High-school students’ play has lessons for teachers

A video of a play, Imagine a School, written and performed by inner-city high-school students from Toronto, Halifax and Vancouver, was screened at York’s Nat Taylor Cinema on March 7.

The play explores contemporary classroom life from a student perspective and envisions a high school of the future. It was written collectively by students from Prince Andrew High School in Halifax, Bloor Collegiate in Toronto and Templeton High School in Vancouver. The students initially met at York and began to tell their stories and create a script based on their high school experiences. They continued to rehearse in their own cities and then quickly put the show together in Vancouver two days before a performance last year in front of 250 education superintendents and education officials from across Canada.

Right: High-school students who wrote Imagine a School got together at York

The project was conceived by Penny Milton, chief executive officer of the Canadian Education Association (CEA), and Kathleen Gould Lundy, director of Destination Arts. (See the March 29, 2006 issue of YFile.) Destination Arts is a partnership of York’s Education and Fine Arts Faculties that promotes fine arts teaching and learning in Canadian schools.

The play contains many important messages for educators, says Lundy. The cry for interesting, open-ended, relevant, imaginative teaching is a key message. Schools should be places of experimentation, where mistakes are expected, not condemned. Students told stories of pregnancy, thoughts of suicide, how difficult it is to make friends, how challenging many find the curriculum, and how, in moments of despair, they just feel like quitting. They also shared stories of teachers who believed in them and helped them succeed academically and socially.

Milton says she has seen the video, produced by CEA and York’s Education and Fine Arts Faculties, several times and "still cries every time." She expects that it will be widely used as an educational resource in Canada and beyond.

Students used York’s Fine Arts studios to shape their stories collectively and to construct their performances, says Belarie Zatzman, associate dean of Fine Arts. "Imagine a School is a remarkable DVD highlighting their narratives. It is a dynamic and moving testament to the lived experience of students as they encounter the everyday experience of schooling. If you are interested in the intersections of young peoples’ social, academic and artistic identities, of how we might imagine ourselves differently in policy and practice, then Imagine a School is a must-see."

Paul Axelrod, dean of York’s Faculty of Education, welcomed the audience at the premiere and congratulated the students, teachers and faculty for this "inspirational, creative and thought-provoking production."

The play, Imagine a School, was performed live at Simon Fraser University in May 2006. It is now available on DVD from the Canadian Education Association.