Spotlight: NL Arts in Education Winner Joanna Barker

“Watching students try for the first time is truly awesome. When they try music, love it, and want to keep learning—that’s what gives me life.”

Typically, the Arts NL Awards Gala is a lively event. Artists from Newfoundland and Labrador are given a chance to dress up, gather, and spend an evening celebrating the accomplishments of their peers. 

There are six categories: The CBC Emerging Artist Award; Artists’ Achievement (which recognizes a practicing artist who has made an outstanding contribution to the culture of Newfoundland and Labrador); Artist of the Year; Patron of the Arts; Arts NL Hall of Honour; and the Arts in Education Award, which recognizes an artist who has made an outstanding contribution to arts in education in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The 2019 winners are:

  • Patron of the Arts Award: David Hood
  • CBC Emerging Artist Award: Emily Bridger
  • Arts in Education Award: Joanna Barker
  • Hall of Honour Inductee: Bernice Morgan
  • Artists’ Achievement Award: Danielle Irvine
  • Artist of the Year Award: Megan Gail Coles

Due to the ongoing pandemic, the 35th Arts NL awards were celebrated via a small ceremony on December 1st at the LSPU hall. The event was streamed live for those watching from home.

But while the ceremony might have had less fanfare and pomp than last year, the award meant just as much to Joanna Barker.

“It is humbling. I feel very honoured—and shy—to receive this award.”

Barker’s approach to education differs widely from traditional, colonial methods.

“I am guided by my heart, the relationships I build with students, mutual trust, community, the land, and healing,” she told the Independent. “When my work is celebrated, the traditional and familial knowledge that informs my practice as an arts educator is as well, and that means so much to me.”

Joanna Barker is busy. She’s a singer, songwriter, musician, and arts educator of L’nu (Mi’kmaq) and settler ancestry from Grand Falls-Windsor. A longstanding member of the musical group Eastern Owl, Barker also fronts the band John and is one half of The Belle Trackies.

Additionally, Barker is a founding board member (and current Program Director) of Girls Rock NL. She does all of this while teaching music for students from kindergarten through to grade twelve at the Mushuau Innu Natuashish School in Labrador (Mushuau Innu First Nation).

“The most challenging part of my job? The days aren’t long enough,” she said. “I don’t mean to glorify working overtime, but there’s so much interest from my students to play music and hang out in the music room. A few more hours in the day would make my life easier!”

Barker teaches students of all ages, which means her lessons are diverse and vary significantly.

“Some days, I teach private lessons during lunch, and I host three music clubs after school. On Mondays, I head to the Band Council office to broadcast the latest episode of MINS Student Radio—a radio show made by the students during their music classes. I count myself very lucky because I get to teach just about every child and youth in Natuashish!”

Teaching music is an opportunity for Barker to create a trusting environment. She sees music as a useful tool for self-expression, storytelling, and a means to heal.

“We all carry song and music soothes us all,” she explained. “I am always encouraging my students to look to their communities for their role models and mentors, storytellers and singers. I want to encourage organic and community-based mentorships in their lives outside of our lessons.”

Of course, this year has come with some unique classroom challenges.

“Covid has really given me more work to do and has forced me to be a little stricter,” Barker acknowledged. “It’s all for safety. I have to clean everything in the room between classes and limit attendance at school clubs. Furthermore, we can’t have full school talent shows or dances, play instruments we put our mouths on, and we have to wear masks when we sing. We also cannot have a traditional Christmas concert this season. The year has been different and difficult for everyone.”

But Barker takes it all in stride. “I think it has encouraged me to be even more patient with my students. This is hard, and new. New things take time to learn so as to adjust our behaviour. This year has taught me patience.”

One of the most exciting moments of the year was the arrival of an acoustic piano—the first-ever to make its way to Natuashish.

“I wrote a grant to the The MusiCounts Canada Bandaid program. We were fortunate enough to be recipients of funding this year! With the money, I’ve purchased violins, guitars, ukuleles, more keyboards, recording gear, and an acoustic piano. The idea for it came from our school Director and community leader, Katie Rich. I went to Katie saying I had most of the money budgeted for some items, but still had money leftover. Her immediate answer was a real piano.”

While Barker’s day-to-day is full of beautiful experiences, the best teaching moments are when students ‘open up’ and let music move them.

“Watching students try for the first time is truly awesome. When they try music, love it, and want to keep learning—that’s what gives me life.”

Photo submitted by Joanna Barker.

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