CPD - History as it happened

20th November 2009 at 00:00
In Nova Scotia, acknowledging the Canadian national anthem does not mean Highland heritage has been forgotten

Highland dancing. Burns recitals. Ceilidhs. A long-running battle to keep Gaelic alive. National identity in the shadow of a considerably bigger neighbour.

It sounds like Scotland, but this was what some teachers encountered when they crossed the Atlantic. Nova Scotians are intensely proud of their ancestral homeland. In the year of Homecoming, the visitors wanted to find out how schools and others in Canada's second-smallest province used culture and heritage to shape belonging and identity.

The Highland Clearances are pivotal to Nova Scotian identity: but for the exodus of their ancestors from Scottish estates, many of today's population might have addresses in Inverness or Skye. The potency of the Clearances in local memory is reflected in the Highland Village, an atmospheric museum telling the story of hardy Scots who eked out a life on Cape Breton Island.

As night came and snow fell, the teachers met people playing the parts of the migrants in their own candlelit "homes". In a blog, the visitors recall: "It felt like you were witnessing history as it happened." They were struck by how the strong local tradition of storytelling could bring remote events to life.

The vitality of Scottish heritage in the museum is matched in schools. Liz Harris, depute head at Paisley's Castlehead High and a music teacher, enthuses about the weekly "ceilidh lunches" held in one school, during which pupils snacked as musical peers played Celtic jigs.

Since returning, she has helped set up a folk ensemble in their school, and the fledgling group is preparing to play at a Homecoming CPD event in Edinburgh next week.

Identity is a many-layered thing in Nova Scotian schools. While bi-lingual Gaelic and English signs can be found, there are pupils who learn Canada's second official language in French immersion classes. Dalbrae Academy, in Mabou, celebrates the indigenous Mi'kmaq people in a display at its entrance.

The idea of "Canada", however, unites all. At the Strait Area Education Recreation Center - which has flags for every nationality in the secondary school - life came to a standstill, as it does every day, when the national anthem, "O Canada", was piped through loudspeakers; even tardy pupils rushing to class were suddenly rooted to the spot.

This is not a convention Mrs Harris believes could be replicated in Scotland, largely because there is still no consensus about what the national anthem should be, as the Glasgow Commonwealth Games organisers can attest.

Ann Macdonald, a Gaelic teacher at James Gillespie's High in Edinburgh, was fascinated to see how closely the fluctuating health of the language in Scotland matched that in Nova Scotia, where it is mostly spoken on Cape Breton Island. It was estimated in the 19th century that there were 250,000 Gaelic speakers in Canada, but now there are only about 1,000. Gaelic "skipped a generation", but has seen a revival in recent years. Although there is no Gaelic-medium education, other innovations are breathing new life into the language.

The Gaidhlig aig Baile programme trains people to go into informal settings, such as homes and church groups, to speak Gaelic. The idea came from communities themselves and works because the language is not forced on them, Miss Macdonald observes.

The Scottish visitors gave Nova Scotian Gaelic another boost. The headteacher of Citadel High, in the capital of Halifax, believes their visit to the province's parliament was directly responsible for the education minister making a significant statement of support for Gaelic.

The visit also fired up pupils in Nova Scotia and Scotland: "They are so excited that there are other teenagers learning the language they take for granted," says Ms Macdonald, who hopes this enthusiasm will be the catalyst for a long-term relationship between James Gillespie's and Citadel High.

Audrey Kellacher, national education development officer for Homecoming and trip leader, was impressed with how community and school life complemented each other. She points to a sense of community that stretched back in time: "They know everything about their ancestors." The group believes Scottish children also have pride in their heritage but have a vaguer understanding of their roots, and genealogy could be a powerful classroom tool.

The trip was organised through LTS's Scottish Continuing International Professional Development programme. It takes teachers of all backgrounds, and other education workers, on trips abroad to be immersed in practice that might be adapted to their own schools. Members of each group are expected to maintain contact and exchange ideas after they return.

Mrs Harris and Miss Macdonald are clear on what they had most appreciated about their trip: an extended opportunity to bounce ideas off teaching colleagues from a host of other backgrounds and authorities. "You don't get the chance to do that very often," says Mrs Harris.

www.ltscotland.org.ukinternationaleducation scipdvisitsgroupvisits.asp


The Homecoming CPD event will take place at The Hub, Edinburgh, on November 23


The article on Aidan Pritchard, SQA Candidate of the Year runner-up, will feature next week.

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