Place-Based Education: Exploring Urban Landscapes as Texts

Place-Based Education: Exploring Urban Landscapes as Texts

May 16, 2017
Brandy Gibb program coordinator, English+, Crofton House Senior School

BC’s new curriculum is rich with exciting teaching and learning opportunities. In particular, the focus on place as a form of text offers teachers opportunities to create rich experiential learning activities that complement the academic skill building practised within core classes.

Each year, English+ 8 students venture to Vancouver’s Chinatown where they are asked to read and interpret the cultural and historic significance of this urban text. This excursion is supported by their study of the novel White Jade Tiger, by Julie Lawson. Like the myriad of Chinatowns located up and down the west coast of North America, the novel focuses on two distinct geographic locations: China and British Columbia, Canada. Through both the novel and the excursion, students explore the connection between place and cultural identity and how this relates to their own identities.

In this new global-hyper-connected-world, cultural identity is becoming more and more fluid, and young people are tasked with becoming skilful “cultural navigators” (Habacon, 2009) who move between languages and cultures on a daily basis. To that end, the novel study and the excursion to Chinatown supports the English+ 8 students through an exploration of their own ever-evolving personal and cultural identities. The hope is that this experience will lead students towards  “[a] positive personal and cultural identity [through their] understanding, and appreciation of all the facets that contribute to a healthy sense of oneself, . . .  [including] awareness and understanding of one’s family background, heritage(s), language(s), beliefs, and perspectives in a pluralistic society” (“Positive Personal and Cultural Identity,” B.C.’s new curriculum).
In White Jade Tiger, Jasmine, the protagonist, passes through a time portal when she walks down Fan Tan alley in Victoria’s Chinatown and enters the Dragon Maker’s shop. During our recent excursion, the English+ students were treated to their own time portal when they entered Tosi’s & Company, “the oldest Italian Food Specialist and Importer in British Columbia [that] has been serving Vancouver, Burnaby, and the lower mainland since 1906” (Tosi’s). To our great delight, Mr. Angelo Tosi, the 84-year-old proprietor and son of the original owner, was just returning from his lunch: warm soup from the noodle shop around the corner. Mr. Tosi is a lovely character who loves to play with time: the day of our visit, his “Went for a Bowl of Soup” sign read “Back after 8 minutes” (notice the “8” is paper clipped onto the sign!).
Not only did Mr. Tosi explain the many products he has on offer, but he also proved to be a well-versed historian of the area. From Mr. Tosi, we learned that Chinatown used to be known as Italian town and that there was an area just east of Main Street known as Japantown. He talked about the history of racism and discrimination in the area during and after WWI and WWII, all of which were themes the students had previously explored in the novel.

Reflecting on on the experience, several students noted that meeting Mr. Tosi was a highlight of the trip. Dawn H. notes that “it was interesting to find out that Chinatown used to be Italian town because the streets are [now] decorated with Chinese symbolic colors and animals. It is hard to find even a trace of Italian culture now, [aside from Mr. Tosi].”

The day also included a guided tour of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Gardens where students participated in a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. Student Ann L. noted that while “many of [them] were familiar with the tea ceremony since it is part of [their] normal life (mostly [their] parents), it is uncommon for people with no Chinese background to drink tea in this way. The tea ceremony highlights the . . . sharing of cultures.” For Ann, and other students, the tea ceremony was “a metaphor for the exchanging and blending happening [between] the [Chinese and Canadian] cultures.”
The tea-specialist, Lars, who hosted the ceremony, recognized the unique nature of performing this ritual for people familiar with the practice, and he took the time to honour the students and their culture by regularly deferring to them about both the ritual of pouring tea as well as the significance and quality of different tea blends. This inclusive approach to a Chinese ritual with a long history only added to the overall experience.

Working with cultural navigators calls on teachers to embrace a culturally responsive approach to their practice. It is important for us to remember that “optimal student learning is not possible if educators do not possess intercultural skills or are not equipped to facilitate intercultural relationship and learning” (“Intercultural Understanding,” Equity and Inclusion Office, UBC). Now that the English+ 8 students have completed their adventure through Vancouver’s Chinatown, including a brief time travelling experience like Jasmine in White Jade Tiger, it is my hope that these students will continue the evolution of their cultural identities and that their curiosity will guide them to exploring ever more intercultural experiences.

Habacon, A. E. (2009). Multiculturalism 2.0: More than Ethnic. TEDx Vancouver. Retrieved November, 2nd, 2015 from https:/ / watch?v= PTy22qmK2WE
Equity and Inclusion Office UBC. “Intercultural Understanding.” Accessed on 30th April 2017.