by Lucas Rucchin
On a Wednesday afternoon in late April, I learned the term “antiestablishmentarianism” from a fifth-grade student and a line of Bananagram tiles. The carpet had been reformed into a kind of linguistic warzone: students feuded over missing plastic letters; debates erupted over whether or not made-up words were made-up. “It’s the longest word,” the student told me. His fingers were dipped in a mound of tiles, and he was loudly demanding a G for an incomplete word. This, as I understood from twenty seconds of spectating, was no childish bout. To start with such a word was revolutionary in the current climate of Bananagrams. I joined their team without question, to an enraptured victory.
Christianne Hayward, the Vancouver-based, doctorate-bearing child educator and owner of Christianne’s Lyceum of Literature and Art, has shaped an arts education system founded on experiences such as these. My interview with her, encircled by queues of books and the sounds of children playing, proceeded much like the education system she professes: a single, preparatory question flung us both into realms of unexpected wisdom.
“The excitement in education is that I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Hayward says. “But I’m going to be ready for whatever presents itself. Whoever comes through that door is competent; they’re bringing their own influences. Together, we may co-construct our curriculum.”
The education system developed by Hayward is one not dominated by the educator. “You must trust your ability to not approach education with a definitive plan, but with a provocation and a willingness to see where it takes you. The students will respect you for not knowing everything; they will respect you even more if you can say: ‘That’s so interesting. Can you teach me about it? Can we learn this together?’ But most teachers are terrified that if they do not appear all-knowing, you’ll have chaos. It’s exactly the opposite.”
Cradled in between a quiet residential street and a road that funnels the traffic of Kitsilano—a mellow Vancouver district of organic food markets and beaches staged by domed mountains—into West Broadway, Christianne’s Lyceum of Literature and Art, situated there since 2007, is an education center as mystic as the art it champions. Children play unbarred with stimulating games lifted from a wooden chest; bookshelves veil every wall; little porcelain houses, evidence of faerie habitation, surround a tiled courtyard outside. But its most magical asset is Hayward, who oversees all with an unfailing commitment to her learners.
The Lyceum’s curriculum is unburdened by grading methodologies that attempt to quantify the unquantifiable. The assessment of art in schools, Hayward recognizes, cannot escape the notion that assessments are meant to separate students into performance categories—not foster investment. Instead, at the Lyceum, investment in the subject matter is the priority. The curriculum is malleable, allowing for more personal engagement with students. As both an educator and a storyteller, Hayward is a bottomless bank of testimonials.
“Nicholas,” Hayward begins, referring to a student, now in grade eleven, who was educated at the Lyceum as a youth, “walks in, and he is having a meltdown with his mother because he had a book on hold about Jackson Pollock, who he had just done a study on. But his mother had left it at home.
“I met him at the door and said, ‘Nicholas, it’s the luckiest thing. Guess who we’re reading about today? We’re reading about Pollock!’ I had no intention to read about Pollock.” Rather, Hayward had planned to read Ninja Cowboy Bear, a children’s book with no relation to the artist. “So I made Bear like Pollock. There’s nothing to do with Pollock in the book. But, on the spot, you can morph literature. In doing so, it brought that little boy in; it made him feel a part [of the lesson]. That is the skill of the storyteller.”
“I [have] always loved art,” Hayward says, detailing her journey as an educator: first, a pursuer of fine arts; then, a pioneer of dynamic curricula. “I practiced art at a high level throughout high school—I had a wonderful art teacher—and in auxiliary activities.
“I knew that I wanted to study art in university. I had an interview with our career counsellor where we discussed my results of a test that described your career path.” Fatefully, Hayward’s test displayed an interest in education. This was no surprise: surrounded by four younger brothers and many of her cousins as a child, she describes herself as “always the one passing on the knowledge of my grandparents through story or other art forms. We were a very creative family—we have Irish and Scottish story roots—and we have a large artisan history.”
Hayward was met with the stigma surrounding educators when she expressed her aspirations to her counsellor, who said to her, “Why pursue education? With your grade average, you can do anything you want.”
“I’d already registered for visual fine arts for university. Afterwards, it would be a matter of what area of teaching I would choose. Already, I had decided that I would not teach with a set curriculum. That was my first bash with the education system.” Hayward discovered that an unchanging curriculum reigned over all education, save only for special education and early childhood education. Those areas granted more freedom for curriculum design.
“Learning is about passion and curiosity. Without them, you’re wasting your time. Maintaining this passion was the focus in early childhood education. In special education, it was about taking a concept and breaking it down into its salient pieces, and then spiralling—while being mindful of different age groups and ability levels—the learning around a single concept. Both of these systems are very important. How can you not do one without the other?”
Motivated by her father, enthusiasm, and some stubbornness, Hayward could not commit to a single category in education. However, during an argument in her university’s faculty lounge, she found a kindred spirit. “We were carrying on our argument, and someone tapped my dad on the shoulder. It was Dr. Janis Blakey. She said, ‘I hate to say this, sir, but I think your daughter has a point.’”
Dr. Blakey too had been exploring diploma programs in early childhood special education. “That day was my first day of piloting the childhood special-ed stream at the University of Alberta. That type of education became an option. It hadn’t been before.”
This experience instilled upon Hayward the confidence that her methodologies—reciprocal, co-constructed education—could be applicable. Hayward went on to obtain a doctorate in her research of early childhood education, and Christianne’s Lyceum of Literature of Art, the successful arts learning center that she now operates, is a concentration of her experience and philosophies.
“People say, ‘How do you make a writer?’ Here, there’s no magic to what we teach or do in the writer’s workshops. But there’s something in the walls—they’re so storied. The words seep in. I create that mystique. You can sit here and things will come to you.”
Volunteering at the Lyceum is a refreshing experience. There are none of the harsh lights or monotone walls that busy modern institutions. Instead, the Lyceum mimics the comfort exuded by a library or someone’s living room. “The colour was very purposeful; I wanted something that neither took energy nor gave energy. I think green is always that perfect colour.” The walls of the building are painted in a gentle, subdued turquoise. “I also wanted lots of wood—I enjoy the natural, warm feeling. It was also important to have couches and chairs and rocking chairs and cushions and other soft places.”
The Lyceum caters to all moods. Feel a need to sit straightly to maximize a new efflux of ideas? A small library, guarded by transparent glass, can offer you a solid chair. Need a hole to hide in, read, and do nothing but? Scattered across the Lyceum are hidden nooks—behind bookshelves, between furniture—to burrow into and fall into words (while still conveniently being in earshot of what the larger group is discussing). The carpet area allows for talk, play, instructions; the art studio can transform into an auditorium for open-mic performances. “It all creates a feeling of loftiness and possibility,” Hayward says. “We don’t need to be afraid of the building being a static place. The fact that it can all morph and change—we can make the Lyceum what it needs to be.”
The Lyceum is not confined to its building. Hayward commonly harnesses the nearby Kitsilano locales in her teachings. “We can spread our wings to these other places. They’re places that we steward, like the community garden, as we do watering for everyone who plants there. Almond park—Quidditch was there today.”
Hayward’s approach to learning is much like her approach to art. Learning an art form is never a set, stagnant process; it demands risk and adaptation. “You can’t be afraid to play,” she says. “When we teach writing, we start with poetry, because poetry involves playing with language. When we teach watercolour, we play with the materials first—we learn how they respond to certain conditions: ‘How can this brush make a thick leaf and a stem in the same stroke?’ That only comes through play. In learning the language of watercolour, how do I create light? It’s very different from how I create light with acrylics or oils.”
The Lyceum thrives off community. Hayward’s workshops are always a collaborative event. “The mosaic is such a cornerstone of the Lyceum, and it’s because they speak to valuing the individual for their own special challenges and gifts. They have their beauty that is distinct on their own. And yet they are a part of a greater beauty in a collective. You’ll see a mosaic everywhere in the Lyceum, and everywhere in the community that we’ve populated.
“Give yourself permission to play before you torque,” Hayward says, as essential knowledge to aspiring artists. “What really grabs the eye of the observer is when you use a material differently from what is expected. You can only learn that after you’ve learned how to respond, after you’ve learned its language. Then you can begin to twist.”
Such adaptable curriculum philosophies thrive in learning groups patterned by different backgrounds. Accordingly, Hayward ensures that inclusivity is ingrained into her teaching. “I take Darwinism seriously,” she says, likening the strength of the Lyceum’s diversity to that of a varied ecosystem. “A homogenous group invites social disease. We are stronger in our diversity.” Hayward recounts the autistic and physically challenged children who have been educated at the Lyceum, as well as the adaptations made to the building and the curriculum to optimize their learning. “I’ve had to carry kids up here because they couldn’t walk. We make it work.”
In particular, the Lyceum accommodates an extensive range of age groups. The writer’s workshops, for instance, have classes for kindergarten to grade twelve students. But Hayward doesn’t plan so stiffly depending on the age of her students. She provides a blueprint, and allows the knowledge of her students, who vary by age, to branch lessons away into diverse rifts of learning. What ends up branching from the initial blueprint is never known. “The basic principle here is still co-constructing curriculum. The age group doesn’t matter. Provide a provocation, see what you get, and build off of it. Learning is theory-building. See possibility where impossibility presents itself.
"With the little ones—I’ll try to get them to play with language a little bit differently, and so I’ll read them The Posy Book. With it, I would get them to describe a character they’ve made up through the things that the character does. ‘It runs.’ What kind of runner is it? A bicycle runner?”
With older grades, Hayward will employ the same foundations. “It’s just as exciting with a child as it is with an adult; there’s just different layers of understanding. Take any construct, any game, and I can change it to whatever purpose, whatever audience. Bananagrams—I’ll divide the piles, and then, ‘It’s a race, how do we use them all?’—goes much differently [between age groups]. We morph it to fit. It’s the same thing with [the] curriculum. Read your learner and respond; come together on something, rather than doing something to the learner.”
Lucas Rucchin is a grade eleven student at West Point Grey Academy situated in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is an aspiring writer who enjoys prose grounded in reality and the human condition. Surging Tide Magazine was his first medium of publication.
Leave a Reply.