Orange Shirt Day: “It fits in the past, the present, as well as the future”

 In Classroom Practice

Since Phyllis Webstad shared her story as a residential school survivor in 2013, Orange Shirt Day has become recognized widely across Canada. In eight short years, the words “Every Child Matters” have touched people young and old in different ways. Phyllis Webstad describes Orange Shirt Day as a “day of reconciliation” and says the idea all children matter “fits in the past, the present, as well as the future.” 

For some, Orange Shirt Day has meant learning about residential school history through the voices and experiences of Indigenous peoples for the first time. For others, this day has become a day of taking action in the present by participating in a campaign or joining with others from across the country for the virtual gathering held by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. For residential school survivor Eddy Charlie (Quw’utsun), Orange Shirt Day holds possibilities for the future: “Orange shirt day is this one opportunity when everybody can come together to reclaim their identity and their lost traditions.”  

How you recognize Orange Shirt Day may depend on where you are and who your students are. In some communities, students may have a strong understanding of the historical trauma caused by residential schools and how this has impacted their families and community. They may wish to honour residential school survivors in a way that resonates with Eddy Charlie’s words, through experiences that generate a sense of identity, foster community connectedness, and reclaim traditions

There are many starting points for a lesson with these aims, and many ways teachers can make connections between the stories of residential school survivors and the lived experiences of students today. Below is an example of a lesson that can be delivered in connection with Orange Shirt Day. The lesson draws on personal artifacts to share and acknowledge one another’s experiences and explore how an artifact can represent a person’s identity. 

Before 

Find out how your school will recognize Orange Shirt Day and decide if this lesson should become before or after the Orange Shirt Day gatherings at your school. Choose an Orange T-shirt that will anchor a class discussion and reflection on artifacts and their meaning. 

Hook: Show the orange t-shirt to students and ask them to share or write down the first thought they have when they see an orange t-shirt. Then ask them to share or write down what an orange t-shirt means to them and what it might mean to other people when they see one on Orange Shirt Day.

During

Building conceptual understanding: With the class, explain or define the concept of an artifact as something that is made by people and often has specific cultural meaning. Make connections between Phyllis Webstad’s story and the orange t-shirt as an artifact that helps others remember her story. Explain how the shirt has come to symbolize many stories that are shared by residential school survivors and remembered across nations.

You may wish to show the class photos of items from around the school or community that could also be considered artifacts. These could range from art made by students or community members, to medals and trophies won at school athletic events. The common thread is that the artifacts have a special meaning to the community culture or the school culture.

Hearing their stories: Invite students to choose a personal artifact that they would feel comfortable sharing with their peers. Students may spend a couple of days choosing an artifact and writing down the description and story behind it. Students can organize their work around these five criteria:

  • What your artifact is
  • Where it comes from
  • What story is behind it
  • Why it means a lot to you
  • What you think the artifact says about who you are

Let students know they will be sharing their artifacts in a sharing circle with the rest of the class, and that you will be inviting a local Elder or residential school survivor to come and listen to their stories and share one of their own personal artifacts. (Note: when you make arrangements with this guest in advance, make sure they are comfortable sharing a personal artifact with students and explaining how it represents their identity.) If your invited guest has a particular skill such as beading, sewing, or crafting other traditional items, you might ask them to bring one of these items and share how they learned their skills, what their process is, and how the items they create reflect part of their identity. 

Sharing Circle: Facilitate a circle that gives each student the opportunity to share their artifact if they wish. It can be a powerful experience to hear an Elder or residential school survivor share a story about an artifact that represents part of their cultural identity. There may be protocols or guidelines you wish to follow to ensure that everyone listens and participates respectfully. 

After

Arrange for students to thank the guest in an appropriate way. Allow time for students to reflect on similarities and differences between the story of their personal artifact and that of the Elder or residential school survivor. What did they learn about themselves, and about their community by listening to everyone’s stories and experiences? 

How is Orange Shirt Day recognized in your class? What themes do you focus on, and what discussions do you have with students? Share your teaching experiences on this important topic.