L’école à l’oeuvre is a series of creative workshops for local students.
Getting students to stretch their imaginations while developing their understanding of a narrative text: that’s the objective of the L’école à l’oeuvre project led by Franco-Manitoban multidisciplinary artist Marie-Ève Fontaine. Since 2018, she has been designing creative projects for young people and working in partnership with French Theatre at the National Arts Centre to offer her workshops and residencies to students ages 10 to 16 in schools all across the country.
In February, Marie-Ève, who specializes in puppetry theatre, visited two classes in Ottawa, including Sadia Dahoumane’s. Sadia teaches a class at Omer-Deslauriers School to a diverse group of newcomers ages 12 to 14, most of whom began learning French only a few months ago.
For Marie-Ève, the workshops are a great opportunity to promote the arts and encourage young people to unlock their imaginations. For Sadia, they give her students a window on Canadian culture while they learn French in a creative way.
This year, your workshop/residency is called La boîte-paysage (“the landscape box”). Can you tell us something about it?
Marie-Ève Fontaine: A landscape box is a small box into which you insert a long, rolled-up drawing; when you turn a crank, the drawing tells a story as it scrolls by. The students are always surprised when I introduce the project, and curious to know how it’s going to work. They draw their landscape and create their story themselves. They delve into their imagination, and most of them make up stories about things that have never happened to them. That’s why I call these workshops a boot camp for the imagination.
How do you get them to tell a story in pictures?
M.-È. F.: Making up a story isn’t always easy, so at the beginning, I give them tools, we do exercises to create an idea bank. I ask them to draw characters: first a superhero, then a talking animal, and finally an inanimate object that will come to life with the drawing. When they write their story, I encourage them to be silly. And it’s fun to see them let themselves go. These newly arrived students are getting used to their new school experience, they’re learning a new language, and all of a sudden we say, “Open your brain, we want to see the pictures inside.” And I think there’s something liberating about that.
From an educational perspective, what are the advantages of moving away from the conventional or traditional teaching model?
Sadia Dahoumane: It’s all good! Marie-Ève Fontaine’s La boîte-paysage gave us a better understanding of the structure of narrative text; we’d already covered that subject, but it became more concrete. The students were very engaged. And they had to use all their imagination and creativity to translate it into images. It’s an experience they won’t soon forget.
Do these workshops help them improve their French?
S.D.: Certainly, some of the students find writing difficult, especially when they don’t have much background knowledge and there are gaps in their vocabulary and sentence structure. But it was a turning point for them. I’m thinking in particular of a young girl who arrived in December speaking almost no French. But she was really committed, and she did a great job telling her story. It’s amazing!
Is it also a way to introduce newcomers to Canadian culture?
S. D.: It’s a window on the world; we try to socialize too. It’s not just about writing a narrative text: many other skills are involved. We talk about Canadian society and culture, which they may not know much about. It’s also an opportunity for social integration, for meeting new faces and talking to new people. Everything is new to them. So it allows us to share some great experiences.
These young people are at a pivotal point in their life journey. Is this a way of encouraging them to consider a career in the arts?
S.D.: It could very well be! I’ve discovered students who draw very well, whereas I’d never suspected they had that talent. For some, it can be a revelation.
M.-È. F.: I think it’s a way to trigger or catalyze a vocation in young people, and to show them that it’s possible to make a career out of it. It’s also an opportunity to highlight the value of art, to tell them that it’s worthwhile. There are young people who don’t necessarily do well in a traditional education context, but these workshops provide an alternative approach to learning, and those students are often the ones who stand out.