Stepping into Magic: the story of two teachers taking their students on a magical ride

Did you ever wish to “ride on” the magic school bus? On her shape-shifting bus, Ms. Frizzle drives and/or flies her students to the source of their lessons, whether it is inside a volcano, a human body, or all the way to outer space. As a kid, I’d watch The Magic School Bus and yearn to join the class because learning happened on field trips. Though, the magic of Ms. Frizzle doesn’t lie in her inherent magical abilities, but in how she uses them. The lengths she goes to as an educator provides unique opportunities for her students, deepening their learning experience and their understanding. And those qualities exist in real life teachers. You do not have to ride on the magic school bus to feel like the books you’re reading or the subjects you’re learning feel tangible, you just have to step into Ms. Lee’s or Mrs. Segal’s classroom. 

Without a magic school bus, these teachers, who are reasonably new to their field, were able to take their students on a magical ride on December 16 and 17. Around 5,703.6 km separates Ms. Katherine Lee’s and Mrs. Segal’s classrooms but on those two days, the distance disappeared. 

This past summer Ms. Lee moved from Toronto to teach at Eliza Van Bibber (EVB), a school in the Yukon located in Pelly crossing, a self-governing community, home to the Selkirk First Nations. Pelly crossing is three hours outside of Whitehorse with a population of four hundred people. There are 67 students currently enrolled at EVB, from Kindergarten to Grade 12. Lee teaches a split class of Grades 3, 4, and 5, with a total of 12 students. 

Mrs. Segal on the other hand, teaches at a private Jewish day school in Toronto, with an overall enrolment of around 1,000 students. She teaches a class of 25 Grade 6 students. On the surface, these two spaces seem worlds apart from one another, snuggly nestled in their respective bubbles. But the delightful thing about bubbles is, they can pop.

When Ms. Lee arrived she desired to expand her students’ knowledge in the same way her Grade 6 teacher did for her. Long before it was introduced to the Ontario curriculum, Ms. Lee had a teacher who taught her the gravity of pain Indigenous communities experienced. At the time this was highly unusual, I myself don’t remember learning about this in a substantive manner until university. One of the ways Ms. Lee has channelled her teacher, is by exposing her students to “richer language and vocabulary, and stories from across the globe outside of the Yukon or Canada,” including the Holocaust, which wasn’t initially in the curriculum. 

She chose to do a read aloud of Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars for their English and Social Studies course. The work of historical fiction centres on 10-year-old Annemarie Johansen, who lives in Nazi occupied Denmark with her family in 1943, and her best friend Ellen Rosen, who, with her family, has to flee because she is Jewish. Before they started reading and learning about the Holocaust, her students, Ms. Lee told me, did not even know what a “Jewish person was.” But the choice to read Lowry’s book gives her students the ability to find the “parallels between the Holocaust and residential schools” to show them that communities and cultures deemed unfamiliar share similarities due to oppression and prejudice. 

But what does this have to do with Mrs. Segal’s class in Ontario? 

Ms. Lee and Mrs. Segal were friends before they were teachers. Since their days in middle school they have been by each other’s side. Ms. Lee initially reached out to Mrs. Segal and asked if her class could interview some of Mrs. Segal’s students. Ms. Lee wanted to provide an “enriched experience” for her students, who wanted to learn more about the Holocaust, namely, and partly due to Lowry’s work, about stories that involved smuggling Jews out of the country or out of camps. 

Coincidentally, Mrs. Segal’s class was reading Margaret Pokiak-Fenton (whose birth name is Olemaun) and Christy Jordan-Fenton’s Fatty Legs. A true story based on Margaret’s residential school experience.

During our interview, Mrs. Segal shared with me that this is part of their unit on identity and they spend “a lot of time on First Nation, Metis, Inuit culture and traditions.” They learn “a little about residential schools”, what happened because of them, and why it took so long for the Canadian government to apologize. On their own, she tells me, her students started to make connections to the Holocaust, and to the history of the Jewish people, in or outside of their families. 

Number the Stars and Fatty Legs deepen the students’ knowledge of history but when Ms. Lee and Mrs. Segal decided to bring their classes together over Zoom, they were able to give their students something a book cannot, something that makes Ms. Frizzle alluring: a personal first-hand experience. They gave the children a chance to meet peers they would likely never have crossed paths with. As Mrs. Segal recounted to her class the possibility that “they might be the only Jews Ms. Lee’s students ever meet, and they may only be the First Nations we will ever meet.” 

Their teachers planned, over a period of two days, an opportunity for their classes to ask and answer questions. The students would get to know other kids who come from different backgrounds but who, like them, are descendants of those who have suffered at the hands of prejudice. A point Ms. Lee expanded on by stating that reading Lowry’s book, and having these conversations are about “putting yourself in everyone’s shoes, and looking at different perspectives.”  

Both teachers, as Mrs. Segal told me, went into these talks knowing there are differences in “our experiences but we can be empathetic because we’ve also been targeted for our culture and traditions, and people have also tried to change who we are.” 

The classes virtually welcomed one another into each of their rooms in their native languages, Tutchone, and Hebrew. Although Hebrew is not a native language for many Jews, it is taught in Jewish private schools and is the language the class chose to greet Ms. Lee’s students in. 

The greetings alone taught the children things they would not have encountered in their books. Ms. Lee’s students did not know that Jewish peoples’ native language are not all the same, as it changes based on where families come from, and/or have lived. While Mrs. Segal’s class was “shocked” to learn that the EVB students do not know their native language fluently, or that it isn’t their first language. As Mrs.Segal recalled, when they “met them they realized that a lot of them don’t even speak their native language and that they’re working really hard to learn their native language, so I think that was really important for them to break down those stereotypes that they have in their head.” 

The magical sharing of culture and tradition taking place gave these students the ability to learn about the lives of Jewish and First Nations people today, outside of the context of their tragic histories. 

With introductions out of the way, the questions started pouring in. Pre-approved and reviewed by each of their teachers, the classes asked each other a series of questions. 

Some of the questions Ms. Lee’s class wondered about were “how long did the war last?”, “did any Jews escape?”, and “why did they want to kill all the Jews?  Though they were curious about Jewish history and what being Jewish is like, the students’ interest in smuggling continued. A personal anecdote that blew them away came from a student in Mrs. Segal’s class who shared a story about a family member who escaped by being packed into a suitcase and put on a train. 

Mrs. Segal’s class asked if any of the kids were affected by residential schools, and a few responded that their family members had been. Her class was interested in learning about their traditions, and found Stick Gambling fascinating. It is a game where two players both have a set of 25-28 sticks handcrafted from wood or bone, and the opponent has to try to point out the Trump stick, which has a special marking on it. But they were particularly intrigued about the day to day lives of the students living in Pelly. Asking what is “COVID like there?” to which a student told them it is “scary, because if it comes here, I cannot go outside. It’s such a small town and we are three hours away from the hospital in Whitehorse”, and simply asking “what do you like to do in your spare time,” to which a student replied, “I like to colour, and play games, such as Among Us.” 

Mrs. Segal elaborated on the importance of these two meetings by stating “having this opportunity to actually communicate and talk with each other, shows them how similar they are. One kid brought up Tik Tok and they were all laughing, they’re just kids.” 

 The magical ride they took into the lives of people from different cultures will, Ms. Lee and Mrs. Segal hope, leave an indelible mark on each of their classes. A student of Mrs. Segal’s became so inspired by the experience that she said, like Ms. Lee, she “really wants to, when I’m older, teach there.” Something she could only be inspired to do because the teachers before her, one that is her own, and one that was a stranger, brought to her an eye-opening experience that became so much more real than the story she was reading, it became part of her personal history. Possible because she, along with the rest of their two classes, have teachers encouraging curiosity, exploration, and understanding towards different perspectives, and backgrounds. A thing only the Ms. Frizzles of today’s generation can do.

Header image design by Orly Zebak.

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Orly Zebak writes, designs sets and costumes, and makes art in various mediums. Her work seeks to challenge conceptions of female performativity in relation to womanhood, girlhood, and coming of age stories. In her spare time, you can catch Orly gardening—usually in her very comfortable off-brand crocs.

Orly earned her M.A. at the University of Toronto in Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies.

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