Imagine sitting in a typical classroom, trying to have a conversation with high school students about faith and life. It will probably be awkward at first, though you might get to a good conversation eventually. Now imagine those same students and the same conversation but in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan. The red sand stretches out before you as you gaze at the rock formations in the distance. The evening sky is filled with stars, and you’ve spent the last two weeks exploring a new culture. The conversation is going to be different.
“You’re there in the midst of nowhere almost, and it brings about that kind of thing,” says James Friesen (1985), who is principal at Westgate Mennonite Collegiate in Winnipeg. You can have that conversation in a classroom, but it wouldn’t be the same. “Place changes you,” he says.
As principal at Westgate, and as an RJC alumni, James has seen how education in different settings can open up new opportunities for discussion, helps students think about situations in new ways and encourage them to keep asking questions about the world around them. “The biggest thing a school can do is give a bit of knowledge, but also to open eyes for questioning,” James says. “You’re giving a framework for questioning and a framework for understanding.”
Connecting students with the world around them, and inviting them to ask questions is a big part of his work at Westgate. For example, he takes the world religions class to a local mosque and then a nearby shawarma restaurant for lunch. Or every spring, students who aren’t on choir-band tour can participate in activities like pig butchering at a local farm, or a pottery class at a local studio.
Or in some years students have read the novel In Search of April Raintree by Beatrice Mosionier, which is set in Winnipeg’s North End. After reading the book they take a bike tour to the neighbourhood. While students and parents sometimes have a negative perception of the area, having a positive experience that challenges their stereotypes is part of the experience. “To actually confront some of the fears that we have is another thing that is really important in our education,” he says.
He also sees the exchanges that Westgate students participate in with both Palestinian and German students as an important opportunity to reflect on and learn about a new place, and to see their own community in a new light. Even something simple like going to a football game might not seem like a big deal, he says, but it gives students a chance “to see what a community does together and what a community celebrates and to be critical about it and to think about it a bit.”
These explorations are something James remembers about his own time at RJC. In particular the time spent outdoors and on overnight trips. “You’re out there in the wilderness, there’s something about that, right?,” he says. “It does give you a little bit different sense of the land around you.”
The opportunity to explore faith at RJC is also something that has stuck with him. “RJC did an excellent job of treating faith as something that you’re discussing, that you’re on a path, rather than you’ve got to check off these boxes. And that has shaped me my whole life,” he says. Now as a teacher he gets to foster the same kind of experiences for his own students. “It’s so exciting now to be with students who are trying to figure these things out. And they’re asking tough questions.”
For James the work that schools like Westgate and RJC are doing to give students opportunities to deeply explore the world around them is just as fundamental to education as the curriculum. “I think sometimes our schools are too focused on very clear outcomes and we lose the art of education,” he says.
When visiting RJC again recently for the Canadian Association of Mennonite Schools conference he was able to see that important work still at RJC today. “I saw just the focus that they are trying to do on this idea that education is something bigger than just memorizing some things and getting you ready for university…it’s about giving you some kind of foundation to spring off somewhere. And it’s exciting to see that happening.”