inspiring students to create and participate
by Véronique Ponce
"It seems to me that you change the world one person at a time. When you teach, you change the world one student at a time," begins Lise Paiement.
Paiement, a recipient of the 2002-03 Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence, lives for her work. And though it is more common to speak of artists putting themselves, body and soul, into their work, the word passion is well known among teachers. Paiement has been inspired by just such a passion since childhood.
She grew up in a family of educators and even met her husband (a math teacher) in a school. Very early on she set herself a modest life purpose of changing the world and has never lost sight of that objective. She says that she has been very fortunate. Fate has put people in her path who have helped her accomplish many ambitious teaching projects and she has benefited from working situations that were very receptive to her teaching philosophy.
"The synergy among teachers who want to change the world is very, very strong," she says.
Paiement teaches drama to students in Grades 9 through 12 at the Collège catholique Samuel-Genest in Ottawa. In the program she has created, students study all aspects of dramatic art - performance, writing, vocal technique, music, lighting, directing and, of course, language. The program is a powerful educational strategy intended, among other things, to develop students' cultural identity. With theatre as a tool, students develop a better appreciation of Franco-Ontarian culture while improving their language skills.
Students do not need to audition for her class and her shows have no stars. "A math teacher doesn't choose only the best students," she remarks. "And I take everyone too." Everyone participates in the shows - writing, constructing the set, making costumes and loading the truck during tours. Students do the casting and create the evaluation sheet. They must make sure there are enough roles for everyone, and since most plays are not written for 30 teenagers, it is also their job to create the play.
"Whatever the reason for students coming to my class, I keep them there by inspiring them to want to continue."
Over roughly 20 years in the profession she has directed students in more than 30 dramas and musicals.
Developing social conscience
Paiement establishes a class environment in which students are called upon to find their voices and develop self-esteem. "If you put trust in students they learn to speak with respect. When what they have to say is accepted they want to contribute to the group," she explains. Students learn that theatre is, above all, a matter of teamwork. They must show respect and generosity toward their colleagues.
She is also demanding and sets the bar high. She pushes students to excel and encourages co-operation and respect for differences. Not only must all students be fully committed to the class project, but the show they produce must be excellent. And her students have never disappointed her.
Most of Paiement's students take her drama course from Grade 9 through 12, during which time playwriting skills are developed. In the first year a lot of work is devoted to developing awareness of oneself and others, since it is more difficult to be disrespectful of someone you know well.
At the beginning of the course students are asked to offer some value or opinion, and these are explored by the class. The discussions inform the content and develop the themes of the play. Because of this, whatever the setting - La véranda (The Veranda), presenting various scenes over four seasons in the life of a porch, or Le grand Krash (The Great Crash), a musical comedy set in the depression era - each play reflects a social conscience.
Over time, the students develop an appreciation for good writing, along with language skills. As their social conscience becomes more sophisticated, the plays evolve and mature beyond the stereotypical into more complex and polished dramas.
Like any teacher Paiement must deal with discipline problems. But instead of rules she provides her students with a list of principles that will guide them. She does not say that they must arrive on time, but points out the adverse effects on others when someone is late. Students have responsibilities and there are both legal and moral consequences.
"I put values on the table - such as generosity or openness to others," says Paiement. "And with help, they get to the point where their actions reflect these values."
They must decide whether they want to knock something off quickly or work hard to write something they are proud of. Out of respect for their classmates, who cannot rehearse when someone in the group is absent, they do not skip class. As they recognize how much they appreciate being thanked, they thank others for their work.
For Paiement, social discourse is essential. "A social conscience is something that inspires students. We need to remember when teaching that we are role models."
Students also give performances on three weekends in various communities for disadvantaged children. The students at this school are required to do 40 hours of volunteer work during the year - but Paiement's students often do much more than that because she instills a desire to volunteer. They are motivated because they find they like to do it. This is a formative activity in the development of what she calls "student citizenship."
Evaluation occurs at three levels: self-evaluation, peer evaluation and teacher evaluation. Each student has an evaluation kit throughout the course. It contains dozens of points for consideration, including their creative process, their behaviour with respect to difficulties encountered, their critical sense. At the end of the course Paiement meets with students individually to review their evaluation kit, and goes beyond the academic mark to reflect on what they have experienced.
Valuing the extracurricular
Paiement has devoted numerous weekends, evenings and holidays to organizing cultural activities with and for her students. She believes that extracurricular activities should not be left to people's good will. It is a mistake to consider such activity only in accounting terms, without necessarily valuing it. She thinks that teachers want to engage in these activities when they are valued and appreciated by students, parents and principals.
Paiement has written songs and composed music for all sorts of events, from musical comedies to parties marking the end of the school year. That's how she came to release a recording, Tour de trapèze, in 1999. "I am probably the only person to record an album and have people know all the songs beforehand," she says, laughing.
This project was accomplished with one of her former students, Jean-Michel Ouimet, who had just set up a recording studio. This talented young musician is now well known on the Francophone cultural scene. He remembers that there was something emotional about Lise Paiement's classes, and that she had a talent for giving young people a sense of belonging. "She always gave a lot to her students outside of class, which made a difference. She organized cultural activities at noon, after class and on weekends," Ouimet says.
Paiement is a third-generation Franco-Ontarian from the mid-north (North Bay, Sudbury, Sturgeon Falls area) and is very active in the Francophone community, where she is known as a champion of French and Franco-Ontarian culture. She believes that personal, social and ethnolinguistic identity begins to develop with the identity that parents envision for their child, and that the development ends only when we die. Teachers accompany young people along the path, giving them some fundamentals and some tools that can make the journey a little smoother.
She notes that most Francophone communities scattered across Ontario do not have the benefits afforded by Quebec's social and geographic mass, where students live in a predominantly Francophone environment. French-language schools in Ontario play a "counter-balancing" role - to use Rodrigue Landry's expression - in fostering French language and promoting Francophone culture. Students should be able to use the language proficiently - not resorting to mixing two languages in one sentence when they speak.
Paiement says, "Students at school are told, 'We speak French here,' rather than 'We don't speak English here.'" She notes that in the beginning students may respect the language out of respect for her. "But it is my job, in the space of four or five years, to influence them to do it out of respect for themselves."
She knows that students' discomfort with their own language comes mainly from the fact that young people often confuse minority with inferiority. So she enjoys pointing out that only a minority of people may have an Olympic medal or a PhD, but they make no apologies for that. Then she may ask students to consider that the number of Franco-Ontarians equals the population of the Maritimes. Often Paiement will conclude with, "So let's start by looking at what we will contribute and stop counting heads."
More to come
Paiement is currently developing a training program in cultural pedagogy. Her workshops were first offered last fall to members of the Association des enseignantes et enseignants franco-ontariens. This educational leadership training invites participants to look critically at the role model they provide in their classroom, their school and their community. The objective for teachers is to assist students in the construction of their identity.
She has embarked on an unpaid leave of absence from her board that is allowing her to work on various projects and to interact with far-flung Francophone communities, as she did recently in Alberta. "This approach has meaning elsewhere as well, not just in Ontario."
She admits to missing the sound of the school bell, which punctuated her days for so long. "There is a great energy when the doors open and the next thing begins." But wherever she goes, Paiement brings along, and leaves in her wake, all the passion she has for teaching. "I couldn't do otherwise. It's part of who I am and what I love to do."
In Émile: or Treatise on Education, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, "Living is the vocation I want him to learn." This appears to be the goal that Lise Paiement has set for herself and her students as well.
Paiement is convinced that teaching is one of the noblest professions there is. This is in part because, as she puts it, "It is at school that we begin to learn the vocation of citizenship."
She shares and reinforces this pride of vocation in her workshops for colleagues and teacher-candidates as she has with her students. "I try to walk the talk, as they say. I want to live my life so that it is an expression of what I teach."