Students of LaSalle Secondary School’s grade nine drama class are stepping beyond the stereotypical curriculum of Shakespeare to study a work by Curve Lake First Nation playwright Drew Hayden Taylor.
The choice to study an Ojibwe writer is a “response to the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) Call to Action #62,” said LaSalle teacher Stephen Graham. “Several years ago, the Limestone School Board started into the process of developing new English courses with a focus on literature created by Indigenous authors… As part of the process, the Board invested in a large number of novels, plays, etc. by Indigenous authors, which could be used in the English courses. As a drama teacher, I was very interested in the plays.”
What is the TRC, and how does it apply in the classroom?
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, whose members traveled across the country between 2007 and 2015, created a report of the Indian Residential School (IRS) system in Canada. Through the process of conducting interviews with IRS survivors and their families, the TRC created a six-volume report on the horrific history of the IRS in Canada. Furthermore, the TRC created 94 Calls to Action for governing bodies in Canada at all levels to follow, in order to facilitate reconciliation between Canada and Indigenous Peoples.
The first section of the TRC Call to Action #62 that Graham referred to calls upon “the federal, provincial, and territorial governments, in consultation and collaboration with Survivors, Aboriginal peoples, and educators, to make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for Kindergarten to Grade Twelve students.”
Why choose Drew Hayden Taylor’s The Boy in the Treehouse?
“The Boy in the Treehouse” happened to be one of the plays that the Board had provided to teachers,” explained Graham. “It has had a very positive response from my students over the past couple of years and matches well with the curriculum goals of the course.” Graham also noted that one of his friends, who is Mohawk of Six Nations and a theatre professional, had recommended Drew Hayden Taylor to him because of his appeal to young adults. “This drama course does not have a specific requirement to utilize work by Indigenous artists, but doing so fits the spirit of Call to Action #62. And it’s a fun play that students enjoy and connect with.”
The Boy in the Treehouse is a coming-of-age story about a 12-year-old boy named Simon, who is of mixed Ojibwe and settler heritage and is living in Winnipeg. While mourning the passing of his mother, who was Ojibwe, he has an identity crisis. The title of the play refers to his attempt to perform a vision quest in his backyard treehouse without any knowledge of how to traditionally do so. Through reconnecting in his own way with his Ojibwe heritage, conversations with his dad, and a trusted friend, Simon reckons with his identity as a person of mixed heritage.
“There are lots of great ideas about family, love, community, and how we support one another through difficulties,” Graham reflected. “Which all sounds very serious, but the play approaches it in a very lighthearted way, because the original target audience for the play was kids roughly between the ages of 11 to 15.”
The teacher of the grade nine drama class also explained that “a lot of the themes [in the play] are universal, so any student can connect with the characters on a human level. It’s also a lot of fun to perform. That opens the door to allow for some learning about issues around Indigeneity along the way.”
Happy to be performing in the classroom again
“We are not producing the entire play, because of time constraints,” said Graham. “As a class, we worked through the whole play looking at themes, characters, and developing ideas for production elements (lighting, sound, set, costume). In our final exercise, students have selected scenes from the play to perform in class.”
As high school classes approach the end of the current “quadmester,” Graham reflected on how the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have impacted performing arts programs. “We haven’t been able to do the concerts, plays, musicals, and improv performances that have always excited students, and inspired others to take part in classes and extracurriculars,” he said. “It’s very challenging to do collaborative, interactive performing art when you’re sitting alone at a screen in your living room, and many students have really missed those opportunities to create together.”
With students back in the classroom after an extended period away, Graham is encouraged by the enthusiasm he’s been seeing in students. “They’re just so glad to be interacting with other kids! There is a social aspect to drama that is fulfilling, especially now, when so many of us are starved for real-world social connections,” Graham asserted. “It can be easy to dismiss the social elements of classes like drama or music as unimportant. But it is really beneficial on many levels.”
There’s nothing like the feeling you get when an audience bursts into applause.”– Stephen Graham, drama teacher, LaSalle Secondary School
Even though extracurriculars continue to be put on hold while schools navigate the Public Health response measures to the COVID-19 pandemic, Graham would like to encourage students to try out the performing arts classes. “Students develop an incredible number of valuable skills in drama and music classes — collaboration, group work, independent decision making and planning, creativity, presentation skills, and self-confidence. These skills transfer to their work in other classes, and in life outside school. It’s tremendously beneficial to their mental health, as well, which everyone is very concerned with right now as we struggle through the pandemic. Drama and music teachers are working very hard right now to encourage students who have not had much of a chance to try drama and music, to try it out, and discover how fun and fulfilling it can be.”
Graham remains hopeful that performances can resume before long. “Sometime soon we’ll also be able to show off our work to audiences, too,” he said. “There’s nothing like the feeling you get when an audience bursts into applause.”