Meet six Airdrie teachers who inspire their charges every day to think and live creatively
Sharing the experience of creating art
Airdrie middle school art teacher Alison Turner had an idea for an event, but she had no idea it would be a hit.
Convergence launched in 2014 as a gathering of 100 arts students from Rocky View Schools (RVS) who had one day to design, create and finish an art piece. It’s become an annual event.
“It’s snowballing on us, it’s just going,” Turner says of what she and her husband Mark, also a teacher, developed.
Turner, who moved to Airdrie five years ago, was born and raised in Calgary. An art major, she was hired at Muriel Clayton Middle School in 2008 where she teaches humanities, and art option classes, including art metal, for Grades 7 and 8.
Art metal, where students design and create jewelry out of sheet metal, is one of her favourite classes.
There’s always something going on … always a buzz in the class about something someone is making.
It’s this passion to share the creation of art, whether its painting or dance, that inspired Convergence, she says.
“It’s about coming together to create and meet people.”
Each middle and high school in the RVS division nominates four art students to attend.
“We limit it to 100, so people have a chance to get know one another.”
Last year, Calgary’s Ambrose University partnered with Rocky View to provide the venue and support.
“They were really excited about how it went, and they want to try it again next year and make it even bigger.”
At the tippy top of a dance team
Airdrie’s C.W. Perry Middle School’s popular dance team is the result of a serendipitous coming together of three talented teachers.
Grade 6 teachers Roel Suasin, Krissa Donahue and Stephanie Wilson guide and mentor the school’s energetic dance team. Formed in 2015, the 30 Grade 5 to 8 students perform hip hop, jazz and lyrical.
“Dance is a part of everyone’s life, and it’s an anomaly that it’s available at this extent in a public school,” says Suasin, who, though he’s had a successful career as a dancer in Los Angeles and New York City, came from a “have-not” family.
“Not everyone can afford to take dance,” he says. “This is a story about accessibility … about giving these kids a chance to have what they otherwise might not.”
Both Suasin and Donahue come with considerable experience. The former, a Canadian with dual U.S. citizenship who moved to Calgary five years ago, has performed with the likes of Christina Aguilera and Nelly Furtado. Donahue, who grew up in Belleville, Ont., is a licensed dance teacher with a passion for youth engagement.
Their paths crossed when Donahue interviewed for her position in the school’s office and noticed a newspaper article about Suasin pinned to a bulletin board.
“I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? The one thing I can offer at a school is dance for students, and he’s already here? Where is this guy?’”
The two quickly became co-directors and choreographers of the newly created dance team, recruiting Wilson in the process for the “background stuff.”
“My job is to get the kids involved in working on fundraising, so all our initiatives are coming from and through them,” says Wilson, who lives in Airdrie, but originally came from the Ottawa Valley.
“It’s exciting to see the kids take the initiative. It really is driven by them,” she explains.
One of the program’s goals is to take the dance team to Los Angeles in 2017 where they will experience a “day in the life of a professional dancer” in studios where Suasin still has connections. It’s an exciting opportunity for the school, he says, because the three teachers have the chance to establish a long-term dance program that could eventually see alumni returning as guest performers and instructors.
“So that’s kind of where we’re going. But it’s only our first year.”
A noteworthy musical passion
Suzanne Lowry has taught music to children for 23 years, 15 of those at Airdrie’s Muriel Clayton Middle School, and she still loves it.
“It’s a passion of mine; it’s not really a job,” she says.
Lowry, who comes from a musical family, and who has an education major in music, split her duties at Muriel Clayton between general teaching and music instruction until two years ago, when she was asked to take on concert band duties. This led to a full-time position as music teacher for Grades 5 and 6, and for options such as choir, chimes, bucket drumming and band.
“I’d never taught band before, but it’s my second year and I’m loving it,” she says.
Lowry instructs about 450 students, which can be challenging, but “my goal is to convey and instill a passion and love of music. I try to do my program so that everybody can do it.”
Students perform in school, but also in competitions like the Rotary Festival of Performing Arts held at the Bert Church Theatre where her choir recently won Best Junior Choir.
Working with children has its rewards, Lowry says, who has seen quiet, self-conscious children become outgoing and engaged.
“Maybe they’re underachievers in school, but in music, they just come to life.”
She’s also encountered past students who have thanked her for introducing them to music.
“We don’t think about it, but music is a part of everybody’s life.”
Talented teacher making a difference at Croxford
Vern Gray is a talented visual artist with a passion for drawing and sculpture. He also happens to be a teacher at Airdrie’s newest high school.
Gray lives in Didsbury with his wife and three children, but has been commuting to W.H. Croxford – where he teaches fine arts and communications technology – since the school opened in 2014. He doesn’t mind the drive.
“The opportunity to teach something that you’re passionate about, you can’t have a better career than that,” he says.
Gray, who has a fine arts degree, has been teaching for 21 years, but art has always been his “go-to” subject. His classes are structured on the basics, he says, but by the time students near graduation, they have freedom to explore their own interests.
“There are some really strong painters, or sculptors, or some who have a real passion for drawing … they’re more independent artists.”
While not every student will become an artist, Gray hopes he can instill a lifelong passion and interest in art.
Recently, he received an email from a past student who was graduating from Vancouver Film School.
“She said, ‘We really did learn something from you.’”
Gray entered a short film she had made in his class in the youth division of the Calgary International Film Festival. It won first place, and he believes that inspired her to go further.
“You hope you’ve made a difference, but it’s great when it does come back to you and you see a person succeed.”