By Jessica Lovell
Listening to teacher Kelly McCullough assign group work to her Grade 11 students, it sounds like a typical English class. But this is definitely not a typical English class.
For one thing, the students aren’t sitting in desks in a high school classroom. For another, the assignment may actually be part of a drama lesson. In this class, the lines between subjects are a little blurry.
“The arts are such a cross-curricular skill,” says McCullough.
That’s why it made sense for her and fellow Guelph CVI English and drama teacher Jeff Bersche to bring them together in one program.
It’s called MADE – standing for Music, Art, Drama and English, the four Grade 11 credits that students in the program will earn by the end of this semester. It’s also called the Urban Arts Project, because it’s about how arts and community come together to create beauty and bring about positive social change, says Bersche in an email.
The program, which is running for the first time this semester, is open to students from any high school in the local public school board.
Currently, the program has students from GCVI, John F. Ross and Centennial high schools, and is accepting applications for next year’s program, says McCullough.
“We’re looking for the right mix of kids who are really interested in and engaged in working with the arts,” she says.The students don’t have to be good at music, drama and visual arts, but they have to have a strong interest in the arts, she says.
“Mostly, it’s their interest in pursuing all those things together. They don’t have to be brilliant at them; they just have to want to try,” McCullough says.
There is a mix of strengths in the class.
“We have some kids who are incredible visual artists, but they’ve never taken a drama course,” McCullough says, providing one example.
Conversely, there are students in the class who are strong in other areas, but have never painted before. They are all learning.
And the learning is happening with a lot of support from the local arts community.
As the kids finish up their group work – an assignment on Romeo and Juliet – they regroup to take part in a dramatic movement workshop, run by a student mentor from the University of Guelph.
Among the other recent and ongoing workshops they have been involved in, there is photography with Dean Palmer, portrait painting with Greg Denton and bucket drumming with Adam Bowman.
“We’re fortunate to be able to bring in people who work in the arts and pay them,” says McCullough.
A $350 course fee covers the cost of the students’ workshops and field trips.
In turn, students get to learn from people who are pursuing excellence in their chosen fields within the arts, McCullough says.
“We’re able to introduce students to people who are making a living doing their art,” she says. It’s a bonus that those people are part of the local community, she adds.
Through the semester, the workshops and lessons will contribute to three main collaborative student projects. The students will organize their own version of Ignite Guelph, an idea-sharing public speaking event; they will host an art exhibition of visual, written and auditory self-portraits; and in June they will stage a production of Romeo and Juliet.
“We study Romeo and Juliet in English class, edit/rewrite and create scenes for that play in drama, create sets and props in art/media and then create songs, background and other tech in music,” says Bersche, explaining how all the subjects work together and complement each other.
The format of the program is a little atypical, but “the kids have been really good at adapting to that,” McCullough says.
Both teachers admit that the program is an ambitious undertaking, but they are confident that it will turn out well.
“We want it to be great, and in the process they’re going to learn a ton,” says Bersche.
For kids who are worried it might be too unbalanced a curriculum, McCullough reminds them that they can always take a fifth year of high school. But she also believes there is still lots of room for compulsory subjects if students plan ahead.
“You’re not going to get this kind of opportunity again,” McCullough says.
For more on the program visit urbanarts.ca.
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By Jessica Lovell