McNair Secondary: Holding a Mic Up to the Youth Today

Information Technology, Language Arts, Planning, Science, Social Studies

School: McNair Secondary School, Richmond

Teacher: Quynh Aura and Meena Uppal

Class: Grade 11/12



Youth are often faced with many crossroads during their adolescence with peer choices, family instability, access to risky temptations (drugs, alcohol), identity and social pressures. For youth who have been perceived as “at-risk”, these crossroads are often more consequential in defining the paths they ultimately take. This project aimed to give a mic to “at-risk”’ youth to paint the life portrait of their challenging lives today. By giving voice to these youth, we hope to sustain an echo of hope and possibility in their creative production of self on an educational platform.  Students used various media and skills to create a final project represented through film and music videos.


Connection to the Vancouver Biennale Exhibition

The art installations of most interest to the project theme are Giants. The vibrant colours of the art pieces with their contrast against industry and modern environments reflect the students within their complex youth culture and spaces. Giants, in particular, is a piece set against a grey concrete setting wherein the bold individuality and vibrancy of each character stands out. This speaks to the students and their own unique stories amidst the rush of schooling. It is particularly important for the students in Integrated Academics to discover their uniqueness and powerful stories because of the struggles they’ve had in mainstream schooling, leading them to an alternate setting. Discovering their own vibrancy against a grey backdrop will help to strengthen their voices and reflection in school.


Other Inspiration

We used Megaphone, the paper from the Downtown Eastside, as another resource and inspiration.



Beauty and uniqueness can be found in unexpected places.


Guiding Questions

Amidst the growing complexities of youth culture today, how can “”at-risk” youth find meaningful reflection in school?


Cross-Curricular Access

In synthesizing the thematic teaching methods of our alternate program for grade 11 and 12 students, curricular learning outcomes from Communications 11 & 12, Social Studies 11, Writing 12, Sociology 12, Family Studies 12, Planning 11 and Science and Technology were combined to form the central idea.

Students engaged with various texts and technologies through oral, written and visual presentations to extend their understanding of the relationship between self and external world, while working collaboratively to foster diversity of ideas and expression, respect for others, and open—mindedness. Through these diverse media, students created their own platform to voice their narratives.

(Adapted from PLOs from Communications 11 & 12, Social Studies 11, Writing 12 and Science and Technology).

Narrative inquiry allows students to critically assess and reflect upon their own stories in contrast to artist stories told through the art installations. This extends itself to curricular goals outlined under Social Studies 11, Communications 11 & 12 and Writing 12 in engaging with diverse texts and evaluating messages critically to connect the external world to students’ concept of “self.”

Visual presentation and music technology allows students to engage with diverse technologies today to express their ideas and perspectives. Science and Technology curricular goals are fostered in students’ exploration of contemporary technology for this project.


Learning Process/ Inquiry Challenges

Art Inquiry at Giants: The learning process began with the art inquiry process in the field trip. During their visit to Giants, students were given a worksheet to work through which guided their thoughts and perceptions they first have of the an work. Within each art piece, they explored notions of individuality and community and how beauty and uniqueness can be found in unexpected places. To engage more deeply with the artwork, each student took three photos to represent their perceptions of beauty.

Post-field trip Reflection: 

In-Class: Upon returning from viewing the art installations, students discussed their experiences of the art and made connections with the Biennale art installation. The students discussed how these artworks represented individuality and vibrancy and how these bold and colorful pieces contrasted and enhanced their surroundings. The students made connections between this aspect of the artworks within their own lives of struggle and possibility. To move towards the idea of possibility and transformation in their lives, students thought about when their lives transformed from struggle to possibility. They chose a music video theme through which they want to express this transformation.

In the Community: The students went out in their community to continue their inquiry on the BIG IDEAS through searching beauty and uniqueness in unexpected spaces and places within their community. This experience started to build content and concept for their music video project.

Narrative Inquiry: Students wrote about a struggle in their lives and their uniqueness in dealing with their struggles. Narratives were anonymous. Responses were collected and redistributed to students to read out loud. In smaller groups students identified themes within the narratives and categorized them. As a class, themes were listed on the board and narratives were categorized under each. The class was divided into groups and each group worked on one theme and one narrative to make a music video. The themes that the students came up with: family issues, alcoholism, challenges of the future.

Song and Lyric Writing: During the first artist workshop, these stories were turned into songs with powerful lyrics. The artist and the teacher facilitated this session and enabled the students to explore their unique vocal expression and turn their narratives into poetry/ lyrics. Each group had designated lyric/ song writers.

Music and Technology Inquiry: Students explored music production and various technologies to capture the sentiment of the art pieces and of their own stories. Some students engaged in song-writing and music production as an accompaniment to the overall project created. Singing and song-writing were a genre for some of the students to express their stories. The project allowed interested students to sing narratives written from the class to an original score or create musical accompaniments to the narratives within the project.

Video Production: In the next artist workshop, the students learned and explored aspects of video production. Using the characters and the situations in their stories, the students directed and filmed shots for their final music video production. Each student in the group provided creative inputs and with the help of the artist filmed 1-2 minute long videos describing their narrative.

Video Editing: As a final step, the students worked on editing the videos with the technical help of the artist. Once the videos were synced and ready, there was a screening session. The screening of these videos was attended by the Vice Principal, teachers and guests at the school. There were pizzas and light refreshments for the class and the special guests as a celebration of the completion of the project.


Student Creation

•   Photography at Giants

•   Short narratives describing their struggles and the unique ways they deal with it

•   Music videos: lyric and song writing, music composition, video production, video editing




Planning and conceptualizing sessions. The artist and the teacher planned the entire project, enlisting the objectives, approach, workshop activities


Art inquiry at Giants

Post-field trip reflection in the class and in the community

Narrative Inquiry. Students wrote stories about their struggles. These were categorized into themes. The class was divided into group and each group was assigned a theme to work on.

Artist workshop on song and lyric writing

Artist workshop on music production

Artist workshop on video production

Artist workshop on video editing

Screening of all music videos in the entire class

Post-screening reflection: challenges and accomplishments shared and reflected upon



Post-Screening Reflection: As final project wrap up, the artist, students, and teachers reflected on the learning experience. All participants responded to their biggest accomplishment and challenges that were faced during the project. For most students, the biggest accomplishment was in the fact that they created a platform for themselves to voice their views. Additionally, they felt really proud of themselves about being able to produce high quality music videos, from scratch within a very short time frame. They enjoyed the process of  working out all details, writing and making music and understanding the equipment and technology. Some students who were interested in song-writing and music production thought of their biggest success as being able to write, compose and sing an original track for the music video. The teacher expressed her biggest accomplishment as the entire class coming together, working as a team to complete the project. The artist saw his biggest accomplishment in the fact that the videos were well done and produced with an attention to detail.

Some of the challenges that were expressed were technical: syncing music to the video, writing lyric, filming, coming up with content. Many students were faced with challenges of group work and communicating with one another, coming up with content. These challenges were resolved with the motivation and inputs from the artist and the teacher. For the teacher, the biggest challenge was to step out of the comfort zones and let the learning process come together organically and within a tight timeline. Not being familiar with the technical aspects of film-making also contributed to learning how to deal with the uncertainty in the learning process. The artist’s challenges was to get to back to working with a school project after a three-month leave on other forms of engagement. Throughout, the students, artists and the teacher all experienced a real sense of accomplishments from the project.

Teacher – Meena Uppal

Working with the students on this Biennale project was a very valuable experience. Students not only had an opportunity to gain technological skills and produce a music video but they had an opportunity to share their own stories. This project allowed for a space to be created to help foster a voice for students that often feel silenced and marginalized. By sharing their heavy stories with each other, at first they were able to gain an understanding of each other, and together they had the courage to share their story with their own community and society.

Each of the students in the Integrated Academics Program has a journey that led them to be in an alternate academic setting. Often this journey left them powerless and disenfranchised. This project helped to give back some power to the students and helped to create a socially just understanding of who they are. They deconstructed their perceived identities and highlighted the positive aspects of their identities.

For educators this understanding is crucial in gaining a perspective of how we can work together to create spaces for all students to achieve success. Many of these stories showed us that it is not about us (as educators) and that there is so much going on for students that we need to be aware of to help foster the student-teacher relationship, which is paramount to success. The camaraderie, passion and achievements that came out of working on this project is a life memory for all those involved. Working with an artist who was so open, knowledgeable, patient and relatable was essential in the success of this project. We thank the Biennale Foundation, the artist and sponsors for allowing our students to have this life changing experience.