Listening to the Echoes – The Reverberations of Historical Narratives and Agency a Reader Response by Leslie Rafferty

Listening to the Echoes – The Reverberations of Historical Narratives and Agency a Reader Response by Leslie Rafferty

Yesterday I started my class with the following question: “What is the significance of the residential school system?”

My students looked at their desks with the averted gaze that they hope shielded them from my quest for student involvement. Ok, I thought, perhaps we should start with a more basic question. “What are residential schools?” I asked hopefully.

A hand goes up. “Miss, they were special schools that native people went to”

“Why do you suppose they had special schools?” I asked.

“It’s because they didn’t fit into the other schools”

“What other schools? I encouraged.

“The white schools”, the student responded.

This is not an exchange that is foreign to history teachers. It reflects the basic assumptions that underlie contemporary curriculum expectations. These assumptions are representative of the marginalization of women, immigrants and native peoples from the accepted central narratives of exclusion. According to Den Heyer and Abbott (2011), the concept of “fitting” into a grand narrative is problematic. This is due, they argue to the manner by which the narrative has been traditionally understood and re-understood over time to replicate narrow definitions of identity and agency (p. 611). The authors move away from the question of “how do we teach (others) to teach?” toward one even more challenging. How do we ask new teachers to “engage in re-reading in a writerly” manner what and how we have been taught? (p. 611).

For many, long held assumptions of identity and citizenship dwell in the margins of the official documents chronicling our nation building. For example, Letourneau’s “mythistory” discusses the binary aspect of teaching history where women, natives and immigrants reside as “secondary characters” in the story of the history of Quebec (as quoted by Den Heyer, & Abbott, 2011, p.614). Such exclusionary motifs of Canadian history are readily discernible, and while they vary from region to region, they all integrate into a meta-understanding of our identification in the grand narrative. This approach is what we are used to. We are socialized to the concept of identification versus identity as students of history and we bring these assumptions to bear on our own teaching practice.

What does this mean for curriculum? “Grand narratives need to be explicitly named and troubled” and that should be the goal of curriculum (p. 614). The authors argue that an ability to give legitimacy to the narrative template “lies at the heart of a historical consciousness” (p. 615). There is a subjective necessity in this interpretation. The question for teachers is how to change the template from exclusion to inclusion in the weaving together of historical identity (p. 615). The authors propose the central problem of implementation. That is, how to open up space in schools for multiple ways of telling the past? (p. 611). This approach supposes the integration of multiple perspectives and supports the articulation of alternative narratives where meaning is derived from the engagement with the text. They focus on both readerly and writerly approaches to develop teacher and student interpretations. (p. 611).

A readerly question might sound like this. “How were women were excluded from the political processes of Canadian society?” Such questions would relate to the interpretation of women’s experience in relation to the social and political institutions represented in the grand narrative. The question assumes exclusion, and meaning is found in the text itself (p. 611). The answer is an historical conclusion based on an imposition of exception, a mechanistic approach to the defining of a group against an accepted and closed narrative. This is an objective assessment of a place on the fringes of the story and it tells us nothing of experience as grand narratives work to relate a story of the past that is static and self-replicating (p. 613) What resides in this narrative are voices excluded. The negation of the specific templates results in a “struggle” to articulate any alternative story, and certainly one that departs from the template of a powerful patriarchal Anglo-centric historical narrative” (p. 615) Here we see identification and not identity (p. 618). A writerly approach could create a specific narrative which would give primacy to the voice of working-class women as they struggle with the absence of autonomy resulting from their exclusion from the political processes of Canadian society. Its purpose is to create meaning in context (p. 611).

The “rendering” of these narratives (is) the ability to derive moral obligations in the present, from inherited stories from or about the past” (Letourneau as quoted by Den Heyer, & Abbott, 2011, p. 39). This supports an individual historical agency that “describes well the social struggle over cultural resources that become “official knowledge” (p. 616). Struggles that lead historical agents to construct and reproduce identities in youth that evolve from the “we” to the “they” are inherent in the grand narrative (p. 617). The authors argue that exploring and understanding the dissonance that results from “being at the core of the historical experience can create agency (p. 617). In response, a dissonant and readerly approach allows for the subjective deconstruction of the grand narrative, but at the same time does not support the rejection of that narrative. They are meant to construct and entwine.

Of course, this leads me to a reassessment of my approach to my students. The authors provide a basis for a new approach to curriculum where clearly change is necessary. Students must be allowed to implicate themselves into their learning as a matter of identity, necessitating the creation of a subjective understanding that thoughts and beliefs do not belong to them alone (Den Heyer, 2006, p. 28) Their engagement with curriculum as an “encounter”, allows narrative and lived experience to entwine, learning “from rather than merely about knowledge” (p. 28).

Today I started class with the following question:

“Imagine you were taken from your parents and the only life you have ever known and brought to live in a strange place where you were not loved, understood or acknowledged. How would you feel?”


Den Heyer, K and Abbott, L. (2011) Reverberating Echoes: Challenging Teacher Candidates to Tell and Learn from Entwined Narrations of Canadian History. Curriculum Inquiry, 41(5), pp. 616 – 635.

Den Heyer, K. (2009) Implicated and Called Upon: Challenging an Educated Position of Self, Others, Knowledge and Knowing as Things to Aquire. Critical Literary: Theories and Practice. 3(1), pp. 26 – 35.