Stephen Hurley has worked in the Canadian education space for over three decades. After a long and exciting career as a teacher and consultant in Ontario, Stephen continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada. While Stephen acknowledges the successes of our Canadian education system, he believes that our current way of "doing school" is in need of some bold new ideas--ideas that will breathe more fire into the learning lives of students and teachers alike. You can contact Hurley by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://stephenhurley.ca.
The Art of Change
One of the important functions of art in a modern society is to inspire citizens to new dimensions of hope and possibility. More than policy directives, more than summaries of best practice and even more than research initiatives—as valuable as all of these are—the vision and voice of the artist can draw us towards the future with powerful metaphorical images that allow us to frame our futures in ways that are uniquely compelling!
I encountered this in a very powerful way when I walked into the front lobby of my children’s school a couple of weeks ago. Irma Coulson Public School in Milton, Ontario opened its doors this past September to over 800 students, close to 50 staff members and an administrative team that carried with them a single-word vision for what their new learning community could be: BELIEVE.
And despite the growing pains that any new school faces, despite the pressure to live up to district, ministry and even international expectations around what a school looks and feels like, this single word has managed to connect a very diverse community of parents, staff and students during this important time in our story.
But, for me, it was when local artist/educator Chantal LeBlanc was invited to work with ICPS to create a piece of art that explored more deeply the vision for the school, that things were really brought home. Ms. Leblanc specializes in a variety of art forms but it was her love of mosaic that inspired the final product that now graces the school’s front foyer.
It’s a spectacular piece—one that causes the viewer to stand back and declare, “Awesome!”
Taking A Closer Look
But I was only really granted access to the metaphorical power of the piece when, as a parent, I was invited to join others on a Friday morning in January to apply the final grout. In the moments before others arrived I took a closer look at the details of the mosaic and made the following observations:
- every single student and staff member had their fingerprint embedded somewhere in the work, each fingerprint protected by an individual glass frame;
- the mosaic tiles were hand-cut by Chantal and the school’s senior students;
- there were varying amounts of space between each of the mosaic pieces.
For me, these elements of the mosaic point to both the tension and the opportunity that exists when you acknowledge the importance of diversity and individuality in the process of community building. For the staff and students at Irma Coulson Public School, the integration of the motto, Look After Yourself, Look After One Another, places that tension in a very positive and actionable light. How do we handle that tension in the way that we think about schools? How do we protect the integrity and uniqueness of the individual while, at the same time, building an appreciation for the importance of community and the power of working together for something larger than ourselves?
- the word “BELIEVE” was positioned horizontally near the bottom of the piece, created out of a type of mirrored glass.
It’s often difficult for students to see themselves in the schools that we create. The ICPS mosaic reminds us that even our youngest children need to be able to recognize themselves in the systems that we create for them. How are their interests, strengths and passions reflected back to them in the schools that they attend?
Bringing it All Together
And so it was on that chilly morning in January that a small group of parents joined the artist to bring the entire piece together with a layer of thick, messy grout. As we used our hands to spread the compound of sand, cement and water across the surface of the piece, we began to see the final product take on new life and sense of completion. Gaps quickly became filled with the grout, its neutral colour helping to make other parts of the mosaic stand out even more. As we smoothed out the rough edges, polished the tiles back to their original lustre and worked with our hands to carefully uncover the fingerprints that had been hidden in the process, we began to realize the power of this moment. For me, the piece took on a new level of metaphorical importance.
As adults in the lives of our children—as teachers, administrators, parents and community members—we become the stuff that holds those spaces open for learning. When we’re at our best, we are cognizant of the importance of allowing our children’s voices to be strong and colourful. We are willing to admit that our hands are those of an artist, sometimes sculpting and molding but, most often, working to ensure that our students’ natural attributes are fully revealed. We are never starting from nothing!
Its an important goal for me to continue to work with others towards a vision of school that provides every student, every parent and every educator an opportunity to see a little bit more of themselves reflected back to them every time they walk in the front doors. It’s a commitment to continue to reflect on the dimensions of school that we sometimes overlook or take for granted. And it’s an eagerness to introduce some new elements into the way we think about school so that the experience is richer and more engaging.
As important as they are, I don’t believe that the inspiration for these new visions is going to start at our policy tables, in books about best practice or in our research journals. Instead, I’m convinced that the real inspiration for these new visions is going to begin in the exploration of powerful metaphors—words and images that draw us into a place of imagination and creativity. This is the work of the artist-within-us, and the artists-among-us. It’s time to welcome both into the conversation!