Students at St. Mary’s have hit all right notes and have supporters singing their praises

Column: 
June 13, 2018

Students at St. Mary’s Wellness and Education Centre participate alongside members of the Gryphon Trio and the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra as part of the Kitohcikewin/Listen Up! performance.

Suppose you are a traditionalist. Therefore, the strains of symphony music would not necessarily be what you would expect to hear from a group of elementary school students.

Don’t try telling that to Katrina Sawchuk, the principal at St. Mary’s Wellness and Education Centre in Saskatoon. You see, despite the school being located in one of the least prosperous areas in terms of the socio-economic ladder, she is of the view there is nothing these students can’t do. So any chance to showcase their talents is embraced as a welcome opportunity.

Judging by the fact that the Grades 5 to 7 students were enthusiastically singing their hearts out, accompanied by the Gryphon Trio and the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra, it is easy to believe the school’s head cheerleader. This was the culmination of the unique Kitohcikewin/Listen Up! (Kitohcikewin is the Cree word for making music) artist-in-residence program at the school that literally transformed the space into a “cultural arts centre.”

Given that the young students were wearing t-shirts in the colours of the medicine wheel, the balance that Sawchuk and her staff at St. Mary’s were striving for was confirmed. While very much conscious of teaching history, there is always room for “blue sky” innovation as well.

This was a perfect example of how to showcase that dual spirit, as they were the only school in Canada, outside of Ottawa, to have been chosen to participate in this Listen Up! project where students experience hands-on opportunities such as song writing, lyric composing, self-expression and musical connections. It is built on the understanding that all children have the potential for artistic expression, but are not always given the tools to flourish. So you can quickly deduce this was literally a project made for the students of St. Mary’s.

Moreover, for Sawchuk, this solidified her belief that the arts have an equally important role to the other subjects in the curriculum, while providing a rich opportunity to participate in this sort of endeavour.

“Every time the performers would come into our school, the kids were fascinated and curious. They are so resourceful, and you could just see the creativity come to the surface. It comes naturally to a child, and through this initiative we were able to honour the voice of the child, because from the outset this was genuinely all about the kids. They were able to have their own voice and learn more about their culture.

“Any time you can bring the broad pedagogy of community into our school in a respectful manner such as this, it helps in our understanding in terms of what the students are learning. I’ve always said all along that these students are so gifted. This was a great chance for them to shine and for us as a staff to be part of the journey.”

According to Sawchuk, one of the keys to success was the level of engagement in the process; it resonated with the students.

“To them [students] it wasn’t learning to read or write or curricular outcomes, it was about creating something they could be proud of. I think being reminded of that is important to students, to our families and to us as educators,” she added.

An integral part of the process was the inclusion of First Nations Elders and Knowledge Keepers from the outset at the start of the school year.

Those who worked with the students throughout the process came away marvelling at the commitment and dedication the students showed.

Mark Turner, Executive Director of the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra, called it an honour to have been involved while noting, “the SSO believes that the opportunity for young people to learn about music and explore their own musicality is a basic human right. Several of our guests and orchestra members who worked with the kids commented on how much they loved working with the students, and how it was an absolute joy to share in their music.”

Artist Rachelle Brockman echoed those sentiments, while adding that the experience she had was not only personally motivating, but also “turned the funnel of exploration outside and to explore this together was just wonderful.”

Cellist Roman Borys of the Gryphon Trio commented on the evolution, adding that initially the students would sit quietly, almost shy. “At the end of our program they command the stage, and it’s so powerful and touching to see. This helped them discover who they are and gave them the tools to engage and communicate with their community.”

Sawchuk, who spoke of her own personal learning along the way, stressed the importance of achieving balance while always being mindful of the medicine wheel philosophy. “Ideas of wellness, and physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth–this is another chance to achieve that balance, and this is a chance to showcase their talents,” she indicated.