Chantal Clabrough Transcript

This started actually about ten years ago. I was at the part where I was about to start teaching World War One, and around the same time a cousin of mine in England sent me a picture. The picture was of our family name — Clabrough — from a War Memorial in Belgium, where our great uncle had died in World War One. 

So I received this and I was about to start teaching World War One history, and I said, you know what? I’m going to project this on the board for the students. And so can we start talking about World War One. And I showed them my name from the memorial was carved in stone, and I had a jolt for a second. I said this is my name. Somebody in my family who died. 

I explained to the students who that was, my grandfather’s brother, who died at age 19 in World War One, and he was with the Manchester Regiment. I never met this person, but I felt it was quite an impactful moment for me. And I realized in that moment what I was very surprised at is the students all, I saw them all lean in, in their chairs and also kind of have a shock to see their teacher’s last name on the board in class.

What I realized in that moment was if we’re teaching about history, if students can have a personal connection to a person, and wherever we’re learning about in history, when they have a personal connection, that’s when what will lead them to remember, and will lead them to be more interested in the subject. Around the same time, my school principal said to me, “We have all these old pictures of men who died from Westmount High School in World War Two, and we have the pictures that we always display for Remembrance Day every year. And we also have these old yearbooks from the school. Do you want to do anything with them? Is there anything that might interest you?”

So I thought to myself, The War memorial plaque that we have in the lobby of our building has all these names of the over 140 men from Westmount High School who died in World War Two.

Students walk past these names every day, and it’s just a name. So it made me realize when I had my students react to seeing my own last name and just the little bit of information that I know all my great uncle who died in Belgium at age 19, I thought, “What can I do to make the students have a same connection to the men that went to our school?“

So the Westmount High School Memorial Project really started at that moment and I decided I want to how can we research all the men that went to our school? So I designed this project. It was stressful because these are real people whose families are still alive. So I thought, whatever we’re going to do to research the lives of these men, it has to be done in such a way that honours them and also is respectful.

So I came up with the research project and basically students using the material in the school were very lucky at Westmount High School to have this archival material, but using the material and also using online databases. Students began to research who was the life of this person beyond just the name that they saw on the plaque. I said to the kids, “The first step is you’re going to pick a picture.”

And so they walked around and looked and said, I think this is the man that I want to talk to, find out who was he? And so they had his face and in some cases it was just the name. Sometimes it would say lost at sea or, you know, maybe the date of death. But it was very brief, the information on the pictures.

And then in the project package, the students had they had to research using our Library and Archives Canada, the World War Two service files they used, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission files. We were in working with the city of Westmount, and I contacted the archival department. The city archives invited our students. They pulled out the archives from the city of Westmount so students could also see once they had researched the beginning of the person’s life and getting the online material. They also went back and looked at the yearbooks to try to find who was this person when they were a kid at our school. 

This was something emotional at times for the students because they saw this was a young guy like me who, you know, they saw pictures of him in some cases, they found his picture when he was on the hockey team, or swimming, or he was in the drama club.

And they saw little pictures of them when they were 13, 14, and a lot of the students were able to find the blurb for their graduation where it would say, you know what their ambition was in life. And of course, nobody had as their ambition to go off to war and to die, you know, and their pet peeves and all kinds of interesting anecdotes.

So the students really were like, whoa, this, you know, it says here he wanted to be an engineer. It says here that he wanted to work in pharmaceuticals or whatever his interest was, but that wasn’t the case. So this was really a project that went over several weeks where the kids were doing research in class, using the material from the school, visiting the archives.

And then they had to piece together all of this information to really put together a digital profile of who was this man and what was his life before, during the war and what happened at the end of his life. A lot of students were so inspired to go out and find and a lot of the information online, they found out the address of where the person lived.

So we had a lot of students who went and walked around Westmount and took pictures outside of the house. You know, where this person lived. And they said, you know, I was walking down the street and I couldn’t help but think he was walking down the same street that I was walking down. You know, it says he died when he was 21.

He some of the men were married. Some of the men, I’m assuming, you know, at one point maybe wanted to get married or have a family or have their career, or travel. And all of those things were cut short. So what ended up happening was the students in the beginning were using iPads, which, you know, when this project started was like the new technology.

But we ended up doing all this on doing Word graphic design but using Word templates. So that was also a creative part of the project because every student designed what the profile would look like and they had to use their cell phones to be taking pictures of all the, you know, the pictures from the yearbook, the pictures we visited, the epitaph of the city of Westmount, and they found the name on the epitaph in some cases as well, and other information.

And they put all of this together in a Word template. What we then did afterwards is we decided, you know what, let’s publish this online. And then I thought, let’s let’s keep going. Could we really do all the names on the plaque? And again, there’s over 140 names. So that started ten years ago. And every year we continue to research more and more names.

And what it also did was the students realized that they’re not just in our high school, but they’re part of the greater community and that they are valued as young people. But that what they were doing was preserving the history of the community. And again, we were going to the archives of the city of Westmount. We also visited the Royal Montreal Regiment, which is a couple of streets down from the school, and a lot of our students actually enrolled in the war through the rural Montreal regiments. The students had another connection of this is not, you know, this building I go to every day. The students here were really connected in the community. 

So what I realized over the years is that history is something that’s not finished and done with. What we’re always learning is that there’s always new things to learn in history through this project, students really saw the individual stories of people.

Sometimes in the textbooks, we only see a couple of the big players, but the regular people, every day, we don’t really hear from them. And certainly a lot of people are excluded from the textbooks. And the political reasons for the textbooks is another story. But through this project, students learned that individual stories can really influence how we interpret historical events, and it gives students a different perspective about what it was like to live at that time so students could really imagine, you know, being a student, having to stop your dreams, having to go to war.

It also allows students to have a greater perspective of the role of Westmount in Quebec and Canada and World War Two, that it’s so very important that we share the stories of individuals when we teach history and that we have to focus on all these different stories and that history is still things that we’re discovering from the past that we don’t know.

What it also made me realize is when students can be involved in actually being part of making history themselves, when they’re actually contributing to the history of the school. You know, there’s so many stories to tell. Every school, every community has has these fascinating stories, and people that have been a part of that community have made it what it is today.

So I also feel like we all have this responsibility to include students to be proud of the school, where they go, to be proud of the community where they live, and to know the stories of all the people who have come before them because they’re going to be the next generation who are going to go out there and create their own stories.

So certainly seeing in the project what the students realized were these were ordinary people who did really extraordinary things because they sacrificed themselves. The students saw, wow, it’s not just a war that I’m studying in a book. But this person really believed in this, really believed that they had to go and fight in the war. And they were courageous to do this.

And it’s certainly a lot of the kids said, you know what, it made me really proud to be from Montreal. It made me proud to be a Quebecer and I’m really proud to be a Canadian because I see all these things that we have today, the life that we’re living today, and unfortunately, the state of the world today, we have to teach about war.

And teaching about war is not glorifying war, but in fact it’s the opposite. And it has the project through many discussions and reflections with students. We asked, why does war happen and is war necessary? And what could have been done in the past to not have reached the, you know, all the deaths and destruction of people?

So really, teaching about war allows teachers and students to really think critically about what can we do to not make this happen again. And unfortunately today we really need to teach about this more and more than ever and the world that we’re living.