First UCN language arts festival in Thompson a collaborative effort

The 2014 University College of the North (UCN) language arts festival was held in Thompson for the first time May 1-2 and while it wasn't without its hiccups, the organizers say it was successful in getting students excited about writing and other forms of expression with the help of guest authors and presenters.

"It's a festival to celebrate youth and writing and connection to language arts," said Rachel Mitchell, an instructor at UCN's adult learning centre and one of the members of the organizing committee, as the festival was wrapping up with an open community event on May 2 at the Thompson Regional Community Centre (TRCC). "The theme is graphic novels and humour this year."

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The organizers had been hoping to host at least some of the event in UCN's new Thompson campus, but with the opening of that facility not scheduled until May 23, the festival activities were adapted to the TRCC and facilities at R.D. Parker Collegiate, with assistance from the School District of Mystery Lake (SDML), which worked with UCN to put on the festival.

"We ended up being at the regional centre because UCN wasn't open yet," said Brenda Firman, a professor with UCN's Kenanow Bachelor of Education program in Thompson, and the school district's experience with similar events proved valuable. "We'd anticipated being there and using some here so it was quite inventive to be able to handle it here. But they [SDML] had done an event with sustainable development about a month prior with about 130 students here so they had the background experience about how that can work."

The organizers also had to call in Martha Jonasson, a member of UCN's council of elders, as a last-minute replacement when travel troubles waylaid a scheduled presenter.

"Our headliner was stuck in rural Hungary," said Carolyn Creed, a UCN professor who is currently teaching a university writing course and was co-chair of the festival committee along with Mitchell.

"[Martha] just came and did a wonderful job," said Firman. "She works with stories and storytelling and history of place and is always just a wonderful person to have and the students really enjoyed her as well."

Part of the purpose of the festival, Firman says, is to introduce students to using language in various forms to tell their stories.

"It's about communication, it's about story, it's about life, it's about all kinds of ways of communicating and sharing and being. It's about being human," she said, noting that the students who were involved in workshops and performances are in early adolescence and about to embark on a new journey as they leave elementary school and begin high school.

"[The school district] had wanted to see Grade 8's included in the language arts festival as that is the point of threshold to motivate them," said Firman. "At this time of year they're just finishing Grade 8 headed into Grade 9 to help build that motivation in the language arts."

A unique aspect of this year's language arts festival was the languages stories were being told in.

"We had a strong Cree language component in it, the Cree language also being a language art," said Firman, noting that this was a first for the event with much of the Cree portion being led by Dennis Day and Ron Cook, who helped students build stories using Cree and combine it with English in their narratives.

At a public event in R.D. Parker Collegiate's Letkemann Theatre on May 1, some French exchange students currently attending Riverside were exposed to both languages being featured in the festival.

"They were just loving learning another language," said Firman, "so that was another of the many big pieces."

In addition to telling stories in different language, students were also exposed to different mediums of expression with presenters such as Chad Solomon, a puppeteer and graphic novelist from Ontario and Sue Matheson, a professor at UCN who specializes in film.

"The kids are up there with the puppets," during the sessions with Solomon, said Mitchell. "It's like live puppet theatre. It was just terrific."

Matheson focused on different ways of viewing the world.

"She was showing the students how pictures are formed, how to frame them, using examples from aboriginal programs, aboriginal films that the students would be aware of and then having them try it out themselves," said Firman. "That was of real interest for some of them."

One of the biggest hits among the students was David Robertson, a graphic novelist from Manitoba, whose influence carried into workshops put one by others as well.

"In my session I was talking about life writing as graphic autobiography, turning your life story into a graphic novel, and I looked up after I had laid the groundwork and found every single student intent on getting that portrait right," said Creed. "It was a great moment."

That ability to bring people into a community is a big part of the language arts festival, says Keith Hyde, a professor in UCN's arts and sciences faculty, who has chaired the festival previously in The Pas.

"We've been able to bring up some pretty exciting people," he said. "[David Robertson]'s one of Manitoba's foremost graphic novelists. Being in Northern Manitoba you don't always get the same people and performers who will go through southern Manitoba so we've really tried, I think fairly successfully, to bring in big names. I know it was a treat a couple of years ago to see students build a short story with Tomson Highway. You're sitting here thinking, 'You know, there's people in Toronto and New York and that who'd pay hundreds of dollars to sit down in a room with him and actually have him go over their work with them' and here students in Northern Manitoba get a chance to do that. That's been a real treat to see."

A key to the festival is collaboration, both among the various departments and faculties at UCN, which chip in money and staff to put on the event, as well as with outside partners, like SDML, the City of Thompson's TRCC staff and other organizations, like the Thompson Neighbourhood Renewal Corporation, which contributed $5,000 towards the event through its small grants fund.

That same spirit extended to the stage of the Letkemann Theatre for the first of the festival's two public events.

"It was so collaborative," said Mitchell. "Those artists just reached in and had these kids involved. They were just right into it. They were terrific."

"The kids had a lot of fun," said Firman.

And so did the organizers.

"I don't know how we all walked out after laughing so hard at the end," said Firman. "It's building story through different means, not just sitting down always, not that there's anything wrong with it and it's one of the means, but helping energize that storytelling."

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