In the Right Place with LEARN
Published on September 09, 2022
“In the Right Place” is a blog series of the COM-Unity project featuring conversations with our partner organizations. In each conversation, we try to get a sense for how belonging takes shape in their specific communities, and how the places we inhabit shape us—and how we, in turn, shape them.
Part 3: Place, Pedagogy, and the Pandemic
with Ben Loomer, project coordinator of the “I Belong” project with LEARN
Image: Beaded Orange Shirts, a symbol of support of residential school survivors, created by students as part of a Take Action project in Year 2 of «I Belong». Source: I Belong website.
Today’s conversation is with Ben Loomer, project coordinator of the “I Belong” project with LEARN (Leading English Education and Resource Network). Ben expressed his passion for the behind-the-scenes magic that is the design of educational programs that bring the best out of students by giving them a voice—and through it, a sense of purpose and place. LEARN’s COM-Unity partnered project, “I Belong”, now heading into its third year, is an excellent example of such design, bringing diverse arts-based learning to over 1,400 students in English-speaking schools across Quebec.
Like many of our partner projects, “I Belong” began during the pandemic. But for a school-based program, this meant it had to be adaptable to the ongoing shifts in where learning took place—from the classroom to the outdoors to online and beyond. As teachers, administrators and students have adapted, however, the success stories have shown that, despite challenges, sometimes constraints can lead to new possibilities rather than limitations.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
C-U: For this series, we always like to start off by grounding the conversation in a physical place. Where are the spaces where LEARN’s work happens?
BL: Well, it's very exciting because I'm speaking to you from LEARN's new offices located in Laval, which is a great fresh new space that will allow us to do more in-person professional development for teachers and partners, as we had done in the past, pre-COVID. Also, behind us there is a city green space with a forest; we're kind of on the edge of it.
Once upon a time, I would go and visit schools and connect with the teachers and the students and the principals, and that stopped. But certainly, a lot of teachers picked up the opportunity to just get outside with their students, or have expressed interest in outdoor learning, as a way to engage students and benefit from the health and wellness that comes with being outside as well.
Part of what LEARN has started doing over the last few years, especially because of the pandemic, is provide professional development with teachers around outdoor learning and outdoor education. We're dreaming about ways we can incorporate this [green] space!
But to say that LEARN is in Laval doesn't speak to our provincial mandate and us working with all the English school boards around the province.
C-U: Teachers and students have had to adapt to the pandemic, and to the modifications to where learning takes place. How has this impacted “I Belong”?
BL: When "I Belong" started, we conceived of it as artists [going] into schools. But it became clear quickly that that was just not reality. So, we built an online experience connecting artists, teachers and students together and that, I like to think, was a welcome break: to learn, but also be creative and to think about the stresses and reflect upon the realities of the pandemic.
And we were reflecting on the importance of bringing urban, rural and isolated English speakers together to reflect on vitality and community: What does it mean to have students in Montreal and students in a rural region watch each other's films? [Participating in the “I Belong” Digital Storytelling Film Festival]. What is similar in their experience, and what is different? And knowing that rural people might move to the city and city folk might move to a rural region, these are ways of connecting [as part of the English speaking community], in a way, which I think is kind of cool.
And another unintended consequence of running “I Belong” during the pandemic is that we didn't necessarily build in travel costs. We had to rely on tools like Zoom or shared folders. So how exciting is it that you have an artist in Montreal that is working with students in the Gaspé, or on the Lower North Shore, or in Eastern Townships, where instead of seeing them once because we've blown the budget on a hotel and transportation, they're now able to visit five times!
C-U: It sounds like the digital aspect of the project has opened new possibilities for learning, especially bringing together people from geographically remote places. Has online learning also changed how students are tuning into the physical spaces around them too? I’m thinking about the podcasting project where students were encouraged to incorporate the sounds of where they live.
BL: My hat goes off to the artists like Guillaume [Jabbour, the sound artist who guided students to create podcasts about learning English and French as second languages] who are able to bring in their artistic craft to create dialogue and reflection as students participated in linguistic challenges.
What Guillaume brought is the use of ambient sound to tell a story or to create an atmosphere where people are at. And for the most part, they did those recordings in schools, and one of the challenges was finding a quiet space to record. Because schools are bustling, they are filled with young people! And I think [the podcasts] were a real reflection of the energy (and reality) of what's happening in the schools.
I’m also reflecting on a “Take Action” project: one of our "I Belong" options is [called] “Take Action”, a community-service learning project where students are engaged in a project which makes a difference in their community. And I'm thinking about James Lyng [high school] where they used a Take Action grant to a music producer and made an album thinking about themes of identity and belonging. The thing with art is you start somewhere and it goes somewhere else—conversations around gentrification, around hair and identity, these are things that came up reflecting their lived experience in this place, at this time, like, “I'm experiencing gentrification in St-Henri".
C-U: It’s important to listen to what youth will say when they’re given the platform to speak! How do they express or grapple with belonging or identity specifically as English speakers in the province?
BL: I just want to note the complexity of it and that English-speaking identity is different than it was 20 years ago. We just have more and more young people who can switch back and forth between English and French. And some of these old narratives just are not there anymore, [or] in the same way that older generations think of them. What does that mean? We're just discovering! And we're not getting the answers that we expected. We're dealing with students, for example, in grade five or six, age 10 or 11. And they're just not in the place where we are as adults thinking about language politics or language identities. But it provides moments to start engaging with these kinds of questions, like, who I am, what is important to me, where do I belong? Where do I not belong? It felt really good to just start the conversation.
And especially for students who are different, they themselves are speaking about wanting to feel belonging and acceptance, and not feeling isolated because of who they are. There are comments around gender or race; people are trying to navigate that as well as who they are in Quebec and wanting to feel accepted—and, as one student said, not feel “put in a corner” because they are different.
C-U: It’s September and the school year is just starting which is exciting! Is there anything you can tell us about the upcoming third year of the “I Belong” project?
BL: Yes! So, we're switching things up a bit. In the past, there were two rounds, where we had three different options each and because of the slightly condensed timeline of the "I Belong" project this year, we've decided to do just one round. We have six options which include: comic zine, podcasting (which is the connection between English as a second language and français langue seconde), puppetry, spoken word, digital storytelling, and “Take Action”, which is the community-service learning projects.
I'm no art guy, but I know that art is important because it gets conversations going. And that's what is exciting to me: that a young person does something, and then their peers and adults can look at it, examine it and it creates a new discussion. It engages young people to be on the path of understanding who they are, who they want to be in the future. We do that through art, we do that through discussing who they are—whether they use words like “English”, or “French” or Québécois or if it's just like, “this is who I am as a person, as a future citizen”. That's what this project has given us, these opportunities to experiment and learn and do. And that's been super fun and exciting.
Remember to follow us and LEARN on social media to stay in touch with our Year 3 projects!
And check out our events calendar for all public events related to NEXT and our other partner projects!
Teachers in English Schools in Quebec are invited to register for an I Belong project. The deadline is October 7th, 2022. All details can be found on the I Belong website.