Making Connections: Pre-Confederation Canadian LiteratureLaura Hindle | PED 3177 A

Introduction | Literature Education - One Theory | Implementing Backward Design | Roughing It In The Bush | Classroom Activities | Assessment: Blogging | Furthering the Exploration | Other Resources | References


A look at pre-Confederation Canadian literatures in English in an attempt to bridge the gap between the past and the present. Students will employ critical skills when examining texts and demonstrate reading comprehension and writing skills.

Over the course of two or three classes, students should have a good sense of Canada's literary history, though examination of texts and historical context.

Literature Education - One Theory

Language Arts have been and continue to be a staple of the Ontario curriculum. As such, the inclusion of English in secondary schools is largely unchallenged. Despite this, is is always important to engage in on-going reflection and examination of the process. Literature education is not as simple as our own secondary school experiences might have us believe, according to Don Gutteridge:

"[A]ny theory dealing with English teaching must take into account the nature of the thing being taught and what's done with it, by both teachers and students. This seems simple enough, but it isn't, for reading and writing involve much more than skill sets or problematical topics in the curriculum. Written texts, especially literary ones, and the interpretive processes they entail don't lend themselves to easy description. Yet if they are not described and understood clearly, there is little chance that we can ever effectively teach them. We have to know what a poem or novel or essay is, and what accomplished readers themselves do when they confront, interpret and deploy such texts in the world" (original emphasis).[1]

We need to "know" a work of literature, says Gutteridge. This can and should be extended beyond the page. We may identify themes, styles, and literary devices, but to truly "know" the work, it is important to place it in the proper contexts. In the case of early Canadian literature, we will place it in the historical context in which it was composed.

Looking at Pre-Canadian Literature

103456006.pngWhile there are many works and authors worthy of study, even at a secondary level, in the context of Canadian literature, one should examine the works as a whole to discern which are representative of the era, and which are anomalous. In the context of a Grade 10, Academic, class, choosing works which represent the general characteristics of the era serves as an introduction to the body of work as a whole.

Then, what are the characteristics of early Canadian literature? Several themes emerge:
  • wild, untamed landscapes;
  • pioneers;
  • travel and settlement narratives;
  • "strangers in a strange land".

"Roughing it in the Bush is the book everyone looks to first when examining the pioneer in Canadian literature," according to Alice K. Hale.[2] We therefore undertake an excerpt from Susanna Moodie's 1852 memoir as a starting point for Canadian literature education.

The discussions generated from the study of this work can be either supported or subverted by other literatures of the time; a further reading list appears at the foot of this page.

Implementing Backward Design

Backward Design in Unit Planning

Backward design is often an important component of English Language Arts. Too often we see teachers teaching "to the curriculum" without thinking critically about what they are teaching and why they are teaching it. Backward design will ensure that careful consideration is placed, not only on the course content, but on the point of the course content.

McTighe and Wiggins explain: "all the methods and materials we use are are shaped by a clear conception of the vision of the desired results. That means that we must be able to state with clarity what the student should understand and be able to do as a result of any plan and irrespective of any constraints we face".[3]

Considering a unit on Canadian literature, the goals may vary from teacher to teacher. Some may use the literature simply, matter-of-factly, and no differently from other national literatures. If that is the case, emphasis may be placed on reading comprehension and writing skills.

This unit, however, does present an opportunity to incorporate other goals as well, incorporating other subject matter into lessons. Historical context is a must for this unit, as texts are inextricably linked to a pre-Confederation Canada. Some teachers may wish to instill a sense of patriotism in Canadian-born students and relate the stories of settlers to new Canadian and immigrant students.

roughing-it-in-the-bush-6534.jpgRoughing It In The Bush

Susanna Moodie's Roughing it in the Bush is uniquely Canadian and, as such, is nearly impossible to classify - as Gutteridge would say, it does not "lend [itself] to easy description." It has been called, variously, "a novel, a romance, a diary and a history"[4] and chronicles Moodie's early struggles after her migration to pre-Confederation Canada.

After introducing the memoir in brief, ask students to read the opening chapter, "A Visit to Grosse Isle" prior to full teaching on the subject. The language of the work will sound antiquated to many students' ears and some may struggle. Give students 2 or 3 days to read the chapter, including class time.

The following is a video by Professor Crowley, of Husson University, which serves as a good introduction to Roughing It In The Bush for educators.

Classroom Activities

Hooking students

Not all students are naturally inclined to read. They are perhaps intimidated by the language, have learning disabilities which affects their reading (diagnosed or not) or otherwise disengaged. When studying a more difficult text like Roughing it in the Bush, even more advanced readers might feel trepidation. In reality, the material is not beyond their grasp, they simply need to be engaged - get hooked.

One way to do this is to open with a quote, either poignant or controversial, and Moodie is kind enough to oblige us:


"Know what [it] is": Introducing the Text

Though difficult to define, Roughing It In The Bush has a definitive place in Canadian canon and thus, in Canadian history. To understand the content of the text, we must first examine the context of the text.

Remembering that this is not a history lesson, per se, one must acknowledge the historical framework out of which it was born. Introduce students to basic historical figures, facts and geography. Some good topics of discussion:

  • Jacques Cartier;
  • The Quebec Act (1774);
  • Upper and Lower Canada;
  • The War of 1812;
  • John George Lambton's Report on the Affairs of British North America (1838).

Rather than lecture format, students should explore these topics using their own resources (the Internet, encyclopedias, history text books). One student may be assigned a particular topic and be asked to present their research to the class.

Understanding the Text

Susanna Moodie

The language of the text can be dated and sometimes inaccessible for some students. There are ways to aid student comprehension while reading, through in-class activities:
  • Define the language: Provide students with worksheets of difficult words and ask them to define them, through use of dictionaries, thesauruses and thinking about the context of the word in the sentence;
  • Sound it out: In small groups, students take turns reading the text aloud. This should familiarize them with sentence structure and the various characters and settings;
  • Act on it: Some braver students may be willing to act out a short scene from the work, for their own as well as other students' understanding.

These activities should serve to provide diagnostic information, and shouldn't necessarily be evaluated formally. Rather, the goal is to get students accustomed to the text and language, through research, collaboration and creative representation.


Roughing It In The Bush deals with uncertainty, the unknown and new beginnings. In a freewriting exercise, students will contemplate these themes themselves. They could describe a situation or place which was new to them, identifying how they felt and how they coped with a new situation. As always in free writing, students should not edit themselves during the exercise: they should not cross any words out, consult a dictionary on spelling or worry that they are saying the "wrong" thing. A student should never be asked to share their writings with anyone, even the teacher.[5]

Discussing the use of freewriting as a creative exercise, James Carter declared that "Even a couple of minutes of freewriting will help pupils to focus and allow ideas to start flowing".[6] This tactic of introducing creative writing and the literature being studied will provide a jumping-off point for the later assessment, blog writing.

This exercise may be followed by a classroom discussion, if any student is willing to share his or her thoughts.


Assessment: Blogging

Students will write a short blog entry from the point of view of a new immigrant. They can imagine they are new to Canada in 1830, like Susanna Moodie, or explore other alternatives, such as a "what if?" scenario in which they emigrate from Canada to any number of countries.

What is a blog?

The following video by Lee LeFever is an excellent introduction to the world of blogging, explaining the never-ending potential for this new form of media.


The goal of the assessment is to examine student understanding of the general themes of early Canadian literature - the hopes, the struggles and the triumphs of the early Canadian settlers. Blog writing is informal, with limited structure and students will be asked to think creatively in terms of writing and technical skills.

Assessment and Backward Design

This assessment has been created through backward design. Prior to contemplating the assessment, important questions were asked: What are the essentials of early Canadian literature? What should students remember about this unit? What thoughts, attitudes and knowledge should students bring to their life outside the classroom?

In this case, it was decided that history played a large part in the teaching and that, through demonstration of reading comprehension and writing skills, students should likewise be able to think critically about early Canadian life. It is unlikely that a student will quote from Susanna Moodie's Roughing It In The Bush outside the classroom, but they will have gained knowledge and understanding of her lifestyle that they will be able to recall easily, after having considered life from the perspective of a new immigrant.

appleandchalk.pngThe Ontario Curriculum

"The English curriculum is based on the belief that language learning is critical to responsible and productive citizenship, and that all students can become successful language learners. The curriculum is designed to provide students with the knowledge and skills that they need to achieve this goal. It aims to help students become successful language learners."[7]

The blogging assignment is based on six specific expectations drawn from the Ontario Curriculum for English.

Reading and Literature Studies
  • Using Reading Comprehension Strategies 1.2 select and use appropriate reading comprehension strategies before, during, and after reading to understand texts, including increasingly complex texts;
  • Demonstrating Understanding of Context 1.3 identify the most important ideas and supporting details in texts, including increasingly complex texts;
  • Critical Literacy 1.8 identify and analyse the perspectives and biases evident in texts, including increasingly complex texts.

  • Identifying Topic, Purpose and Audience 1.1 identify the topic, purpose and audience for a variety of writing tasks;
  • Voice 2.2 establish a distinctive voice in their writing, modifying language and tone skillfully to suit the form, audience and purpose of writing;
  • Publishing 3.6 use a variety of presentation features, including print and script, fonts, graphics, and layout, to improve the clarity and coherence of their work and to heighten its appeal for their audience.

Furthering the Exploration

Roughing it in the Bush is a single example of early Canadian literature, but other texts in a variety of genres of the same period may be incorporated in order to round out the unit.

Frances Brooke
The History of Emily Montague
Narrative (Exploration)
Samuel Hearne
A Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean
Narrative (Pioneer & Settler)
Catherine Parr Traill
The Backwoods of Canada
Serial Fiction
Thomas Chandler Haliburton
The Clockmaker
Charles Sangster
The St. Lawrence and the Saguenay and Other Poems
Sonnets Written in the Orillia Woods
Isabella Valancy Crawford
"The Canoe"


Textual Resources
The works mentioned above, including Moodie's Roughing It In The Bush, are old enough to be considered public domain and as such, are widely available in a number of free formats on the Internet. Without worrying about copyright laws, these texts can either be distributed electronically as well as physically.

Brook, Frances. The History of Emily Montague: various download options.
Haliburton, Thomas Chandler. The Clockmaker: various download options.
Hearne, Samuel. A Journey from Prince of Wales's Fort in Hudson's Bay to the Northern Ocean: HTML option.
Moodie, Susanna. Roughing It In the Bush: various download options.
Parr Traill, Catharine. The Backwoods of Canada: various download options.
Sangster, Charles. The St. Lawrence and the Saguenay and Other Poems: HTML option.
Valancy Crawford, Isabella. 19 Poems, including "The Canoe": PDF download option.

Other Resources

Early Canadian Literature Society
Canadian Society for the Study of Education | La Société canadienne pour l'étude de l'éducation
Canadian Teacher Magazine


  1. ^ Gutteridge, Don. Teaching English: Theory and Practice from Kindergarten to Grade Twelve. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company Limited, 2000. p 2.
  2. ^ Hale, Alice K. An Introduction to Teaching Canadian Literature. Halifax, NS: Atlantic Institute of Education, 1975.
  3. ^ Wiggins, G. & J. McTighe, Understanding by Design, "Chapter 1: Backward Design", p 3. 2005.
  4. ^ Neil Besner for The Canadian Encyclopedia, "Roughing It In The Bush." Last consulted October 11 2010.
  5. ^ Concept of freewriting as developed by Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.
  6. ^ Carter, James. Creating Writers : A Creative Writing Manual for Schools. London: Routledge, 2000. p 25.
  7. ^ Ministry of Education, The Ontario Curriculum Grades 9 and 10 English. Revised. 2007. P 4.