This is my neighbourhood

Whimsical pencil sketches of bicycles sit alongside brightly coloured pictures of birds and flowers. Enthusiastic drawings of cars, rows of houses, and trees accompany descriptions of how much fun it is to play after school with friends and family who live right across the street. These lively pictures and words from students at Claireville Junior School near Albion Road and Highway 27 would surely make the artists' parents proud, but these particular works of art are not destined to decorate refrigerator doors — they are part of an exciting Toronto District School Board program that helps children find creative ways to say, "This is my neighbourhood!"

Now in its third year, the This is My Neighbourhood program brings professional artists into grade four, five and six classrooms in order to facilitate collaborative art projects that explore the concept of "home." The program seeks to enhance arts education for students while providing professional development for teachers. Ultimately, the program aims to produce a record of student art that documents the ways in which children all across Toronto experience life in their diverse communities. This year's twelve participating schools from northwest Etobicoke have partnered with schools in Nunavut, adding another cross-cultural element to students' exploration of different communities. In conjunction with Arts Etobicoke's Arts Discovery program and the provincial arts initiative Arts Access, This is My Neighbourhood will showcase students' work at the Neilson Park Creative Centre, Arts Etobicoke Gallery, Harbourfront Centre, and a new online gallery, Collection X, which launches in September 2006.

"We want this program to be a learning experience for teachers, who will hopefully be inspired to enrich their arts curriculum long after the artist has left the classroom," says Lisa Sanders, TDSB District-Wide Co-Ordinator for Visual Arts and motivating force behind This is My Neighbourhood. "We want teachers, as well as students, to be transformed by this experience." As Sanders points out, the participating schools are currently selected in part on the basis of need in the hopes of providing safe places for students, many of whom live in lower-income areas, to explore their neighbourhoods — and themselves — in exciting and positive ways.

For artists too, This is My Neighbourhood is an opportunity to learn. Rod Prouse, an artist currently involved in the program, states, "The kids [I work with at Elmbank Junior Middle Academy and John D. Parker Junior School] are so enthusiastic, so eager to learn. They're very open and very creative — they come from very rich cultures." Susan Blersh, another This is My Neighbourhood artist at Claireville Junior School, also enjoys working with children from diverse backgrounds: "This project attracted me because I like that I get to work outside of 'my' neighbourhood."

Blersh, whose students are working on a mixed media narrative textile, finds that This is My Neighbourhood "provides a very natural way to introduce children to making art because they get to tell stories about themselves and the place where they live." Prouse's students, who are working on a panoramic canvas and wood mural, are acquiring skills that will go far beyond the classroom: "These kids are going to be the future of Canada," Prouse says. "It's going to be exciting to see what they do with [what they've learned.]"

However, innovative arts programs like This is My Neighbourhood are not always on the top of everyone's priority list. But Sanders makes clear that This is My Neighbourhood is a well-rounded, integrated experience. "The program is academically rigorous," she says. "It involves creative thinking, writing, researching, problem solving — it's not just a fun art project." Noting that children involved in the arts tend to do better in all aspects of their studies, Sanders echoes the sentiments of Susan Blersh, who sees the wide-ranging academic and social benefits of the program "in [students'] elevated self-esteem."

By creatively documenting the neighbourhoods of Toronto from new and interesting perspectives, the city's youngest artists are inviting us into their communities, their lives, and their worlds — welcome to their neighbourhood.