The Spanish Flu: Honouring Canada’s lost voices through digital storytelling

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Northview Heights historians in Ms. Whitfield’s Grade 10 Canadian History class, after finding out they are recipients of the 2019 Defining Moments Canada, “Recovering Canada” High School Group prize.

“Coordination, Capacity-Building, and Communication.”

Not only is this the title for the Northview Heights students’ award-winning digital storytelling submission for the Recovering Canada contest about the Spanish Influenza; it also describes how we worked as a classroom community to put our entire project together.  

The educational approach

Located in North York, Ontario, Northview Heights Secondary School is a culturally and ethnically-diverse school where many students study in specialized programs, including the Honours Math Science and Technology (HMST) and the CyberArts program. Knowing the strong interest of my students in science and their creativity in the arts, I thought that this project — emphasizing multiple perspectives and storytelling about the Spanish influenza pandemic — would engage all of my students in doing inquiry work that was interesting, relevant, and connected to their interests. The national contest, organized by Defining Moments Canada, would encourage them to work collaboratively to share stories of the efforts of Torontonians in responding to the influenza.   

When envisioning and introducing this exciting collective digital storytelling project to my students, I tried to come up with a creative lens and framework for their research. I wanted it to be exciting, rooted in historical thinking, and involve solid academic research. In addition, I wanted to allow them the opportunity to work with historical objects and primary source materials, to help them to tell stories in ways that they had never done before.

The goal was for my students to learn about the decisions, actions, and responses of Toronto politicians, scientists, health care providers (doctors and nurses), public health educators, and community volunteers who responded to the Spanish Influenza in Toronto between 1918 and 1920.  

The students’ work

After completing their research, the students creatively told the stories of these individuals by creating Sketchnotes — a combination of handwritten notes with drawings, symbols and other creative elements — to illustrate their findings; the Sketchnotes were placed on objects that would have belonged to these individuals. The students also wrote Bio-Poems — poems written to describe a person — which tell about the incredible stories that they uncovered. They audio-recorded themselves reading these Bio-Poems. Both the Sketchnotes and the Bio-Poems were published on a website.

This project allowed for students of all learning abilities and strengths to contribute to different components of the project. My student, Abigail Mathi-Amorim, commented:

“Many people are visual learners, and I think the Sketchnotes are useful to them. The Bio-Poem, in my opinion, brought the object to life. It not only gave the facts of the situation, but it also gave the object thoughts and feelings and perspective. This made the project more interesting.”

~ Abigail Mathi-Amorim, student

Storytelling through personal objects

Each of the stories were told from a different perspective and object that would have belonged to the Torontonian whose story they were telling. The story of Dr. Charles Hastings, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, was told from the perspective of the many files in his briefcase. For Dr. Margaret Patterson, Health Educator to the Sisters of Service in Ontario (S.O.S), her story was told from the viewpoint of her teaching blackboard. A box of food and supplies told of the efforts of Mr. Frank Stapleford, Founding Director of the Neighbourhood Workers Association, while a lab coat told the story of Dr. Robert D. Defries, Leader of the Antitoxin Lab at the Connaught Laboratories, University of Toronto. Furthermore, a 3D model of the flu virus itself recorded Edward G.R. Ardagh’s story; he was a Professor of Applied Chemistry, University of Toronto. Finally, the work of “honourary Torontonian” Amelia Earhart, Volunteer Nurse at the Spadina Base Hospital, was told from the perspective of her nurses uniform.

My student, Ethan McFarland, whose group told Amelia Earhart’s story, told me:

“Telling stories of people through personal belongings is a much more effective way to tell the stories of the flu, because it allows everyone to connect to the project. When students are connected, they enjoy what they are doing and have fun with the process. Furthermore, the creative format makes it easier for the audience to connect to her [Amelia Earhart’s] story.”

~ Ethan McFarland, student

A collective understanding    

From a teacher’s perspective, the most amazing part about this digital storytelling project was seeing every student engage with interdisciplinary and multi-modal storytelling work, drawing upon their own interests and skills. It is exciting to know that the stories of important individuals in Toronto's history were brought to life by my students. The sharing of their work contributes to our collective understanding of the historical significance and legacy of their decisions and actions, which continue to impact our lives and healthcare system every day.

In doing this research, my students came to understand the groundwork of modern-day health and healthcare policymaking, about how preparation and emergency response protocols served us — and continue to serve today — as exemplars for how to effectively coordinate, capacity build, and communicate. The students also learned about how these important decisions, made in 1918, set a precedent for the need to uphold the values of a liveable city today and in the future.

Abigail’s group told the story of Frank Stapleford; when reflecting on her work in this project, she said:

“What I learned most about Toronto was the complexity of the effort to fight the flu. I never realized how many different organizations and individuals were involved, or how many people were affected. Each organization brought something different to help the flu, managing to stay coordinated so they wouldn't have too much of one thing and not enough of another. Now, I have a better understanding of how big a task it was to fight the flu.”

~ Abigail Mathi-Amorim, student

I am very proud of the work of the Northview Heights historians who committed with such enthusiasm to all aspects of the research, organization, and creation of their digital stories as the High School Group Recipients of the Defining Moments Canada Recovering Canada Contest. Their creatively designed, beautifully articulated, and outstanding collaborative projects are strong evidence of how, as my student Vandan Patel expressed:

“As historians, we have worked hard and have proved that we have the ability to think critically, be creative, and can achieve something if we have the will to do so.”

~ Vandan Patel, student

Indeed, amazing work by students that took equal amounts of coordination, capacity-building, and communication!

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Kathryn Whitfield

Kathryn Whitfield is an award-winning history teacher, innovative curriculum designer and writer, and a dynamic workshop leader. In 2015, she won the Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching Canadian history for her “Historical Thinking Missions Project” which engages students in doing historical and inquiry fieldwork and commemoration design on Toronto’s St. John’s Ward. Kathryn currently teaches Canadian History, French and Dramatic Arts at Northview Heights Secondary School in the Toronto District School Board.