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A storyteller’s spark

March 14, 2024

A woman and three middle school children view a handheld device

Allison Balabuch, an Education PhD candidate, is a finalist in the Social Sciences and Humanities’ Storytellers Challenge, which comes with a $3,000 prize and the chance to present in front of a panel of judges for the top spot in Canada in May.

The national competition asks postsecondary students to show Canadians, in up to three minutes or 300 words, how SSHRC-funded research is affecting our lives, our world and our future for the better. Balabuch’s entry is a graphic poster that showcases the school resource she has spent the past three years developing about Ghanaian local history and culture for middle school students in the Banda region of Ghana.

“Many voices are missing in our school textbooks.” In her undergraduate International Relations and Political Science degree at UBC, Balabuch reports, she did not learn about residential schools in Canada. In the same vein, says the veteran of 28 years teaching in public schools, “We teach almost nothing about Africa. What is taught is focussed on a deficit model – famine, disease, war and slavery.”

So when UVic archaeology professor Ann Stahl approached education professor Kathy Sanford about finding someone to help assemble her huge archive of Ghanaian information and photographs into a usable form for students in the region, Sanford didn’t have to think long. She had supervised Balabuch’s MA in Curriculum and Instruction and knew her extensive skills as a teacher, her interest in history, in decolonization, and in hands-on learning and integrative education.

Balabuch saw it as an opportunity. “What could education look like?” she asks and points out that UN Sustainable Development Goal 4 is Quality Education. “How can we make education better? How can we shift it so it’s personally meaningful and connected for everyone?”

As she was compiling Stahl’s materials into a student-facing document, Balabuch piloted it with her Grade Eight students at Victoria’s Central Middle School, who gave her feedback on readability and engagement. For their part, they learned something about culture and history on another continent, they saw research in action and got a first-hand look at their teacher taking pleasure in her own lifelong educational journey.

In 2022, Balabuch travelled to Ghana with a 25-page draft of the school resource. There, she got feedback from community members, elders, teachers, and students. She also piloted the draft resource in four middle school classrooms. “The idea for the book came from a community request to develop a resource to share local history with the youth in the area. They were so excited to see their local community reflected in the pages of the draft.” She added more than 25 pages before she came home.

In 2023, Stahl’s SSHRC funding paid for 1,000 print copies of the open-access, illustrated textbook written in both English and Nafaanra, one of several languages spoken in the region. Balabuch is also translating it into French. Learning from Our Past English and Nafaanra versions are available at UVic Libraries.

“I thought [SSHRC Storytellers Challenge] was a long shot,” Balabuch says, “but I really feel this project is an example of what’s possible. I hope it’ll spark other collaborations, across faculties, across disciplines and between communities. Maybe it’ll open a dialogue that improving education is possible when we work together.”

Rachel Goldsworthy