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Before Class

January 26, 2016 Viola Pruss, Special to the ATA News
Teacher Aaron Dublenko looks through an old photo album of a year he spent travelling and working as an archaeologist in southeast Asia and Europe. The photos are among the few keepsakes that remain from his experience as most of his belongings were stolen while he visited Italy toward the end of his journey.

In his bones

Like ancient bones etched by battle scars, Aaron Dublenko still bears the memories of his two months in Siberia.

It was 1998 when he travelled to Russia to work as an osteoarchaeologist on skeletons discovered in ancient burial grounds. Barely into his 20s, Dublenko was looking for an adventure and was carrying high hopes that the placement would launch him into an exciting career.

Instead, what he found was a place and a people devastated by their past. At first, that left him feeling disillusioned, then wanting to inspire change.

“When I came back, I had to give up on the past to work on the future,” he says.

Exploring the world

As long as he can remember, Dublenko loved exploring where people came from and what gave them purpose. While growing up near Leduc, he used to tell his parents that he wanted to be like Indiana Jones, travelling the world recovering ancient objects and living countless adventures.

In university, when he came upon a course on physical anthropology (the study of human evolution and the movement of populations), Dublenko felt it was where he belonged. He also thought he’d opened the door to a past that, when properly explored, could help change the world.

“When people think about the past, they often think about the horrific things … but they also shy away from learning what really happened,” he says. “I think that prevents us from exploring justice in a lot of ways.”

Long before he left for Russia, Dublenko learned that the past is contentious.

In 1997, his final project out of university was examining skeletons found at the Rossdale Power Plant site in Edmonton. The bones had been locked up by the courts since the 1960s, after their discovery had caused controversy with aboriginal groups in the area. Each group had claimed the remains as its own, Dublenko says.

But by the 1990s, there were concerns that the skeletons could belong to missing persons, so four of them were released for research. That angered a lot of people, he says.

Once during Dublenko’s five months of work on the project, a member of an aboriginal group stormed the university’s archaeology wing demanding the return of his ancestors. Dublenko’s family home also received threatening phone calls.

“They thought that somebody went in there and dug up their ancestors and put them in their lab,” he says. “They thought it was a trick to steal aboriginal remains.”

The skeletons turned out to be the remains of three European males, early voyageurs from France or Scotland, and a young Métis woman. The city of Edmonton later built a memorial on the site, and Dublenko says his work helped to settle a long-lasting dispute. What he took away from the experience was that “the real sense of the past is sensitive.”

While his experience on the Rossdale project scared him, it also inspired Dublenko to pursue a career in archaeology. He skipped graduate school after a few months to travel the world and look for work.

“I needed time to go on an adventure. I needed to find out if that was the life I was going to lead … and if that was the best way for me to satisfy my curiosity about humanity.”

After his trip to Russia, Aaron Dublenko spent some time studying an abandoned orphanage in Gravina, Italy, which is near an old Roman trade route.

From controversy to indifference

Dublenko was 21 when he arrived in Krasnoyarsk, Russia. A University of Alberta professor had connected him with a colleague who was uncovering giant burial mounds in the Siberian plains. The project needed an osteoarchaeologist, someone who could interpret people’s lifestyle based on their skeletal remains.

Though he spoke little Russian, Dublenko took the job out of curiosity about the country and its people.

He never saw the burial mounds but instead spent his days in the city’s medical institute, bent over bones and teeth, looking for signs of malnutrition, scars from injury or battle and stretchmarks left by repetitive muscle use. Most of the skeletons belonged to nomadic people with traces of European and Mongolian ancestry. They had travelled the land and buried their dead in the mounds. Some of the bones dated back 5,000 years.

Dublenko had hoped that working as an archaeologist in another country would be less contentious. What he found in Russia was worse — his research was often met with indifference.

While burial mounds were discovered all over the country, archaeologists were seldom able to study them because looters quickly destroyed them while looking for hidden treasure. Others removed the mounds to set up mining operations. There were no laws in place to protect the sites.

Dublenko says there was a rush to uncover the remains before they disappeared. That bothered him.

“There was a great fear in me of what happens when we destroy our past,” he says. “When we have no connection to a past, how will we ever build a future?”

Krasnoyarsk also made him uneasy. An industrial city of one million, more than 4,000 kilometres east of Moscow, the city had once been a hotbed of weapons manufacturing. After the fall of the Soviet Union, it was a place without a future. On the weekends, Dublenko watched ambulances drive around the city, their attendants picking up the bodies of children who’d drunk too much of the cheap vodka the Mafia sold on the streets.

People who grew up in the city became hardened. They did not trust strangers, and when they smiled, it seldom reached their eyes.

“I was about 21 years old and with that comes a lack of life experience and naïveté,” Dublenko says. “And when I went out there to work I saw this other side of humanity, this lack of empathy.”

He was beginning to question how much his work could make a difference in a world so unsettled. Then he discovered something.

One day, an English teacher who helped translate his work invited him to visit her school. He went and couldn’t believe what he saw.

The grass in the schoolyard was up to his waist, and in the playground were rusty swings whose seats were barely attached to their chains. The school’s windows were smashed out. The children were standing in the hallway, smoking and spitting on the floors. But they were also curious and had never met a Canadian.

“I realized that they were much more innocent than I was. They had so many questions about Canada and yet most of them would never have the opportunity to leave their city,” he says. “I felt the future was in my hands in that moment.”

He also felt lost.

Lost and found

When he left Russia after two months, Dublenko continued to work at archaeological digs, eventually going back to graduate school in Edmonton. But he dropped one course after the other, unable to let go of what he’d seen in Russia.

“All this rich history and then you see these kids,” he says. “What I saw in those classrooms, I wasn’t settled.”

He realized that his archaeological work would be important only to other academics, and that it wouldn’t change the lives of those students. But he had changed their lives by teaching them about a world they knew nothing about.

“I had the ability in that moment in the classroom to put ideas in their heads that would make them think broader, the idea of being able to care,” he says.

Inspired by this experience, Dublenko went back to school and became a teacher. He never looked back.

Now 15 years into his teaching career, Dublenko is the founder and co-ordinator of a program called Innovate, in which students design and carry out projects to address real-world issues. Originating at Queen Elizabeth High School, the program now spans several schools in Edmonton and Calgary, and has resulted in projects, such as the installation of solar panels on Queen E’s roof, the testing of air quality in its classrooms and raising money for earthquake relief in Haiti.

While the projects typically focus on the environment and sustainability, the program is really about inspiring leadership and hope, and innovative thinking, Dublenko says.

Friend and colleague Bill Howe says Dublenko realized early in his teaching career that, in order to create change, students need to be encouraged to question the status quo and come up with new ideas.

“I think that’s really dear to Aaron’s heart, that concern for authentic student engagement that comes with having them generate ideas and experiment with ideas … as opposed to being kind of spoon-fed,” Howe says.

Dublenko says that, for the longest time, he avoided thinking about his experience in Russia because it left him disillusioned and stressed. But he eventually came to a realization: preventing the types of schools he saw in Russia, and having a say about the future, required moving beyond the past.

Creating the Innovate program was his response to a need that he perceived, a need to think ahead and be inspired to tackle problems before they occurred.

“We are not prepared for that in school, so I said, at least at some part of your day, you need to be challenged,” he says.

“You need to be in a dark room with the lights off and find your way out.” ❚

A young Aaron Dublenko holds an arrowhead at an archaeological site on the old Banff highway outside Calgary, where he worked after returning from a year of travelling. Dublenko says a farmer shot at the archaeological team while they were working, fearing that they were representatives of an oil company looking to steal his land.

Q&A with Aaron Dublenko

What’s the strangest/most interesting object you uncovered as an archaeologist?
A Roman Centurion skeleton in armour in southern Italy near Gravina.

Were you subjected to a lot of Indiana Jones jokes when you worked in the field?
Too many, but they still made me laugh because, believe it or not, Indiana Jones inspired me to be an archaeologist since I can remember.

What was the weirdest thing/story you saw/heard while living in Siberia?
One guy, he found a full mammoth in permafrost and tried to eat it. He said it tasted like freezer-burned meat. The other crazy thing was the skin of a Chuchky or Aleut (native) man from a long time ago who. When he died, some hunters skinned him and tanned his skin and stretched him out with string so you can still make out his face. Really disturbing and still in a hidden museum collection in Krasnoyarsk.

Did you ever tire of drinking vodka?
No, it was so normalized and became like having a multivitamin. It protected you against the cold and illnesses that we associate with colder weather, like the flu. I still enjoy a little.

What seems to be the greatest similarity between students here and in Russia?
Curiosity is the biggest similarity. They liked to listen to stories; they wanted to dream; they wanted to have hope. You could see it in their eyes.

What do you enjoy about teaching?
I still find adventure in teaching. The kids are so up-to-date. I learn from them and it’s an excuse to not stop learning. It keeps me current, knowledgeable and involved. ❚

Before Class
Before Class is a profile series about teachers who’ve had interesting jobs before entering the teaching profession. Instalments will appear in the ATA News periodically throughout the school year. If you know of a teacher who would be a good subject for such a profile, please contact managing editor Cory Hare:


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