The art of turning the classroom into a stage

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Student Owen Ferguson (left) and head of arts at Henry Street High School, Gillian Maxwell.

Owen Ferguson, a student at Henry Street High School (HSHS) in Whitby, auditioned for a one-act play back in Grade 9. He had started taking drama classes that year. Now in Grade 12, Ferguson continues to audition and participate in drama productions. He says his favourite role so far has been Mercutio, the witty sceptic and foil for Romeo is Shakespeare’s 1597 tragedy Romeo and Juliet.

“I took the role and made it my own,” says Ferguson, who goes on to say that taking drama classes has helped him be more creative when he works on projects for other classes. If he has to present something or give a speech, he says he uses a dramatic take on it and makes it more amusing than it normally would be. Being enrolled in an arts class gives students like Ferguson the opportunity to have more freedom in classrooms that they may not have in other book heavy classes.

Scholars and philosophers have argued for years that arts are central to our humanity. The arts involve us in a quest to understand and convey the human spirit. This requires empathy, which means looking at the world through another’s eyes and as such, many have argued that studying arts and humanities help students become better citizens. Lisa Phillips, writer for The Washington Post says theatre skills help build confidence. When students are given the opportunity to choose from a wide range of different art programs, it trains them to step out of their comfort zones, make mistakes and learn from them.

One interesting thing about HSHS is the number of artistic classes available to all 77 students. There is a creative option for everyone whether it be visual arts, performing arts, music or dance. All of these different styles of art classes are chosen by students based on preference. With so many options available at HSHS they currently have 360 enrolled in any art program the school offers.

Gillian Maxwell is head of arts and library at HSHS. As both an art teacher and school librarian, with 14 years of teaching experience, she says there is a freedom in art that doesn’t exist in other classes. “Art is a creative force that gives students an opportunity to express themselves in ways that other subjects don’t,” says Maxwell. When students are allowed to make their own choices it helps them spread their creativity.

HSHS has a diverse set of art classes available to students. In the visual arts there is sculpting, urban arts, core foundational art and portfolio classes to help students who plan on pursuing art in order to build a great portfolio for their futures. Having a strong portfolio will only benefit you. It’s all about promoting and making a brand for yourself. In their music program, the school offers the standard music class, guitar, and vocal classes. There is also a core dance program that runs every other year and also standard drama classes. Maxwell says they hope to add a technical drama class in the future for the performing art students. An article written by Daniel Schwarz in the Huffington Post says that being exposed to great music, opera or ballet helps widen people’s horizons and understand how people behave.

In high school it’s standard practice that every student must take one art class to graduate. It’s common that these classes are taken in grades nine and ten. But Maxwell says at HSHS there are at least 100 students in grades eleven and twelve still taking art classes. This shows they still have a passion for the arts.

Whitby Station Gallery is a community gallery that was formed in 1967. Their vision for the community is to flourish in Durham Region and recognize the change. “I think Whitby’s changing a lot, I think it’s reflected in the art that we’re showing,” Maxwell says. HSHS and the Station Gallery have close ties, she says. They offer workshops and co-op placements for students.

Art programs give students a place to be creative says Maxwell. “It shows another side of their brain and for many students, it’s a real release from the pressures of the rest of school.” Drama class is a place where Maxwell sees students that may have behavioural issues in some classes but when drama class starts, the students are focused on what they’re doing. She says classrooms in the art program are a lot more loose than classes like math and science, students can communicate freely. Maxwell says she can see a difference in the student’s moods with them being allowed to express themselves more when taking a class that allows you to be creative.

HSHS has a lot of extracurricular activities, says Maxwell. These include the drama club, a play in the fall and a major production in spring. This year, the drama class is performing Mid Summer Night Stream. The visual arts class has an art club every day during lunch period and music classes have a junior, senior and jazz band. The high school also does coffee house and art nights, where students can show off everything they’ve done in classes. Drama kids perform and students show their art. HSHS also offers arts and culture Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM). SHSM is a specialized program that allows students to focus on a specific skill. It also helps students with early credits into colleges. At HSHS, there are currently 15 students on track to graduate with a Specialist High Skills Major.

“Creativity is much broader now, we embrace things we wouldn’t have taught before,” says Maxwell. At HSHS their urban arts class does spray painting and skateboard deck designing. Fifteen years ago art was really about “the standard” with drawing and painting classes. But we’re very specific, says Maxwell. “A lot of things that wouldn’t have been considered part of an educational curriculum back then are much more open now.”

Students like Owen Ferguson are a great example, proving students show confidence from the arts. Ferguson says he stands out because he does things other students wouldn’t feel comfortable doing. “I’m more outgoing than others and more comfortable doing things other people may not be,” says Ferguson. He goes on to say he has figured out this is what he wants to do for the rest of his life. After he graduates from high school, Ferguson wants to go to a college in Ontario for film and voice acting.

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