Governor General bestows history award on Heather Jefkins, Assiginack teacher

Heather Jefkins receives a Governor General’s History Award from Governor General Julie Payette. photo by Master Cpl. Mathieu Gaudreault, Rideau Hall

Students master pioneer skills in classroom fibre arts project

OTTAWA – Assiginack Public School (APS) teacher Heather Jefkins has been awarded a top history and heritage honour from Canada’s National History Society and Governor General Julie Payette at an Ottawa ceremony this past Monday, January 20, in honour of her unique application of the Ontario curriculum to her Grade 3/4 students last year.

“It’s sort of the icing on a 25-year career. I have always been very passionate about history,” said Ms. Jefkins, one of nine recipients of the 2019 Governor General’s History Awards. 

She said her love of history has been with her for her whole life, having grown up in a house where her dad encouraged her and her brother to learn and ask questions.

“I’ve always wanted to give my students that opportunity to be excited and engaged by history. It’s not just dead people and dates; there’s so much more to it and we can make our own connections to it,” she said.

The July 10, 2019 edition of The Expositor featured the story of Ms. Jefkins’ class project (‘APS students complete fibre arts project’) and the numerous people who helped with the assignment. But why the focus on fibre arts in particular, and how could a project of this magnitude be effectively pulled off in a split-grade class?

The Grade 3 and 4 history curricula have certain overlaps that made this fusion possible. In Grade 3, students learn about Ontario as it existed in the 1800s. Grade 4 students assess ancient civilizations. In Ancient Egypt, knitting and weaving guilds were rather common, and in 1800s Ontario all clothing had to be handmade.

Although the curriculum could work for both classes, it would not have been nearly as successful without student buy-in. Ms. Jefkins did not impose this project on the students; rather, it grew organically after a planned three-week project about quilting.

Assiginack Township events co-ordinator and quilter extraordinaire Jackie White was at the ready to lend her expertise for that portion of the assignment and helped the students with hands-on practice learning to sew and the significance of different quilt patterns. The students began to think of the work that goes into making everyday necessities such as clothes and were drawn deeply into the art form.

“The wonderful thing about having students who are so excited to learn in my class is they’ll jump off and find other things to check out,” said Ms. Jefkins, adding that soon the focus had shifted and grown to include weaving and then embroidery.

She contacted a friend with roots on Manitoulin who runs an embroidery business. She sent learn-to-embroider kits for each of the students. Then, the students wanted to learn more about the spinning and weaving process so they enlisted the help of the Manitoulin Weavers and Spinners. A chance encounter soon allowed the students to go even further.

“We were taking a field trip and Bob Case was our bus driver. He and I were chatting about animals on his farm. I asked if he still had sheep; he did, and I asked if when they got sheared if we could get some fleece to show the kids what it looked like,” said Ms. Jefkins.

To her surprise, he turned up later with an entire fleece for the students to pick, clean, wash, dye and spin.

It was a memorable project, but Ms. Jefkins could not have predicted that it would deliver her such an accolade. Earlier in 2019, she received an email that she had been nominated for this Governor General’s award and she was required to send in more information about the project. 

The nomination process was anonymous so she turned to colleagues and community partners for letters of support and documentation of the project’s outcome. One of those letters came from teaching colleague and former student Brenna Madore.

“I was her student in Grade 7/8 and I really just liked her as a teacher, how she taught history and always made it relevant to us as students. Fifteen years later, I’m a co-worker of hers,” said Ms. Madore.

By the end of June, Ms. Jefkins was informed that she was in the top-25 shortlist of contenders for the awards. She was sitting at the staff room table at APS and mentioned aloud that she had moved to the next round but still had no idea who her nominator was.

Ms. Madore turned to Ms. Jefkins and revealed what she had done.

“I started to cry. It’s a tremendous honour,” said Ms. Jefkins. “It’s so lovely to look back on 25 years and realize I’ve made kids excited about history. I’ve made them want to learn more, and as a teacher, that’s what you hope you do. I’ve had students like Brenna who have become teachers or gotten history and geography degrees.”

This is not Ms. Jefkins’ first brush with the Governor General’s History Awards. She was nominated for a 2015 project related to military history and a project about Flat Stanley, a children’s book first published in 1964. She has also been part of a successful Staples Canada project at Charles C. McLean Public School in Gore Bay that netted the school $25,000 for new technology.

Ms. Jefkins is now a member of the national teacher advisory group for the National Museum of History in Ottawa, where part of her duties include assessing how digital resources could be made more appropriate for teachers and students across Canada.

As a recipient of a Governor General’s History Award, she was invited to speak at the Canada History Forum in Ottawa this past Sunday to talk about her project.

This year, her students will be getting a special treat: Ms. Jefkins has secured access to a World War 2 discovery box from the Canadian War Museum which she will use to help teach her students as the world marks 75 years since the end of the Second World War.

Although the creative ideas, accolades and future projects conceived by Ms. Jefkins could easily fill a newspaper on their own, those next endeavours will have to remain a mystery for the time being. But one common thread that sews them all together is the level of community support Ms. Jefkins has received, to which she credits all of her successes.

“The people on Manitoulin who have helped me in the last 25 years are what makes my program what it is. I couldn’t do what I do in the classroom without the people who are willing to share their stories, artifacts and their time,” said Ms. Jefkins, a proud alumna of the school system on Manitoulin herself.

APS principal Heather Pennie also lauded Ms. Jefkins’ community-minded teaching style as being so successful, especially on Manitoulin Island.

“The way she brings learning to life and brings it hands-on just makes it so much more meaningful for the students,” said Ms. Pennie.

That Manitoulin connection is still dear to Ms. Jefkins’ heart. 

“I was so proud to come home and start teaching here, and I love the Island. It’s because of the people on the Island that I can do the things I do here,” she said.

Ms. Jefkins’ example has left a lasting impact on Ms. Madore.

“She’s always been very supportive in my teaching career and always been there for me if I needed anything. I hope one day I can set an example like that for one of my students,” said Ms. Madore.