The Arts at James Lyng Community Learning Centre Montreal, Quebec, Canada

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By Allannah Murphy, CLC Coordinator

James Lyng High School is a Canadian secondary school located in the southwest sector of Montreal in Quebec.  This part of the city was once the heart of an industrial and manufacturing powerhouse, but in more recent times it has become seriously disadvantaged.  Students are characterized by both socioeconomic challenges and academic difficulties, and for many of them, belonging to this school community is the most powerful driver of their resilience.

In 2006 the school became an official Community Learning Centre (CLC) and the past 5 years have seen extraordinary commitment by community agencies to the success of our youth.  We have been able to offer a range of services and programs to our students that would have been unthinkable without the contribution of so many committed individuals and agencies.  We have come a long way in addressing the objectives which our stakeholders have defined as most important:

  1. Appropriate, supervised after-school activities
  2. Development of healthy lifestyle choices
  3. Employability skills
  4. Intergenerational cooperation.

All these of course are elements that lead to success of individuals and vitality of the community; each can be exhibited and nurtured through the arts.  Particularly among youth who experience academic difficulty, the arts can be a powerful tool in developing communication skills and a positive sense of self.  We have also, over time, become aware that the students who cannot express learning easily through text can often do so successfully through media, performance or visual art.  For this reason, the Community Learning Centre has sought out partners for projects incorporating the arts.  And there have been many projects, many partners, and much success.

Early on we partnered with the McCord Museum to work with grade 7 students on creating their personal totems.  This project supported their understanding of symbolism among First Nations and created an installation for our school’s atrium.  Art attached to Social Studies has continued to be a powerful tool, and this year the CLC embarked on a project called “Painting a New World.”  This project is linked to artists in third world countries and challenges teens to consider art as a universal way of expressing a sense of one’s place in the world. Our students developed a theme and painted a canvas representing their own vision of belonging.  Reflecting on this idea allowed them to imagine their own neighbourhood as part of their city, their country, and the wider world.  This awareness is often missing in the experience of ‘inner city’ teens, whose lives can be limited to their own streets.  One of our goals as a school and CLC has been to break down these limiting ‘walls’ and this project fit perfectly with our objectives.  As a wrap-up to the project, the students participated in an awards evening where they also got to see paintings from artists living and working as far away as Chad and Kenya.  Our hope is that they recognize the universal and uniting nature of art.

There have been many projects available to our students because of community links.  James Lyng was a pilot school for a project with Youth Walkways, a non-profit group that works with at-risk students, helping them become responsible citizens. They used the tools of performing arts to develop non-violent approaches to problem solving.   Through workshops in clowning, drama, dance and improvisational theatre, they processed their own experience of conflict and reflected on the issues of violence in a wider context.  Their video diaries, created through the project, show a thoughtful process of becoming aware of choices – things don’t always have to be as they have been in the inner city.  We believe these young people can take this awareness forward to their future.

Literacy is a huge challenge for many schools where youth often see text as old-hat.  A wonderful project developed with McGill University and aimed at grade 8 students featured a ‘poetry slam.’  Incorporating elements of poetry and hip hop, the project saw the emergence of individual voices among students who had been unheard before.  The experience of self-confidence and pride through performance of their original work touched us all and created a resolve to focus more attention to current tools of communication.

Whether visual or performance, art is by nature intensely personal.  It creates the ‘winning conditions’ for engaging students, fostering their sense of belonging, and internalizing  classroom lessons.  Art attached to educational themes makes academic context real and relevant for today and tomorrow.  For our Community Learning Centre, Art is a vital tool, the engine that takes us to our goals.