McKenzie-Smith Bennett Public School staff and students spent the first couple of weeks of the new school year working with artist Michael Cywink to create a large-scale mural to teach students about Indigenous culture.
With brushes in hand, an enthusiasm to learn, and under the guidance of Cywink, a band member of the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island, students and staff members painted a vibrant 39-foot by seven-foot mural that spans two hallway corridors.
Grade 6 to 8 students were chosen to help outline and paint the various images that encompass the rich-tone mural.
“The purpose was to educate and connect our students and community with Indigenous art and culture while raising awareness about land, contemporary colonialism, Indigenous peoples and issues to inspire change in people and their actions,” says Lisa Touchie, teacher at McKenzie-Smith Bennett PS. “This project aligns with the Truth and Reconciliation Calls To Action, specifically, building student learning for intercultural understanding, empathy and mutual respect.”
The mural has already created deep student learning at the Acton school.
“I learned about different art styles of the Indigenous peoples and how to become a better painter,” says Grade 6 student Jackie. “I hope by the time I am in Grade 8, all of the blank walls in the school will have a mural on them or at least a small painting. It makes the school feel so beautiful, and we feel connected with the land and nature.”
For Grade 8 student, Bradley, understanding Indigenous history is important because “we need to recognize they were here long before us and to respect their ways of thinking and culture.”
“Beyond the obvious art connections through the elements of design such as space, colour, and texture, our focus was on bringing in Indigenous knowledge through Indigenous voice. We focused on learning about the land and the seven Grandfather Teachings of Love, Respect, Courage, Honesty, Wisdom, Humility and Truth, and connecting these teachings to student behaviour and interaction. Our goal is that these learnings will transfer to our community outside of the school walls.”
The mural will help spur dialogue and teachings in the Social Studies curriculum, for example, to include knowledge about treaties, Indigenous rights, cultures and perspectives in the classroom, Touchie says.
“Our teachers have been inspired by the conversations that have started and are beginning to feel more comfortable opening up discussion around the topic of Truth and Reconciliation.”
Principal Kimberley Phillips says the mural will create a legacy for future students to better understand the history of Indigenous peoples.
“Our students have been able to make authentic connections to the learning around the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the history of residential schools,” she explains. “More importantly, they were able to engage in important conversations with their teachers and with the artists. They were able to ask questions in an atmosphere of respect, trust, and understanding, leaving a lasting mark on the school that has been positive and uplifting.”