Westman educators with BU link win national award

November 30, 2022

Hartney School teacher and BU MEd student Tracey Salamondra (pictured here) and former colleague Carla Cooke have won the Governor General’s History Award for a project in which their Grade 11 students researched and wrote material for panels for a new interpretive walk near Elgin. (Tim Smith/The Brandon Sun)

Two Westman teachers – including one who is also a Master of Education student at Brandon University — have won a prestigious national history award for a project that connected their rural students to their community through history and writing while allowing them to leave a legacy of their own. One of their students has also since entered the integrated Arts and Education program at BU.

Hartney School teachers Tracey Salamondra and Carla Cooke have won a 2022 Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Salamondra is currently pursuing a Master of Education degree at BU, in the Curriculum and Pedagogy Thesis stream.

“I was really excited,” Salamondra said of learning that they’d won. “It’s really nice to think that the work that we’re doing in a small-town school is on par with what you’re seeing in larger centres.”

“It’s quite an honour,” said Cooke, who recently moved to Alberta, where she intends to continue her teaching career. “It’s probably one of the highlights of my teaching career so far, and the fact that I got to share it with Tracey and our students is pretty awesome.”

The teachers are being recognized for their collaboration on a project that connected their students to their community through historical research and authentic writing.

Shown here is the team of Hartney School students whose history and writing project enhanced an interpretive walk as part of an expansion of Whitewater Park Recreational Park. (Left to right) Kayden Drinkwalter, Brooklyn Skelton, Cristel de Guia, Andrew Carreon, Peyton Boulanger, Faith Thomas, Lucas Murray, Henry Bertholet. (Submitted)

The students started work on the project in the 2020-21 school year, while they were in Grade 11 and Salamondra was their social studies teacher and Cooke their English language arts instructor.

Salamondra said she and Cooke would regularly work together and the school likes to connect with the community. So, when the Whitewater Park committee approached her to ask if students would write content for placards along an interpretive trail, Salamondra knew it was time to work with Cooke again.

“People think that writing content is easy, but researching content, coming up with original stuff and then getting it to the published stage is huge,” Salamondra said. “I knew that it would be something that would take both of us.”

In their first semester, a team of eight Grade 11 students partnered with the Elgin and District Historical Museum, which gave students freedom to study their materials. The research was especially difficult, Salamondra said, because at the time pandemic restrictions meant only a couple of people could be in the museum at a time. Students learned about the process of creating history, examined artifacts, searched digital newspaper archives and spoke with local residents to hear their stories.

In their second semester, they learned the craft of storytelling as they put their original research and interviews into historical narrative. Then came editing and fact-checking.

The young researchers spent a lot of time on their project outside of class time, Salamondra said.

“It took a lot of dedication by the students to get this done during COVID,” Salamondra said, adding the fact locals had shared their stories served as motivation for the students. “They know that people were sharing something really important of themselves with the students and they really took this responsibility seriously.”

As a result of their work, 23 placards were installed along the trail, each connected with a story written by the Hartney School students. Each placard has an introduction to the topic and visitors can scan a QR code to see the full story on their phone. Placards are placed in spots that are relevant to the story. For example, one of the signs was near a railway trestle, so one article describes the effect losing the railway had on Elgin.

“It’s amazing,” Salamondra said. “It’s a real legacy for those kids, and I really feel honoured that I got to be a part of what they left behind. That was pretty special.”

Carla Cooke

“It was amazing to watch their growth throughout the whole thing,” Cooke added. “Not just as students academically, but as new young members of their community.”

The students have since graduated from Hartney School, and one of them, Brooklyn Skelton, said it’s an honour to have her work and that of her classmates recognized as part of a national award.

Working on the project has given her confidence as she pursues her own career in teaching, she said. Currently enrolled in the five-year bachelor of arts/education integrated program at Brandon University, she said she plans to teach abroad for a few years after graduation.

“I believe that the hard work and dedication seen through my fellow classmates, teachers and myself will have an impact on who I become as a teacher,” Skelton said. “I am a lot stronger and confident in many areas than I was before this project.”

The teachers were so impressed with the project’s results, they submitted it for the Governor General’s history award, a program administered by Canada’s National History Society.

“It just felt like, if I’d ever been part of something that I thought was worthy of submission, it was this, so we thought we’d take a chance,” Salamondra said.

As of press time, Salamondra and Cooke were preparing to travel to Quebec City for a special ceremony at the Citadelle of Quebec in which they’d receive the award from Gov. Gen. Mary Simon.

The award comes with $2,500 to be split between Salamondra and Cooke. Salamondra said she would put her money toward the writing of her thesis for her master’s degree in education. Cooke said she hasn’t decided yet what to do with her share — it may go to her future career or education, or be used to build a home library or reading room.

There is also $1,000 in prize money to go to the school, and Salamondra said she plans to use it to finance future school projects.

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Reprinted with permission from the Brandon Sun.