Teachers Julia DiCarlo, left, and Jol-Christine Molina, right, helped bring together their Indigenous art and English classes to collaborate on a short-story collection. Photos courtesy St. Mother Teresa Catholic Academy

Book built with words, art … and passion

  • August 23, 2019

The students at St. Mother Teresa Catholic Academy in Toronto didn’t grow up on a reserve or have Indigenous roots, but after a semester learning Grade 11 Indigenous Studies English, they knew they could still be allies to their native brothers and sisters. 

“We came up with the idea for our stories based on the real-life issues that Indigenous face today,” said 17-year-old Kaliyah Macaraig. “We really wanted it to be authentic and to inform the readers about the plight of many Indigenous people.”

As their final project, the Grade 11 class collaborated with the Grade 9 Indigenous Studies Art class to create Lacuna (“the missing part”), a collection of short stories and illustrations based on the history and culture of Indigenous Canadians.

In order to tell these stories authentically, Macaraig and her co-authors, 17-year-old Kereisha Biggs and 18-year-old Tamia Mills, spent months drawing from their lessons and doing their own research. They wrote a story called “Petrichor,” about a Cree girl who grows up on a reserve. Kimi and her family face many challenges living on reserve, such as limited resources, proper access to health care and education. 

Briggs said they wanted to make sure they did as much research as they could on the Cree culture. They didn’t want to shy away from the harsh realities of Indigenous peoples in native reserves, but they also didn’t want to overdramatize it. 

“Even with the names that we chose or the title of our story and do these things in a respectful manner without putting in our own biases or opinions because that’s obviously what led to a lot of issues that Indigenous people face,” she said.

Grade 11 Indigenous Studies English teacher Jol-Christine Molina said she was amazed at how her students embraced this cross-curricular project with the Grade 9 Art class. 

When she and her colleague, Julia DiCarlo, first talked in November about putting together a book as a final project, they couldn’t have imagined the end result. 

“Just as the English teacher, I really wanted to go beyond the formal essay and I really wanted to turn the course into more of a conversation about reconciliation and empathy,” said Molina. “It’s interesting to see the kids take on this creative project and use it to give voice to youth that are their age as well and that are going through things that don’t give them access to telling their stories the way that we do.”

DiCarlo, who teaches Grade 9 Indigenous Studies Art, said the students from both grade levels poured their passion and creativity into their stories. 

“I was reading some of them and even my mouth dropped with the level of detail and character development that they had,” she said. 

The Grade 11 English students were assigned their stories just before their Christmas break. Students formed teams of two or three writers to work on an original story inspired by a theme or current issue that they’d studied from Aboriginal writers. The students spent the next few weeks crafting and editing their stories. 

By mid-January, the finished stories were handed to the Grade 9 art class to illustrate. The students spent their semester learning about the different art forms in Indigenous culture. Not only did they learn visual art, but they also learned about dance, music, poetry and even bead work. 

For the Lacuna book, the Grade 9s were encouraged to use different visual media to bring the stories to life, such as ink, pencil crayons, watercolours and even digital paint. 

“It had more of an investment from the Grade 9s, I believe, because they weren’t just reading stories from somebody they didn’t know. They were reading stories created by students they see walking down the halls, at their lockers,” said DiCarlo. “So when they were reading that, I think it made them feel really connected to it.”

Molina and DiCarlo published the book through Blurb, an online self-publishing platform. The classes spent two months editing and formatting the pages of the book. Only 20 copies were printed for the student editors, some school staff and the Indigenous Education department at the Toronto Catholic District School Board.

“We didn’t really publish these to sell. It was a cool project and we just wanted to share it,” said Molina. “We didn’t even think it would get the attention that it has. We’ve gotten amazing feedback.”

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