The Hidden Histories of Schools

by Janet Nicol

Connecting history to our school and community deepens students’ understanding of the past. Consider Vancouver Technical Secondary: students typeset, printed, and bound their own yearbooks from 1922 to 1947, the covers illustrated with linocut art. This unique yearbook collection has attracted the interest of local media, a printers’ union, and scholars. Van Tech’s rich “hidden” history, as briefly set out here, proves yearbooks are a powerful primary source, especially for social studies and social justice teachers.

Van Tech was founded in 1916 on unceded territory of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish First Nations and the City of Vancouver. The first Van Tech yearbook was produced by students on traditional presses in the school’s print shop. A pungent odour filled the air from printer’s ink mixed with the oil used to clean the presses. Students hand-set the type and used plates for illustrations. When the presses were rolling, they sounded “like a car backing up,” one student wrote in a yearbook. 

Lewis Elliott, the print shop teacher, oversaw production and established a Linocut Club from 1921 to 1942. A relatively new medium, linocuts were considered a “democratic” art form following World War l; the linoleum plates were cheap, accessible, and more pliable than woodblocks. An image is carved out, then the plate inked with a brayer. Next, a sheet of paper is placed over the plate and pressed. When the paper is peeled back, a transposed image is revealed. Van Tech students created multiple prints from a single carving, using up to four colours. Students’ artwork appeared on the covers and pages of yearbooks, and on the walls of the print shop.

A steelworker linocut image illustrated the school’s 1932 yearbook cover, designed by student Milton Parsons, and reflecting the school’s pride in manual trades. “The object of a technical education is to make a good industrial workman,” the principal noted in the introduction to the 1926 yearbook. When girls were admitted to Van Tech in 1940, they were segregated from the boys, enrolling in typing, nursing, tailoring, retail selling, foods, and hairdressing. Girls also studied academic subjects separately and participated in their own clubs. Marion Barber and Dot Baker joined the Linocut Club in 1943, leading the way toward increased co-education at Van Tech. By the end of the decade, the Linocut Club was gone, yearbooks had a more conventional format, and more courses and activities were a mix of girls and boys. 

Teachers could develop a lesson using their own school yearbooks, directing students to document the type of curriculum and extracurricular activities existing in earlier years. A guiding question for students could be, “How has the school re-enforced gender and social class roles—then and now?”

Yearbooks also provide a dynamic entry point for teachers to make connections with social studies curriculum content, such as the history of World Wars l and ll. Van Tech provides a rich example. The school had a rifle corps and cadet program for boys, and many students enlisted in both wars. The yearbooks published several photographs, articles, and linocut images related to the war. James Sinclair, the son of school principal, James G. Sinclair, was a student alumni who fought overseas in World War ll; his experiences are described in a yearbook article. The yearbook of 1946 had an article stating 1,409 students served in the war. Though still incomplete, a list reported 145 students killed, 31 missing, 74 wounded, 9 prisoners of war, and 34 decorated.  

Students also learn by observing omissions in the historical record. For example, Van Tech yearbooks did not mention the internment of Japanese Canadians during the World War ll, despite its impact on students. George Obokata, a Van Tech student, created linocuts and wrote about his Japanese heritage for the yearbooks during the 1930s. Reliable online sources indicate Obokata volunteered to serve as a linguist in South East Asia during the war. Afterward, he resided in Ontario and was active in Redress for Japanese Canadians.   

Teachers could ask students to brain-storm about a “silence” observed in their yearbooks and then investigate whether this historical gap was subsequently addressed.

This leads to another teaching opportunity on the topic of racial justice. Articles and artworks about First Nations culture in the Van Tech yearbooks illustrated students’ interest—but also prejudices. Derogatory “jokes” about racial groups, specifically Chinese and Black Canadians, found their way into Van Tech yearbooks too, the school culture reflecting a society that normalized racism.   

Students not of British heritage some-times offered alternative perspectives. In the 1930 yearbook, Benito Gadarini wrote an article titled “A League of Nations: A Cross Section of Young Canada” for readers to “…know something about our melting pot of a school.” While reference to a “melting pot” is a problematic term, Gadarini does make visible a multicultural, not racially homogeneous student population, countering histories that are not inclusive.

Teachers are advised to thoroughly preview yearbooks for racist content and only proceed with the lesson if feeling equipped to do so. Additionally, it is essential teachers ensure proper supports are in place for BIPOC students during every aspect of classroom research and discussions.

Many of the students enrolled in Van Tech’s print shop classes and Linocut Club used their skills after graduation in a variety of ways, from apprenticing in a newspaper pressroom to setting up their own print shop. Tracing students’ school-to-work paths provides another dynamic lesson. Bill Wong was another Van Tech student involved in the print shop and Linocut Club. He went on to study civil engineering at the University of BC. No firm would hire him because of institutionalized racism, so he entered the family business called Modernize Tailors. He and his brother Jack were the subjects of a documentary, Tailor Made:Chinatowns Last Tailors, and on November 3, 2013, the City of Vancouver declared Modernize Tailors Day in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the shop. 

In groups, students could research an alumni, focusing on their subject’s challenges, and accomplishments.

Learning in the social studies and social justice classroom is enriched when students investigate “hidden” school histories and make connections to a wider curriculum. As well, students personal and social awareness is enhanced as they consider how past generations of youth navigated social justice issues. 

“What has changed?” and “What needs to change?” are a couple of the follow-up questions teachers can ask students after the yearbook project is over. Positive societal change is more likely to occur if the histories we teach are inclusive, truthful, and give value to a diverse range of Canadians, including young people who have walked through our very own school hallways in years past.

Re-posted from BC Teacher magazine, May/June, 2021

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