Lessons in Art - and Self-Esteem

After 25 years in Quebec's English school system, Christine Harvey still has a rookie's zest

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AFTER Christine Harvey's art class had spent six weeks studying and making primitive masks, one eighth-grader was still puzzled: "Why did we spend all our time on this," he asked, "when I could have bought a rubber one at the corner store?"

Ms. Harvey recalls that story with a laugh. In the 25 years that she has taught art in Quebec's English schools, her sense of humor has kept her outlook lively.

Here at Centennial Regional High School just outside Montreal, Harvey is a veteran teacher with the energy and zeal of a rookie. She has a reputation for being difficult, but in a positive way. In the words of one of her ninth-grade students, "She's hard, but good-hard, you know?"

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"The kids say I'm never satisfied," Harvey admitted in a Monitor interview. "My priority is in pushing them to be the best they can be. Through art I'm giving them empowerment and self-esteem." She describes herself as a "real directive, pushy teacher" but says it pays off in the long run. "I have had kids come back to me and say how they appreciated it, saying 'You gave me the sense I can do anything.' " That has made her feel successful as one who guides, educates, and motivates, she says.

Harvey came to Canada from England in 1968 and taught art at Lemoyne D'Iberville school until 1990. Over those 22 years, the English school's student body dwindled. So the school became bilingual (English/French). When the English-speaking population dwindled still more, the school became all French-speaking. (See adjoining article.) That brought Harvey to Centennial which, with 1,900 students, is the largest Anglophone school in Quebec.

Vice principal Bob Bennett calls Harvey dedicated, devoted, and a very caring person. "She's really encouraging kids to get into art and promoting fine efforts of kids.... She's been in the business a long time and she still treats the situation like a rookie, putting in the extra time, though she's better because she's had the years of experience."

Harvey says she delights in the high-ceilinged art room bedecked with dozens of students' works: "It used to be the old 'shop'; they built an airplane here," she notes. Today the "ninths" are using patterns found in rocks and wood to make their own designs. Ethnically diverse

Centennial has always had a diverse ethnic population, which makes it special, says Harvey. Located in Greenfield Park, the school is known as racially harmonious, much like the surrounding South Shore.

"Because we've always been bilingual, it's allowed other cultures to flourish," says Harvey. The students' ethnicity is part of their identity, she says. "What is a Canadian? First you're Greek, then Canadian; first you're Haitian, then Canadian. That comes from: First you're Quebecois, then Canadian."

At around 12 percent, the drop-out rate here is much lower than Quebec's average of 36 percent. Although Harvey says she sees few students drop out, the reasons they leave school early today are different than years ago. In the 1960s, it was to "search for yourself," she remembers. These days she finds that youths seem to leave out of apathy - they're not going to get a job anyway, they say. (The drop-out rate is typically lower in English schools than French schools, Harvey notes.)

As for most students who stay in school, their attitude seems to be more conservative today. "They've incorporated more middle-class values. They are much more inclined to say 'Well, I hate school, but I have to do it,' " Harvey says. "They're almost like miniature adults." The socio-economic climate probably has a lot to do with their outlook, she reasons: "They're frightened of the recession." In a way, that makes them easier to teach, she says, because they're not as rebellious. In an "anti-teenager" way, she says, they are looking beyond the moment.

Behavior has changed, too, says Harvey. Pupils today have shorter attention spans. The "stick-with-it-ness" is harder to instill, especially in art. "They want immediate attention and immediate feedback. It's a challenge to really make them carry through." That comes from entertainment and the media, she figures. "Kids used to work hard because they made a personal decision to enjoy art and take it seriously. Now it's a case of 'I must succeed in school so I can succeed in life.' But at the same time the y want the quick fix which they get from TV and the movies, fast communications, working on computers.... Kids are also terribly materialistic. They want to get jobs, make money, and buy what they want."

Drugs are nearly nonexistent at Centennial, she finds, saying they are something "we never hear of." Sexual awareness starts much younger, she says, as does AIDS awareness.

A big problem is the "loose language," she says, laying some of the blame on films. If a teacher hears profanity in the hallways, a student is apt to remark casually: "Oh, you weren't supposed to hear that," says Harvey. Years ago, students would have apologized. Parents respect art

Different family structures have also brought on challenges. Single parenting is common. So are remarks such as "Well, my mother's boyfriend said...." Some students have to deal with a parent and "the other," Harvey says, meaning the parent's boyfriend or girlfriend. "That can be really hard on them."

As for the social status of teachers, "I think it's lowered," says Harvey. "Thirty years ago, it was a very elevated position. I think it's been dropping ever since." Most parents - though not all - are respectful and admiring and are very responsive, however.

Parental respect for the subject of art has grown, she notes happily. Before, parents weren't as encouraging about their children pursuing art ("They'll starve!" she mimics). But today, they recognize the possibilities, such as in computer graphics. Although Harvey says she suffers no teacher burnout, she sees it all around her, especially with teachers in their late 40s who are approaching retirement but aren't quite close enough to it.

"Older teachers need to feel needed - not only with kids, but with the administration," she says. Sometimes administration needs to give them "a little pat" once and a while. But often they just assume, "Oh, she's been teaching for years."

"It takes a lot of energy to be a teacher," Harvey says. "It's hard to be 'up' for every class.... Yet energy and enthusiasm are terribly important."

Does she feel successful?

"Yes. That's terribly important or I'd do something else. I think it has to do with the subject I teach and the fact that I'm a born optimist," she says with a smile. She credits her "other outlets" as part of her fuel.

On Saturdays, she prepares adults at Concordia University to be art teachers, for example. During the summers she travels and brings back many ideas and objects.

There's also a close relationship, she says, that often evolves with students and the shared feeling of accomplishment. In art, "there's a lot of talking through."

"I have a feeling of success when I see their pride in their own work," she says, as when students bring their friends in after school to show their work and announce: "This is what I did." Other articles in this series ran Nov. 4 and 18; Dec. 2, 16, and 30; Jan. 21; Feb. 3 and 18; March 2, 16, and 30.

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