Cree students seeing success through art

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Many of the students in the Mikw Chiyam program didn’t want to spend a second more than they had to at school. But because of the opportunity to work in partnership with professional artists, some of the students have been voluntarily staying at school to work on murals until late in the evening.

The Mikw Chiyam artist residency program is in its second year at Voyageur Memorial High School in Mistissini and has been expanded to schools in Chisasibi and Waskaganish. The program brings professional artists to classes for five-week residencies where they work with a permanent teacher to mentor students in their artistic medium.

“Sometimes the students were there, nights on end, working with artist Fanny Aisha, until 10 pm,” said program coordinator David Hodges. “We’re giving the students a reason to stay in school and take ownership of their education. We had one student go from attending school 20% of the time and failing to the exact opposite: attending school 80% of the time and passing.”

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Whether it’s painting, photography, music or film, the students in the program have the chance to learn from pros while making original pieces of art. The works they complete are displayed to their peers and community at an exhibit mounted at the end of every artist-in-residence’s stay.

“Through the art shows people are seeing how exceptionally gifted these students are,” said Hodges. “People are coming and getting excited about the shows and this year we plan on having a big end-of-year art showcase.”

In addition to the art and improved attendance, it’s getting students to think about the future.

“I can see in this second year, students are already thinking about next year. Some want to continue with Mikw Chiyâm and also enter the entrepreneurship program,” said Marcela Henriquez, the Mikw Chiyam teacher at Voyageur Memorial. “It’s amazing to see them learn the skills in this program and then want to turn them into a career. I can’t wait to see where they take it.”

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There are other ways in which the program has enriched the education experience of students. “When I started Mikw Chiyâm, I was acting out by not really applying myself to my school work,” said Jarrett, a student enrolled in the program. “The program really motivated me to do better. I started asking my teachers for help when I needed it and became one of the better students in my class.”

Every program has to learn from its participants, and Mikw Chiyâm takes that statement to heart. “The program needs my input as much as I’ve needed it,” said Jarrett in reference to the program’s commitment to student-driven programming and improvement. “It’s the greatest program I’ve participated in.”

Another student, Tre Turner, echoed that sentiment. “We now have a couch in the classroom because of the students’ demands,” said Turner. “Last year some students left the program because it wasn’t what they thought it would be. This year it’s more lenient, the program adapted to what the students were saying. It’s very inclusive.”

Turner is one of the students who discovered talents he didn’t know he had. “The highlight of my life is the 40-minute short film I made for the class last year,” said Turner. “Without all these opportunities afforded to us by the program, I definitely wouldn’t have considered film as a possible career.”

And Mikw Chiyâm has not only opened up the eyes of the students but also those of their teacher. “I taught for seven years in Montreal at a high-achieving school where the kids were already motivated; we didn’t really have to push them,” said Henriquez. “But through this program I’ve realized that, no matter where you are, all kids need is an opportunity to have their voices empowered, and as teachers all we need to do is give them the tools and platform. If that was the case across the country, Canada would be a very different place.”

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While the details of the end-of-year art showcase are currently in the works, you can check out other upcoming Mikw Chiyâm shows: a drama showcase by Cheyenne Scott in Mistissini April 12; a painting and drawing show by Jamie Bradbury in Waskaganish April 18; and a printmaking show by Chris Robertson in Chisasibi April 21.

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