Lately, the school blackboards in Eeyou Istchee have been used for more than grinding white chalk or lettering from left to right. Large colourful drawings of taiga animals have been appearing before Cree children – this as a result of their own action and participation in an art integration project using coloured chalk to produce beautiful murals.
The first of a series of popular animals drawn on the blackboards was “L’ours” – a large grizzly standing on the edge of a pond with a fresh catch in its mouth. The large mural was a collection of details and objects, which were added by the children after they were shown the basic techniques. They either replicated the teacher’s action or they added their own visions to the narrative content of the mural. The results were amazing! After drawing the main animal-character the teacher moved out of the way and invited the students to take part. Trees, mushrooms, branches, rocks… a goose here, a butterfly there. The mural became a collective work of art in which the children were able to deliver a powerful story as only they could do. The students had taken over!
“How can children work so quickly and with such realism?” is a question that crosses the mind of newcomers. Of course, animal topics are always rewarding and motivating to Cree students. Here, in the North, animals have long been a means to survival. The Cree people are millenary hunters and hunting is not a sport in Eeyou Istchee, but rather one of many simple rituals in a lifelong dialogue with nature. The Cree hunt mostly to meet their needs and not much goes to waste. Wolves, lynx, moose, bears, owls, all have special meaning. All species become the objects of tales and legends and touch on the spiritual. Wild geese flying outside will have the youth run up to the windows in a single bounce, every time.
But even more so, all newcomers in this community become quickly aware of the variety of visual and auditive abilities that the Cree children seem to possess: these children of hunters learn from looking; they are very observant; they see things that would elude most youth of the south. Their memory is stunning. As a result the arts in general are very friendly to them – and so should other fields such as sciences, language arts and media – which all require creativity and craftsmanship.
If some children are shy at first, they become comfortable with any craft once they are shown the basic skills – and they work fast! The teachers are dazzled by the art displays in the elementary cycles. Any holiday or special day becomes an excuse to undertake an art project, fill the walls and turn the hallways into a carnival.
A stroll down the local daycare centres is a start to an explanation. The educators along with the Elders, the parents, the teachers with their supportive administrations, all concur to promote these abilities. Skills that are passed through the generations and find their way in the hands of youngsters, who take humble pride in their beautiful work. I’ve seen nothing quite similar on blackboards at the elementary level before – in the south.
In the present perspective one last word should be said on behalf of chalk (coloured or white) as a still valuable pedagogical tool. It is tactile, porous, earthy… It is a traditional medium within the school systems of the world. In this day and age – when we are becoming dependent to modern technology, laptops, projectors, smart boards, I am humbled before the Cree children who reminded me – once more – that creativity has nothing to do with the medium employed. It is more a question of what lies within the heart and good ol’ blackboard did the job once more!
Pierre Coulombe is an Art & Language teacher at the Annie Whiskeychan School in Waskaganish