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January 29, 2007 is a day Denis Sauvé will not forget any time soon. It was his birthday and he had just found out – on the eve of his retirement – that his colleagues at École secondaire catholique Le Relais in Alexandria had nominated him for the Premier’s Awards for Teaching Excellence. As if that wasn’t enough, he won in the Lifetime Achievement category.
“Students were crazy about Denis,” says science teacher Diane Borris, the former colleague who submitted his name for the award. “They knew they could count on him and felt comfortable confiding in him.
“He is patient, persistent, reliable and very approachable. Young people liked to be around him.”
The feeling was mutual. Sauvé thought a lot of his students.
“When you work with young people,” says Sauvé, “the important thing is to arouse their curiosity, stimulate their mental capacity and present challenges. If you ask them to stretch beyond their limits, they will discover themselves and develop self-confidence that, in the long run, will yield positive results.”
Sauvé began his 31-year teaching career in Sudbury in the 1970s. He has taught many subjects – from Canadian and European history to antiquity and the social sciences, from French (as a first and second language) to geography, psychology, philosophy and music. At Le Relais, for the past 20 years, he has taught Grades 9 through 12 social science and French.
But Sauvé is best known for his involvement with Café chantant, a student musical theatre troupe that was founded by teacher Jean-Claude Larocque (see The sound of singing in French Ontario). Sauvé was introduced to Café chantant 20 years ago when he worked with Larocque at Le Relais.
At a time when French-language cultural offerings in eastern Ontario were largely non-existent, the two teachers wanted to show that French was alive and well. In those early days, the fledgling group attracted some 25 students and a handful of teachers. Since then, the numbers have more than doubled and the troupe now tours all over Canada performing for audiences of up to 800 people.
Sauvé enjoyed writing scripts that used content geared to the Ontario school curriculum. Students were able to use their language while learning history. His play of two years ago, Les aventures du roi Georges le conquérant, about St. George the Conqueror, looked at the Crusades and drew parallels with the Iraq war.
“We wanted to show that history goes in cycles and that war is not the solution,” says Sauvé. “The students found it really interesting to discover symbolic and historical links between the Crusades and contemporary events.”
According to Sauvé, a number of young people who were at risk of dropping out owe their high school graduation to the theatre company.
“We were able to attract several struggling students, mostly boys. They got involved in various aspects of performance – audio engineering, lighting and scenery. Students have often told me that Café chantant helped them make it to graduation.”
“One of the key roles of Café chantant is to generate enthusiasm,” explains Sauvé. “Students take ownership of the shows, which means they become genuinely involved at all levels. The company often tours in places a long way from Alexandria. That’s always a great adventure for them. They perform for new audiences and have to win them over. Students who are ill at ease in public find it very challenging to sing in front of 700 or 800 people, but a number of them do just that. It’s quite a feat!”
Passing the torch
“I owe my enjoyment of theatre and music, my BA in history and my love of teaching to Denis Sauvé,” says Mathieu Glaude, a former student who acted and played guitar in Café chantant for four years and is now in his first year of teaching at Le Relais. “He was simply the best.”
Glaude had Sauvé as his associate teacher during his practicum, and has now been selected to take over several of his former teacher’s subjects, including the history course.
Glaude admires Sauvé’s passion for teaching and his ability to get students involved, even those who had difficulties with a particular subject or project.
“It’s no fluke that, in the 2006 yearbook, three-quarters of the students name Denis Sauvé as their favourite teacher,” he says. “The other quarter were probably never in any of his classes.”
“Denis has the gift of finding and developing the best in young people,” says Jean-Claude Larocque, the French and history teacher who founded Café chantant.
“Whenever he saw students who were struggling, he’d take the time to listen to them, make suggestions and offer help. He invested his own time, took it upon himself to look for books or any other resources that might be needed, and coach these students in their work, regardless of how long it took.”
When asked about his approach to teaching, Sauvé says simply, “I would start with what the students knew already. Then I’d try to pique their curiosity and forge links with familiar things – things they had actually experienced or had at least heard of.”
“You’ve got to delve a little deeper,” he adds. “I’m a firm believer in intellectual stimulation.”
In the 1970s and again in 2000, Sauvé put together a large-scale project for a course he was teaching on antiquity. Students were required to create a fictional civilization and simulate an archaeological dig that would help them understand the society’s evolution from a number of different perspectives: technical, intellectual, political and moral. Students made pottery and drawings of artifacts, which they then buried in the ground. The excavation site of the imagined civilization allowed them to make “discoveries” and then interpret their findings in their classroom presentations.
“Students gained an inkling of what archaeologists, historians and philosophers face when they try to interpret the everyday life of long-vanished civilizations. That was something they really enjoyed!”
Patrice Racine, the principal at Le Relais, says that Sauvé is “a shrewd educator who was able to reach his students at an emotional level; he could tell what they were interested in and knew how to incorporate their interests into his teaching. Denis is the genuine article – not some actor putting on a performance for his class. Of course, he clowned around and had fun with his students, but he was also very serious and caring.”
Most teachers would find it a challenge to teach the Apology of Socrates or interpret human existence to a class of 15-year-olds. But rather than giving philosophy lectures, Sauvé would have each student choose a philosopher and act out the philosopher’s ideas, or present them in an original way.
“It was truly rewarding to see these young people assimilate philosophical theories and then translate them into a school project.”
“Sauvé doesn’t believe that success depends on IQ levels but thinks that anything is possible when students are motivated,” says long-term colleague Diane Borris. “He’s convinced there’s no need to water down academic subjects. For example, five minutes is simply not long enough to devote to Jean-Jacques Rousseau in a course on philosophy, so Sauvé would take whatever time was needed to cover the subject in depth so the students could grasp all the nuances.
“If it weren’t for him, our students in this little rural school would never have made it through their philosophy course!”
What advice does Sauvé offer to newcomers to the profession?
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help from more experienced teachers. Work as a team. And above all, don’t take yourself too seriously. You’ve got to make room for a bit of humour because teenagers really like that.”
Sauvé’s retirement was cause for some sadness among colleagues. “I had a lot of trouble facing the fact that he was going to leave us,” admits Larocque. “It’s never easy losing a fellow teacher you’ve worked so closely with.”
After 31 years in the classroom, Sauvé couldn’t help feeling a little melancholy this year. “From the time I was seven years old, there had always been a back-to-school day for me. This is going to be a brand new experience.”
Many have benefitted from Sauvé’s career, but now this great advocate of learning has other plans: gardening, reading, travelling, renovating. “When you retire, there are lots of things to do. Thanks to my spouse, I have a nice, long list to keep me busy!”
This year’s Café chantant show, Le Temps des grands bouleversements – written by Denis Sauvé and Jean-Claude Larocque – runs March 4–6 and will tour Manitoba April 21–26, 2008. For more information contact École secondaire catholique Le Relais at 613-525-3315.
Café chantant – a cabaret-style show generally featuring students from the school’s music classes – made its debut on the Franco-Ontarian scene in the mid-1960s.
Maurice Berthiaume is now a retired teacher, but during his student days at Chelmsford Valley Composite High School, Berthiaume established one of the first Café chantants with a friend – writer/composer Jean-Guy (Chuck) Labelle.
“We used to sing Harmonium or Marjo songs accompanied by various musical instruments, such as guitar, keyboard and a few winds,” says Berthiaume. “The audience sat at tables with candles, creating a very intimate atmosphere.”
When Berthiaume became a teacher, he saw this kind of activity as an ideal venue for discovering his school’s poets and writers, and decided to create a Café chantant at École secondaire Rayside in Sudbury.
“Some students wrote skits while others collected and performed French songs that helped to tell the story,” recalls Jacques Grills, one of Berthiaume’s former students. “It was an unforgettable experience.”
Grills now teaches music at École secondaire Macdonald-Cartier in Sudbury and draws on the experience today. Four years ago, he was inspired to create Groupe 17 – comprising 25 of his own students with a genuine passion for music – which recently released its first album and is embarking on a province-wide tour that includes the Festival Quand ça nous chante in Kingston, February 20–23. (All French school music programs take part in this event.)
An adjunct to school music courses, Café chantant is now part of the Ontario curriculum. Over time, the concept has taken a variety of forms and has spread to all of the province’s French schools – some including theatre performances and even improvisation. At École secondaire catholique Le Relais in Alexandria in eastern Ontario, Café chantant has included music, theatre, dance and original student creations since Jean-Claude Larocque launched the program in 1986.
Simultaneously a place for creativity and a vehicle for promoting French-language music, Café chantant provides an after-school-hours stage for aspiring student authors, composers and performers to celebrate their francophone identity and enrich their culture. And it is an excellent training ground. Playwright Jean-Marc Dalpé and actor/writer/director Robert Bellefeuille are among those who have gained skills and experience from participating in Ontario’s Café chantant.
Lovers of the performing arts couldn’t be happier!