MAD turns 20

This Friday is the Whitehorse opening night of Cats, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical being put on by the Wood Street Centre's highly successful high school Music-Art-Drama program. Cats is a good choice for MAD's twentieth anniversary.

This Friday is the Whitehorse opening night of Cats, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical being put on by the Wood Street Centre’s highly successful high school Music-Art-Drama program.

Cats is a good choice for MAD’s twentieth anniversary. Besides being a fun night out, the back story of Cats illustrates why it is such a good idea to have programs like MAD.

It turns out that Gillian Lynne, the brilliant choreographer of the original Cats in London, struggled severely in school. Sir Ken Robinson recounts the episode in his famous TED talk on creativity in education.

Gillian’s mother took her to a number of specialists to seek treatments to deal with her fidgeting and inattentiveness in class. Finally, one doctor left Gillian alone in a room with a radio playing. Unaware she was being observed by her mother and doctor, Gillian got out of her chair and began to move to the music. The doctor observed, “Your daughter’s not sick, she’s a dancer.”

Today it is a well-researched fact that there are many different facets to intelligence and capability, and that people have many different learning styles. Different capability profiles are required to be successful as a lawyer, police captain, dancer, diamond driller or entrepreneur. High achievement in traditional classroom settings is not strongly correlated with success in all of these roles.

MAD, as well as Wood Street’s sister programs in outdoor leadership and experiential science, represent an alternative educational experience that Yukon students and parents seem to like. The Wood Street programs regularly receive more applications from Whitehorse and the communities than they have openings. The Fall 2013 MAD program for Grade 9 and 10 students received well more than twice as many applications as there are places.

There are lots of other ideas for intensive programs that could be successful in the Yukon. One suggestion has been an intensive trades program. Students would take packages of courses that start them on the path to apprenticeship and red seal certification, as well as important topics like workplace safety. This could be combined with co-op summer job placements at Yukon companies and later programs at Yukon College.

Another good idea I have heard suggested is an intensive sports program, as offered at schools across Canada. Participants spend around half the day in regular classes, then half on things like conditioning, strength training, biology, nutrition, sports psychology and so on.

Sports programs are often aimed at both high-performance athletes and other sport-oriented students, including some with low engagement in regular school and deemed “at risk” of dropping out. In addition to sports education, these students also learn about time management, discipline and how to juggle academic demands with their sports commitments. As MAD brings in prominent local dancers, singers and improve actors to coach the students, a Whitehorse sports program could bring in experts and role models such as our local Olympians and the elite coaches we are fortunate to have in sports like skiing and swimming.

We have the students who want these programs. Most of the physical facilities and gear needed already exist. Then, as with MAD 20 years ago, what’s needed are some passionate educators with a specific proposal, and people at the top with enough vision and leadership to approve it.

But it is common for non-traditional programs like these to face tough sledding. Proposals from frontline teachers, even those with lists of students and parents keen to participate, may not line up with the priorities of education central planners at headquarters. Some politicians, education bureaucrats and business people criticize the school system for not producing “practical skills” or “job-ready” graduates. Many of these critics view arts programs as “flaky” non-essentials.

However, listen to the words MAD teachers Mary Sloan and Jeff Nordlund used at last week’s MAD information session to describe the kind of students they were looking for. They used phrases like “enthusiasm,” “ability to work alone and in teams,” “act independently” but “also take direction” and “meet deadlines.” They emphasized how students need to show up every day and work together, because the show opens on opening night whether you are ready or not.

If the chamber of commerce designed an education program to prepare young people for the workplace, these are exactly the outcomes they would be shooting for.

The same goes for experiential science and outdoor leadership at Wood Street. You want to hire the student who can work in a team to organize a multi-day winter expedition, get his or her part of the job done in field conditions, and deal with team conflict appropriately.

As a taxpayer, it is also interesting to note how relatively inexpensive some of these programs are. While we debate spending more than $50 million on a new high school (without a theatre, I would point out), MAD goes from strength to strength in a decrepit former elementary school building dating from the 1960s. In terms of operating costs, next fall’s MAD semester will have around 15 students per teacher, which is not out of the range of many other high school classes.

Whether you agree with me or not on special programs like MAD, you should still treat yourself to a night out at Cats. It’s playing from May 3-11, with tickets available at the Wood Street Centre.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.