Why Aesthetic Literacy?

This is going to be good.  I like public things. I like public schools and public people.
Leon Bronstein in The Trotsky

In five days, we will be hosting our Second Annual John Oliver Film Festival.  Thanks to the indefatigable efforts of Dustin Keller (his teaching blog, by the way, is phenomenal), we are about to embark upon one of the best school days of the year.  Sponsored by Reel Canada, 8 movies will be screened all day throughout the school with over 1200 students serving as a viewing audience.  How special a day?  Let me share with you my reaction from our First Festival, last year.

A whole day watching films: why?

Because we need to celebrate the brilliant work of Canadian film makers;
Because we want our students to appreciate that walking into a theatre, a public, communal space is an “experience”;
Because aesthetic literacy, an understanding and appreciation of the arts, is essential if we expect those around us to be responsive and empathic to the wonders and, concomitantly, the mundane in the world;
Because if we do not give our students ‘access points’ to film and the arts we will have failed in our efforts to provide them with a comprehensive education;
Because, as Film: 21st Century Literacy espouses, “in the same way that we take for granted that society has a responsibility to help children to read and write – to use and enjoy words – we should take it for granted that we help children and young people to use, enjoy and understand moving images; not just to be technically capable but to be culturally literate too.”

As I was sitting in the South Gym watching “The Trotsky” this morning, I couldn’t help but be moved by the beauty and significance of the event.  There were 350 students, eating popcorn, being respectful of each other and the ad hoc theatre space, and truly engaging in the movie (when 17 ½ year old Leon Bronstein (Jay Baruchel) kissed 27 year old Alexandra (Emily Hampshire), I smiled as the 200 boys in the crowd started clapping – yes adolescent dreams can come true!). However, a line that truly did resonate with me was spoken by Frank (Michael Murphy), a burned-out activist-turned-college professor, who tells Leon that “things have a way of improving if we improve them ourselves.”

Things have improved at JO because rather than being drowned out by the squeaky wheel noise of our surrounding political and organizational inertia, we (staff, students and parents) have improved our school . . . ourselves.  Initiatives, directions and curriculum will always change; however, in hosting this film festival, in using film as a means to engage with our community, in speaking with our students today about what they saw and what they experienced, we continue to improve our community by ‘connecting’ and speaking to the hearts of all, addressing not only what they learn but what they feel; we stay committed to the promise that, through the arts, our students can and will grow in their understanding of themselves and the world around them.

As I was leaving this evening, still all emotional and teary eyed over how “special” this day was, I realized that I had forgotten my blackberry on the stage in the auditorium.  Not wishing to run halfway across the school toting all of my bags, I approached a couple of grade 9 girls who were sitting on the floor doing homework – how could I go wrong?!?  I called one of the girls over and asked her if she would go to the auditorium for me.  Her nod signifying acceptance of the mission, I took out my school master key and ceremoniously enlightened her with the fact that for the next 2 minutes, with this key, she would be the most powerful person in the school.  She looked at me in awe; soft lighting engulfed her as she took the key from my extended fingers, gracefully turned to her friend and with an innocence and excitement which could not be feigned said, “Look, the custodian’s keys.”

Cut! That’s a wrap!