Sue Dyer, Steve Bailey, and Susan O'Neill with their 2015 Gold Star Award

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Dr. Susan O'Neill's research receives 2015 BCRTA Gold Star Award

August 14, 2015

It’s not everyday that students walk into a curriculum and learn directly from those within their own community, who have lived the history and experience of their surroundings. Through her work, vision and leadership on Reclaiming the New Westminster Waterfront Intergenerational Arts Programs for Schools, Dr. Susan O’Neill, Professor in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University, has seen the importance of programs that bring young people and retired adults together to nurture and guide the community’s next generation.

On June 10, 2015, the BC Retired Teachers’ Association, which has over 15,000 members, granted one of five 2015 Gold Star Awards to Dr. O’Neill and her research and community partners for an “outstanding program” that “impressed and heartened” the BCRTA Excellence in Public Education Committee. The community arts engagement program developed by Dr. O’Neill and her research group MODAL (Multimodal Opportunities, Diversity and Artistic Learning) provided opportunities for students in SD 40 to develop rich and transforming relationships with retired workers in their community.

Dr. Susan O'Neill giving her acceptance speech

The program is part of the SSHRC-funded Reclaiming the New Westminster Waterfront research partnership led by Dr. Peter Hall from Urban Studies at SFU with the overall goal of engaging and informing public discourse about urban waterfront transformation and work. Reclaiming the New Westminster Waterfront provides practical, real-world experience for students to gain valuable historical and lifelong insights from the longshoremen who have spent their working lives on the waterfront.

Students who participated in the program expressed the value of working with the retirees, as one child said: “They [retired workers] know a lot more than we do because they worked there. You can ask them questions and you can’t ask questions of a book or even the Internet it isn’t easy to get answers to the questions you have. They helped us see what it used to look like better. . . It helped our imagination because we could imagine even more”.

Examples of the program’s activities include a guided interpretive walk, photography and arts projects, and short documentary films on the history of waterfront work. Exhibits of student work have been showcased at New Westminster City Hall, Fraser River Discovery Centre, and academic venues. The project has contributed to discussions amongst members of the BC Teachers’ Federation and the Labour Heritage Centre on labour curriculum in schools. Through presentations, professional development workshops, and learning resources, other teachers in the province are being introduced to the theory and practice of intergenerational arts programs.

It is no surprise that Dr. O'Neill’s research focuses on developing intergenerational curricula. As a child, she experienced intergenerational learning firsthand through the dedication and commitment of her grandfather, a well-respected community musician in a small town in Ontario. For over 25 years her grandfather volunteered his time outside of his full-time job at a truck manufacturing company to teach young people how to play musical instruments. The lessons were free and anyone could join his community music program. It was not unusual to find retirees sharing stands with teenagers as there were often two or even three generations in the band, and at one time this included Dr. O’Neill, her father and grandfather. Based on her own experience, Dr. O’Neill wanted to explore how to best nurture intergenerational learning, sharing, connection, respect and caring through school-based and community engaged arts programs.

Dr. O’Neill’s dedication, commitment and support helped develop an intergenerational arts and civic history educational program that builds community relationships and communication across generations.