in ten years, but maybe they’ll remember the feeling of pride and the rainbow and the colours and maybe they’ll be able to come to themselves easier, have an easier time with accepting who they are.”

A student in Brianne Arsenault’s Grade 1 class works on an activity centred around this portion of a pride banner that was part of a box of artifacts from the Canadian Museum of History. (Submitted by Brianne Arsenault)

In Mme. Arsenault’s class, students say the activities in the box Kean helped to create were among their favorites.

It included two books about families, a spool of yarn that they unraveled measuring 150 meters long — the length of the original handmade Pride banner, and all of the art supplies to create a tissue paper rainbow.

“I’ve been a history nerd since I was a little kid like them, so knowing I can be part of this to maybe inspire them… that’s something that I like,” said Kean.

Step 4: Connecting

On a warm afternoon at the end of the school year, students in Mme. Arsenault’s class open their last activity box. This one centered around a modern artifact: a luggage tag that belonged to Olympian Perdita Felicien.

The final box Grade 1 students explored was centred around the official luggage tag of Perdita Felicien from the 2000 Olympics. Students were asked to imagine themselves on a journey to the Olympics. (Canadian Museum of History)

Each student leans over their desk, carefully folding, taping, and decorating a piece of cardboard they have fashioned into a suitcase.

They then fill their suitcases with tiny paper cutouts of bathing suits, pillows, and even toothbrushes. All painstakingly cut by university students who wanted each of them to imagine an adventure of their own.

Teacher Brianne Arsenault helps her students fold and tape to create their own suitcases as they imagine an adventure of their own. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Mount Allison student Shannon Goguen says creating the activities in the boxes, and inviting students to explore and engage with the museum items in such a personal way has been “a beautiful thing.”

“I have two small children so I know how this pandemic has affected children and how it can feel lonely,” she said. “And so, if we were able to give a little bit of sparkle into their day — that to me is really important.”

Goguen and Kean say it’s also pretty cool that a university class has introduced them to their new community of Sackville, and allowed them to create something from scratch for someone else.

“It’s given me the ability to engage with the community — which I think is really special and not something that you get to experience in traditional academia,” said Goguen. “That will probably stay with me forever.”

Mount Allison students Shannon Goguen and Annabelle Kean were both part of the Sacred Stuff religious studies course offered by Susie Andrews. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Andrews says watching her university students make such meaningful connections is a “dream come true.”

“Mount Allison students were excited to think about what it would be like for little people in our community — children learning at these schools — to imagine themselves on a journey to the Olympics.”

Step 5: Repeat

Andrews looks forward to continued collaborations between her students, and her community.

Arsenault hopes that next year, there will be even closer connections made between her students at Salem Elementary, and Mount Allison students now that COVID restrictions have been lifted.

Grade 1 teacher Brianne Arsenault and her students have looked forward to the activities and books in every history box delivered this year by Mount Allison students. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

“We had a museum come to us and it was this riveting, exciting time,” she said. “It has opened my eyes to so many different ways that I can teach things.”

She said the secondary boxes imagined and created by the Mount Allison students “superseded any expectation” she had.

“There were boxes that brought me to tears just because they were so well done…they were able to manipulate and maneuver their [learning] invitations in a way that spoke to my six-year-olds and in turn spoke to me.”

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