Fenton, the mascot for the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, is an adorable bear. He is soft and comforting like the kind of objects young immigrants held tight as they crossed the vast ocean to a better life in Canada while Pier 21 was still in operation. Fenton’s job is to help children learn about immigration with the Teddy Bear's Journey workshop. I didn’t even know about Fenton until I was writing this, but it is one of those special coincidences because this post is about plush objects of significance. Even Fenton has a bear to hold.
My Grade 6 class just finished their Precious Cargo presentations. Precious Cargo is a Building Outside the Blocks project that I created last year when I first started teaching Grade 6 Individuals and Societies (Social Studies). In the Ontario Curriculum, there is a focus on immigration to Canada, and this project really helps to build schema around the experience of leaving one's home and emigrating to a new place. It’s like show and tell with a critical thinking component. Of all the objects one possesses, the student has to select and justify the one object that they would have to take with them.
Last year, I was blown away by the assignment because there were several new Canadians in my classroom. This year, I was feeling like the project had not been as impactful because there were so few students who had personal experiences with immigration. My students changed my perspective today as we reflected on the experience. They showed me that it was much more than I had noticed.
This year's Precious Cargo selections were less about sharing immigrant experiences and more about the value of treasured objects. There were bracelets from grandparents, photographs and photo albums, t shirts and sweatshirts and other special items that had been passed down through generations or given as gifts to mark milestone celebrations. More often than anticipated, there were bears and other stuffed animals.
Rainbow Red, Freddy, Jeffery, Bear, Zebra, Peanut, Hayley and Katya were among the cherished cuddlies that were presented. It took a lot of courage for the students to share the intimate details of their life experiences with these toys that were so much more than play items. We all got to know a lot about each other through this task. When I talk about how BOBs helps build community, this is what I mean. After the first few risk takers felt safe sharing their secret conversations, make-believe games and journeys with their stuffies, it gave others strength to do the same. What it became was evidence of how these childhood objects remain precious and in good use even after students reach their double digits. Instead of shame or embarrassment, as one parent worried when she emailed to check if a stuffed animal was an acceptable choice, the students stood proudly in front of their classmates, shared the narrative about when they first received these items and how they have become essential aspects of their lives. Some of us even teared up a few times (not pointing fingers but that may have included me).
There were many aspects of the assignment that fostered academic and learning skills. Students evolved their verbal and non-verbal presentation skills. They were self directed in selecting the date of their presentation and the object of their choice. As well, each item's justification reflected the student’s growing skills at substantiating opinions as they explained their selected items with thoughtful rationals for their choice. Having the presentation aspect elevated the experience to a shared one that was about more than developing skills.
Over the last month, as a few students presented their Precious Cargos during each class, the value of these objects increased. This experience was not just for the presenter, but for the class community who received these items with open arms and minds. There was a camaraderie built through this assignment that was as comfortable as the cuddly objects they brought in to present. The students eagerly searched the class agenda to see who would be presenting that day, as they do with all my Building Outside the Blocks projects. There is something intangible that happens in our learning space when students literally and figuratively bring a piece of themselves into their school experience.
There were more bears and stuffed items than I could have anticipated. Instead of detracting from the experience due to cuteness, it made the whole project that much more endearing. In the end, the students have personalized experiences with having to make difficult decisions of selecting only one object to "immigrate" with. This connects them more to our unit and to each other. All of the stories of our lives and what matters to us are precious cargo, too.