Building Community Through Authentic Art

Students used glass art and recorded multilingual stories to share their newcomer journeys to Canada

By Shane Clodd and Ann Y.K. Choi

We ought to been less naive about the complexities that would come with a collaborative effort to bring together our grade 12 Arts Unionville visual arts students and our English Language Learners (ELLs). Unionville High School is one of four arts-designated high schools with the York Region District School Board (YRDSB). Students in the Arts program, known as Arts Unionville, can specialize in drama, music, dance, or visual arts. The school also has a high immigrant and international student population, with a quarter of the student body identified as ELLs.

We wanted to create opportunities for our AU art students to develop a greater sense of empathy as a soft skill that would carry over into life after high school. As potential future artists and designers, it is vital that they understand how others see and interpret the world. In other words, they need to consider not only the technical and aesthetic outcomes, but those that are related to the cultural, social, and emotional context in which the design is situated.

In recent years, our school has had a large influx of new Canadian and international students. For our ELLs, we wanted to create a sense of community and experiential learning that was authentic and personally relevant. It was identified through our leadership team and student climate survey that we needed to create a better sense of community, not just for our ELLs but for students as a whole. We reasoned that by creating a sense of community, trust and empathy would flow organically.

An authentic experience outside of traditional academia

Our project, which we titled Due North: Unpacking the Personal Narratives and Experience of English Language Learners, was designed to align with what we wanted to create, which was an authentic experience that had positive effects outside of traditional academia. We identified three key areas that we wanted to focus on: fostering empathy; cultural awareness, which was an exchange of information so that both sets of students learned from each other; and student voice and expression. ELLs would be paired with AU students so that they could share their stories about arriving in Canada. Visual art students would then interpret these narratives into fused glass and metal sculptures. To make the art interactive, each sculpture would have a corresponding voice recording that captured the ELL’s voice.

The initial spark for this project idea came from Janet Reid, Markham Museum’s curator, who was interested in presenting student work in a public venue, and connecting students through the venue with the public. It was at her recommendation that we applied for the Myseum grant that would allow us to be part of the Myseum Intersections 2018 Festival and have the student work showcased at the Markham Museum. Myseum is a non-profit organization that provides programs and experiences that showcase the Greater Toronto Area’s history, culture, spaces, and residents. Their annual festival explores intersectional perspectives through exhibits, events, and workshops. The grant writing and application process, which we completed during the summer of 2017, was lengthy and forced us to carefully consider our project’s purpose and desired outcomes. To our great delight, we became the first high school to receive Myseum’s grant and invitation to be part of their 2018 festival.

However, we quickly discovered that the real challenge would begin in September. While the idea of collaboration was a great one, there were many challenges, including finding time to work together and establishing common goals and objectives with all the stakeholders involved. We also had to figure out how to ensure that our two sets of students would be able to meet regularly for the duration of one semester so that they could get to know each other and work together. While we had determined that it would be the grade 12 Arts Unionville (AU) students, we hadn’t determined which ELLs would participate. How could we make the process of selecting them equitable? In the end, it came down to practicability. We selected an ESLD and ESLE class that was scheduled during the same time as the visual arts class. Both these classroom teachers saw the value of what we were trying to do and agreed to participate.

Fostering the development of soft skills

One of our objectives had been to foster the development of soft skills. Students from diverse backgrounds met and immediately we were impressed by their ability to listen and learn from each other. We were concerned about any possible language gaps or challenges, but the students quickly learned how to communicate using electronic translators, hand gestures, and drew images or translated for each other. They were clearly learning from each other, about their different cultures. For example, two students talked about colour imagery. In North America, white represented purity, innocence, and light. In China, it represented death and bad luck. The students then had discussions about the use of white in their artwork. What meaning would they try to capture? Seeing them engaged in such conversations, working with a medium as delicate and complicated as glass, we saw how trust was built.

Collaborating with community partners

As with all authentic projects, the outcomes could not be predetermined. Our work began with various design constraints, developed by us as educators in consultation with our community partners: Glasstronomy Studios, the Markham Museum in alignment with the Myseum Intersections’ grant expectations, and Myseum’s team that provided us with the needed resources to be part of this year’s festival. Some examples of design constraints included: time, curriculum expectations, budget, material, venue, theme as connected with the Myseum grant of Arrivals and Departures, resources and expertise (i.e., utilizing the YRDSB’s telephone systems as the interactive audio component of the artworks).

Art students making masks of their ELL partners

Despite the initial planning, the complexities of the project became evident. We took two field trips to Glasstronomy Studios where the ELL and AU students learned to cut and shape glass. During this trip students began creating their mosaic discs. The glass mask-making process applied students’ understanding of two-and three-dimensional modeling. As well, plaster casts were made of the ELL’s faces. This was a pure exercise of trust between our ELLs and art students! ELLs had to lie still as their partners coated their faces with Vaseline before applying strips of plaster gauze to their entire face. After a lengthy and technically challenging process, the final product was a life-sized mask of the ELL’s face with facial features rendered in clean black lines.

We were the first high school ever to receive Myseum’s grant and invitation to be part of their Festival

After a six-month long collaboration, we celebrated the students’ work at an Artist Reception held at the Markham Museum. Outside, on their 25-acre property, the 26 fused glass and metal artwork stood like living statues waiting for visitors to engage them in conversation. Each sculpture, along with its title and the students’ names, also had a unique telephone number. Visitors could dial in to hear the ELLs speak about their journey to Canada in both English and their first language.

What students had to say

At each stage of the process, student reflections were captured in both English and first language. Harry, a grade 12 visual art student shared, “I’ve never created art incorporating someone else’s story, ideas, or feelings before. I also never thought much about what an ELL might be going through. Working with my partner has given me a better understanding of what it means to be new to Canada and to be faced with some of their challenges.” Penny, an ELL, wrote, “I enjoyed this art project because it let me tell my story about coming to Canada using art, colours, and images, instead of just language which I’m still learning. My partner and I worked very hard, and all throughout I felt so good and proud of the work we were doing together.”

“The Boy in Blue”

Final Thoughts

Usually in education, learning is rooted in the head and not the heart. Developing the ability to apply empathy within the design process needs to be experienced. It is not an intellectual exercise – it is an emotional one. This project showed that ELLs, often an underrepresented group of students, can connect with another facet of the school community to spark different ways of thinking and learning. As educators, we also have an increased awareness of the commitment of time and energy that is required to engage in meaningful cross-curricular teaching, but have come to see why it is so essential for deep learning.

We hope that other educators see value in the spirit or essence of this project, and that it will encourage and motivate them to engage in collaborative teams as a means to extend both educator and student learning.


Shane Clodd, OCT, is a department head of Visual Art and Ann Y.K. Choi, OCT, is an ELL and Student Success Teacher. Connect with them on Twitter by clicking on their names.