Upending stereotypes at West Hill C.I. through the arts
By Shellene Drakes-Tull
The sounds of singing voices filtered out of West Hill Collegiate Institute’s music room. Members of the school’s senior choir were rehearsing with their Dramatic Arts vocal teacher Lizzie Kurtz, West Hill’s Assistant Curriculum Leader of the Arts.
The students are part of the school’s Upend Project, which supports the TDSB’s Black Student Achievement & Excellence Strategy. “The Upend Project’s endeavour is to turn over negative assumptions made about the Black community at large in urban communities such as Scarborough,” explains Kurtz. “It endeavours to do that by creating positive experiences of arts learning and standards of excellence through the arts.”
Through various workshops, projects and conferences, students will explore Black culture, identity and the ideas of cultural excellence through the arts. “Essentially we’re trying to, as an arts department, give the students as many opportunities with the arts department — and on a whole school level — through different arts initiatives to dismantle these assumptions and have experiences where students see themselves represented in the work,” says Kurtz.
Breaking down stereotypes
Shyanne Kiritpal is a Grade 10 student and part of the senior choir. Recently, the choir performed in a show featuring the music of the American Civil Rights Movement. One of the songs that Shyanne sang was Feeling Good by Nina Simone, a singer and civil rights activist. Not only did Shyanne and choir members learn the songs, they learned about the history behind the music.
“Maybe through songs and presentations like this, we can learn more Black culture and maybe change mindsets about certain things when it comes to Black culture or Black people,” she explains. “Especially the stereotypes about Black people, like we don't always play into those stereotypes.”
When Grade 12 student Daniel Jamorabon heard about the Upend Project, he loved what it was about. “Growing up in Scarborough and in Toronto, there’s a lot of stigma about the culture, how we act, and that we’re all ghetto,” he says. “I thought this project was a great way to break down those stereotypes — it can be toxic.”
Daniel, and fellow Grade 12 student Gemma Buschold, are working on a number of projects for the Upend Project, including a mural that showcases where West Hill students and their families come from. After doing some research around the school, the students learned that a large number of their peers are part of the African diaspora. The group created a mural that has a bright dot on each country where a student comes from. “The dots symbolize that you’re a shining star and you’re much brighter than you think,” explains Daniel.
Says Gemma: “Canada is one of the most diverse country in the world. I think with all that diversity some people may forget where they're from and who they are. And to see where their background lies on that map, they get to look at it be like, ‘I'm from the Caribbean. I'm from Japan,’ and be proud of where they come from.”
Using arts as a pathway to the soul
There are a number of projects happening throughout the school, including an art installation created by Grade 10 students using pianos as canvases to be painted with murals, drawings or quotes.
Professional guest performers, including Soul Drums, choreographer Miss Coco Murray, and dancer Jessica Duval, are hosting workshops. Student writers have been invited to a writer’s conference with playwrights, authors and screenwriters. Other students are working on a labyrinth in the school’s courtyard, wall tapestries and wall hangings, portraying images of excellence and Black heritage which will be displayed on the school’s walls.
There is a lot happening at the school and, through the Upend Project, students and teachers are building greater engagement and helping to address the gaps the Black students face. “The arts is a pathway to get to people's soul like no other way,” says Kurtz. “The effect of arts learning and the inquiry-based processes that the students are going through in these different projects will hopefully give them more courage to ask questions and challenge other areas of the curriculum that are being taught and to be an active part of their learning in in new ways that inspire the collective that we have here at the school.”
A lover of stories and a wordsmith, Shellene Drakes-Tull has been a communicator in both the corporate world and in media for more than 15 years. Through telling the stories of TDSB students and educators, she hopes others are inspired to create more equitable, anti-racist and anti-oppressive school environments.