Artist in the Classroom

The benefits to students—and society—of immersing artists in schools.

By Mar'ce Merrell

Most jobs ask you to do practically the same thing every day, but do it more efficiently, make it prettier, survive the mundane. Most jobs do not ask you: If you could change the world, what might it look like?

Most artists—and as a novelist I fit into this category—have trouble fitting into traditional jobs. Their bodies might be in offices, surrounded by lists and phones, but their brains are mining the skies outside their windows, connecting ideas and images, memories and words. As artists we’ve taken jobs because we needed the money, or because if we’re not creating art, we might as well do something.

Job = low creativity. That is the connection our brains make. Most jobs, like most institutions, are not created for how artists think, how we learn, how we express ourselves best. We as a society are set up for this, though. Think about our schools.

Traditionally, by the time we’ve left elementary school, we’re expected to sit at desks for hours at a time, read textbooks, make notes, take tests and listen, listen, listen. Most teachers do not ask us what we think or why, but ask us to repeat what we’ve heard, to regurgitate the facts, to ensure that our opinion is in line with what is going to be asked on the tests. There is always a right answer.

School = frustration. That’s how many artists experience it. Artists’ brains light up at images, sounds, rhythm, discovery through doing, moving, thinking out loud, reflecting and then coming back again to the same idea in a new way. Couldn’t different answers be right under different circumstances? Once we realize the system is designed for someone else, we question the value of attending—or at the very least we coat-check our brains at the doors and manoeuvre a way to text friends while the teacher or the boss talks at us.

It might be surprising, then, that hundreds of artists across the country are training to become artist-educators. Fuelled by a desire to help the next generation of students squirming at their desks, artists are walking back into classrooms, partnering with teachers to explore curriculum objectives, textbooks, worksheets and note-taking and to ask the question “How can I help students like me stay in school and successfully learn these objectives? How can this be about making art? How can it be fun?” These artists are inspired to start a change, to work within the public education system to engage youth, empower them to make positive social choices and graduate. And we are finding that it is possible, that we can be instruments of change.

At schools all over the world, artist-educators trained by Learning Through the Arts are building bridges between art and curriculum, and between student learning and expression. A division of The Royal Conservatory and headquartered in Toronto, LTTA began educating artists for partnership in classrooms and communities in 1994 and has reached more than 377,000 students in the last 10 years.

Three certificated levels of training are provided: Level I prepares artists for their first experiences working in classrooms and communities; Level II adds the element of educating adults through professional development seminars; Level III focuses on helping the artist-educator create an integrative education project and further develop leadership and ambassador skills. Level III mentor artists travel throughout the country and the world to support LTTA programming and explore and expand the opportunities for transformative school and community partnerships.

When we empower youth to express themselves successfully, we show that we want them to belong to society.

I started as an artist-educator in 2007 and am now the regional manager for Alberta for Learning Through the Arts. My position with the organization has evolved with the explosion of programming in Fort McMurray and the Wood Buffalo Region. I am one of the training team along with Aboriginal mentor artist Shelley MacDonald, to build capacity for artist-educators in the region. We’ve been helped by artist-educators from around the country, and now the artists we’ve trained lead the training with us.

The community of Fort McMurray is an incubator for creative thinking: It’s isolated, with adequate financial resources and an overall attitude that the future is not tied to tradition and doing things the way they’ve always been done. Newcomers are welcome, especially if they have some time and energy to give back to the community. In 2012–2013, we programmed over 5,000 hours in 100 classrooms through the Fort McMurray Catholic School District and Fort McMurray Public School District, and in Wood Buffalo’s Fort McKay and Conklin, both in school and after school. In Fort McMurray, LTTA is a partnership among artists and teachers, students, parents and community members. Our team has trained 50 local artists who work with us part time or full time, in school, after school or during the summer.

Personally I continue to partner with fabulous teachers as an artist-educator in the classroom. I’ve connected with Grade 9 math objectives and with social studies objectives at all grade levels, and my particular interest is in language arts. The Grade 9 Language Arts curriculum asks students to generalize from their own experiences to create oral, print and other media texts on a theme. Traditionally, students have been given a theme and asked to write about it.

I begin by finding ways for them to identify themes that have meaning for them. I hand them plastic zip-bags of discarded scraps, evidence of someone’s life. The students sift and analyze to deduce who owns these items and what matters to this person. In one bag: canned lobster, a heavy-duty tape measure, travel-size toothpaste, mouthwash, a ripped magazine page depicting a beach.

“Miss, he’s from down east,” they tell me, nearly every single group of students. “And he’s working at site or maybe construction. And he’s lonely.”

“How do you know he’s lonely?”

“He works too hard, he’s hardly home.”

The theme the students identified was “Work can have its consequences: loneliness.”

Educators trained by Learning Through the Arts build bridges between art and curriculum, between learning and expression.

Educators trained by Learning Through the Arts build bridges between art and curriculum, between learning and expression. (April Killins)

It’s one of the stories that kids here know. Other stories they know: escaping oppression, broken hearts, revenge, sadness, being an outsider, racism. In a class of 29 Grade 8 students, you can expect to find five or six languages spoken and recent Filipino or Venezuelan immigrants sitting next to new friends/translators who have been here for all of three months longer. Seventeen languages are represented in the school districts and probably 60 per cent of the students were born far from Fort McMurray. Classrooms here are a multicultural representation of the world.

Just as every community is unique, LTTA looks different in each community. LTTA partners with individual schools, school districts and community organizations. The best work happens when we share values with our partners and we are “all in.” This social-innovation business is about relationships, skills, passion and identifying community needs. No matter how skilled our artist-educators are, taking over and showing everyone else how it’s done will not lead to lasting change. Changes in achievement, engagement, empowerment and teacher professional development happen only when we are truly listening and responding to the needs of our partners, and when they believe that our work together is worthwhile.

Our programming in Fort McMurray began with an initial investment from Suncor, still one of our community partners. Following early partnership success, particularly with the Fort McMurray Catholic School Board, our conversations pinpointed the success of arts-based hands-on learning for many students and particularly for Aboriginal students. Provincial achievement test scores provided detailed evidence that at Grade 6, Aboriginal students across the region are at the same level of achievement as non-Aboriginal students. By Grade 9 the story is very different. Far too many Aboriginal students have left the system or are achieving at such low levels that the kind of education they believe they can obtain will limit their options for future employment.

In 2010–2011, LTTA in partnership with Fort McMurray school boards, Northern Lights School District, Athabasca Tribal Council and other Regional Municipality organizations began the process for creating an LTTA program in the region that would support and engage Aboriginal students in school and after school.

The Safe Communities Innovation Fund, established by the Minister of Justice at the time, Alison Redford, funded much of the project through a $1.3-million grant over three years. The goal was to keep Aboriginal students in school, to increase their achievement and to see more students graduate.

Our community-wide approach has seen the development of three after-school programs for youth, two Aboriginal culturally based programs with over 25 students in regular attendance, and a hip-hop program in partnership with the Northern Elements Crew that sees up to 50 students each week. A partnership with Events Wood Buffalo and Jeremy Irla, community engagement manager, is preparing to launch an Aboriginal youth leadership program and youth council (focusing on the youth from outlying reserves who move to Fort McMurray to attend high school) with support from Leadership Wood Buffalo and the Regional Municipality.

Our Fort McMurray LTTA team has expanded to include a First Nations elder-in-residence, Hazel Issapaakii Derange, and an Aboriginal coordinator, Gitz Derange. They work inside the classrooms, often with Shelley MacDonald and the rest of our team as artist-educators, mentors and role models to explore the Aboriginal perspective of social studies, language arts, math and science curriculums. Gitz Derange leads two of our after-school programs, partnering with Issapaakii and local artists to explore nature, culture and most recently filmmaking. The team in Fort McMurray has reinforced an expectation that Aboriginal culture be visible, heard, explored and valued in the school districts. They help all of our artist-educators understand the value of differentiated instruction for Aboriginal youth, who often learn best through arts-based hands-on instruction.

Aboriginal youth often learn best through different methods, such as arts-based hands-on instruction.

Father Patrick Mercredi School has over 380 Aboriginal youth in the Grades 7–12 classes. Jana Slaney’s two Grade 8 classes, with a total of 61 students, had over 20 students identified as having special needs or learning difficulties—many whom were her Aboriginal students.

During a study of the novel The Hunger Games, Slaney’s students explored the characters through drama, writing monologues and even the character’s last will and testament. Charles, one of the Aboriginal students with low attendance, had done very little in terms of writing, but he understood the story and the characters. His marks, though, depended on his ability to demonstrate that understanding. When the students were asked to create a symbol to represent the character they’d been working on, a visual artist shared important elements of symbols, deconstructed several symbols, and provided “real” artist materials to the students to create their own symbols.

Charles’s symbol revealed a depth of understanding that surprised everyone. He could explain why he chose colours—how they represented the character’s personality and his journey in the story. He added images, texture and shapes and could even clarify why he drew a thick line and a thinner line. We loaned him a set of artist’s tools, which he took home. He was one of the students who told Slaney he came to class because he knew LTTA was going to be there that day. He also revealed he had been waiting to turn 16 so he could drop out of school like his cousins. But, he asked her, “Do you think I could do something with my drawing?”

Charles probably always had the talent for representing his thoughts visually. Perhaps he’d discounted this ability as not worth much; maybe a teacher or someone close to him had told him it wasn’t enough. But now he has a different opinion of his skill to communicate in a visual language. He’s discovered there are many choices for him. His grades have gone up. His attendance has increased. He plans to graduate.

Artist-educators are interested in partnership for change. For me, it’s about voice. When we empower our youth, when we ask them to express themselves in a way that’s most successful for them, we show them that we want them to belong to society. Maybe you think you hear enough of their loud music, see enough of their piercings, watch enough of their videos, but the big idea here is that when you give young members of society a voice, they begin to feel their importance is real, even beyond the scope of their peer group.

And if you walk with that voice, you may see, over time, that those youth feel a sense of responsibility to give back. They will become future leaders who know that everyone—immigrant or Aboriginal, economically secure or not—is worthwhile and deserves a chance to engage meaningfully in work, culture and community.

Mar’ce Merrell is a writer, teacher and baker who divides her time between Edmonton and Fort McMurray.


The Absurd UCP Curriculum

Jason Kenney arrived in Alberta provincial politics with a laser focus on reforming K–12 education, and one of his primary targets was curriculum—what students learn in school. During the first annual general meeting of the United Conservative Party in 2018, Kenney announced: “If the NDP tries to smuggle more of their ...

Should We Forgive Student Debt?

Erika Shaker, the national office director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, says yes. The cost of tuition shouldn't be an entrance fee to a decent life. Most jobs that pay a good salary require at least an undergraduate degree. But average annual undergraduate tuition in Canada is now $6,700, more ...

Beyond Belief

Dianne Macaulay sits at a picnic table in front of the brand new, $42-million St. Joseph’s Catholic High School at the northeastern edge of Red Deer. Across the road, new tracts of suburban housing and retail centres gradually take over slow-rolling farmland. Built to accommodate 900 students, the school will ...