School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Health, History & Blankets - A transformative teaching experience

Health, History & Blankets in HLTH 101

by Natalia Mukhina, December 2015

Graduate students go through a transformative teaching experience with the blanket exercise

Turtle Island. The original name for North America, which comes from an Aboriginal creation story. The blanket exercise usually starts with a map, providing a picture of where various tribal groups were living on Turtle Island at the time of the first European contact. “I thought that we would be going to play some kind of game,” says Sarah, one of the HLTH 101 undergraduate students. “What province is more like a turtle on the map, or something. However, it’s not the game. It is our common history.”

HLTH 101 Social Determinants of Health is a course with more than 700 undergrads enrolled, 17 graduate students who serve as teaching assistants, and Professor Elaine Power, the course instructor. This year, the blanket exercise is proving an important technique in an arsenal of teaching tools to demonstrate how colonialism and racism affect the health of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples. As for graduate teaching assistants, facilitating the exercise was a transformative teaching experience.

“The Blanket Exercise is an interactive learning experience that explores the 500-year relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada during just an hour or about,” explains Ed Bianchi from KAIROS Canada, the organization that developed the exercise. Together with the representatives of Queen’s Four Directions Aboriginal Centre, community members, and Elaine, Ed helped conduct the preliminary educational session for HLTH 101 teaching assistants to train them in how to facilitate the exercise.

The Blanket Exercise begins with blankets being arranged on the floor to represent ‎Canada before the arrival of Europeans. The participants take on the roles of Indigenous peoples in Canada, and some Europeans. While a narrator reads from a script, other participants begin to interact with those on the blankets. As the script ‎traces the history of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, it becomes visible that the relationship has been gradually eroded. This is obvious by the blankets, which are folded to be smaller and smaller as the story unravels.

The exercise was an informative and highly emotional experience for all graduate teaching assistants, and some of them couldn’t hold back tears during a debriefing session: “We cannot UN-know what we now know.”

TAs report that undergrads perceived such a non-standard way of teaching with enthusiasm. “The exercise sparked conversation around this topic between students even after the exercise and outside of the classroom,” Alzahra Hudani emphasizes. “It is a good first step to reaching out to Queen’s undergraduate students, as they are our future leaders, advocates, and change-makers.”

“All my students had a powerful reaction to the exercise,” echoes Madison Hainstock. “As an interactive way of learning, the experience brought some of the historical facts to life.  All students recommended that this exercise be performed in future HLTH 101 classes.”

In eleven years of teaching the HLTH 101 course, Dr. Power found the blanket exercise was more effective than anything else she has done to teach students about how colonization has impacted the health of Indigenous people. “I believe it is so effective because it activates the emotions, along with factual knowledge. I was struck with how receptive the students were, both undergrads and grad teaching assistants, to the exercise and how engaged they were. No one was bored!” 

The blanket exercise will become a permanent part of HLTH 101 tutorials.

The Kairos Blanket exercise

Blankets used in Health 101 to help demonstrate how colonialism and racism affect the health of Canada's Aboriginal peoples.