Teacher Feature: Beryl Cohen’s Canoe Project

For a just few more days, we have a unique exhibit hanging above our “Grand Portage” gallery: 56 canoes hand-made by 56 grade 6 students from Karen Kain School for the Arts, installed last June in time for the group’s overnight stay at the Museum. (Yes! 56 students sleeping over in the Museum! But that’s another story.)

To me, this exhibit -- and the project behind it -- is the convergence of everything awesome: students making things, exploring a topic in-depth and long-term, through a project that connects school, home and community. Bonus points that the canoe is the focus of it all.

The Canoe Project, in its 7th year, is the brainchild of Beryl Cohen, a teacher at Karen Kain School for the Arts, a middle school in the southwest of Toronto District School Board. She explains how it works: “During the project, students view a number of films related to the canoe. After a number of independent research periods where they investigate a series of websites, the students select a canoe that they’d like to create. As an in-depth, integrated project, the students are expected to use Google Earth to research a canoe route that their canoe may have traveled, they then design their map using formal cartographic details. They meticulously document their entire canoe-building process and share their research and work through a film a PowerPoint or Prezi, and an oral presentation. Students are expected to discuss their problems and how they overcame them. They are given credit in all English strands, Social Studies and Visual Arts.” In an effort to deliberately parallel the learning-from-elders in traditional First Nations communities, the students are encouraged to work with their parents when building the canoe. And their research immerses them deeply in the First Nations, Metis and/or Inuit origins of the watercraft they choose to study.

The students’ investment of time, energy and care into this project is so moving. Check out this student’s film here:

Says Beryl Cohen: “It’s amazing to see how their confidence increases and how they become stronger, more independent learners as they complete this project. “

Where does the Canoe Museum come in to the picture? Ms. Cohen, along with other Karen Kain teachers, has been bringing students to the Museum for their big overnight end-of-year grade 6 trip for a number of years now.  This is what that looks like:

But this year, there was something new. A month or so before the trip, Ms. Cohen had a request: Could they bring their canoes? Could we exhibit them?

And this is one of the many things I love about this place. I got to say yes. Thanks to a love of learning and student creativity that permeates the whole Museum, we prioritized finding space in our (very full!) Galleries, and brought in the students’ work. We asked the students to provide photographs and write-ups based on curatorial standards. The lack of time (or budget!) for creating hard exhibit materials meant that the students’ statements and photos are hosted online on our website and accessible in the Galleries via iMac – something that at first seemed like a limitation (no text panels!) but now seems like a positive: we’ve had a number of people reach out to us about the project based on online views.

The looks on the students’ faces when they first saw their canoes in the Museum: priceless. “Hey! Those are our canoes!” one student said as they filed into the Galleries. And the line of kids stopped; they pointed and laughed and, despite their best grade 6 efforts to hide it, beamed with pride. We also welcomed some of the students’ families here over the summer, making the journey to the Museum for the first time to see their child’s work in a context of many traditions of canoe building and history.

We’ll be taking the canoes down next week to get ready for our upcoming Beaver Gala, but we’ll keep the online version here for you to check out.

And now, over to you: Are you interested in trying a version of this Canoe Project? We’re taking names for a PD session led by Beryl Cohen on how to implement this in your classroom.  Or, do you have a canoe-based project in your classroom? We’d love to hear about it. Please get in touch with me: karen.taylor@canoemuseum.ca.