The Belonging Bench Project
by Marion Van Driel
Benches can provide a sense of belonging. Just ask Grades 6 and 7 students at Surrey Christian School (SCS). Over the course of two months, 120 students worked together in the school’s underground parking lot to build benches – each with a unique design – for 20 businesses and organizations to welcome visitors and strangers.
The Belonging Bench Project was precipitated by conversations about how to engage their community in being more welcoming. When the bench idea was suggested, the teachers noted the current trend for uncomfortable public benches, to intentionally prevent people from overstaying. They began exploring the counter-cultural concept of benches for invitation, rest and peace. Even further, they considered capturing the stories of the organizations that would receive benches.
Director of Learning, Darryl deBoer, explains that one of the objectives at SCS is students participate in real work that meets real needs of real people, compelling them to look beyond the walls of the school. “The deep hope,” explains deBoer, “is that our students would come to a real deep understanding of what it means to belong.” He notes the project aligned nicely with the new skill-based curriculum, which includes applied design.
The Benches Are Coming…
Once teachers had decided what the project would look like, they created mystery events, posting signs around the school, “The benches are coming…” and photos of benches, arousing curiosity in the kids. The kick-off event found students with a photo of their favourite bench that had been posted, explaining why they chose it. The Grades 6 and 7 teachers used the kickoff to reveal the venture, placing the puzzle pieces, including their deep hope for the students.
Each group of five or six students was invited to choose which community organization they would approach. Partners ranged from Tim Hortons to NightShift Street Ministries, the Royal Canadian Legion to BC Lions. The students were required to investigate the story of the organization and what it means to belong. Teachers were not involved in the communication – students pitched the idea to their chosen partner, and discussed how the organization’s values reflect a sense of belonging. Following that dialogue, the group worked on translating the story to their computer-generated design, then creating and constructing their bench. Each student had a role to play on the team: in communication, design, or construction.
DeBoer speaks highly of the Grades 6 and 7 teachers who worked alongside the kids, providing leadership and encouragement. Parents with construction ability were invited to assist, and Rona donated all the lumber.
Celebration and gallery walk
Representatives from the partnering organizations came to the school to pick up their benches on June 8, to enjoy a celebration and gallery walk, with benches lining the perimeter of the gymnasium. Each bench supported an artist statement, explaining the choice of design. While the general construction plan is similar, each bench is unique. Built for a pre-school, one shows bright crayons on the front, but a climbing ladder on the back captures the level of thoughtfulness given to the end user. One bench was notably different from the others. The bench for A Rocha was a used one – refurbished, because that’s what A Rocha is about – using and re-using. Designs aligned creatively with their intent.
Danielle, a student whose group built a bench for NightShift Street Ministries, explains the design. “We wanted to incorporate what NightShift stands for and the slogan on their website is ‘Love, Hope, Purpose’, so that’s what we put on the bench. We also put the splatter paint on to show that they’re going through a messy part of their life, but through the mess, it can turn out beautifully. We added the SCS logo to show the relationship that we’ve created with NightShift and our school.”
Several students spoke at the celebration, sharing what they had learned. From their perspective, The Belonging Bench Project provided new insights about design, creation, community relationships and working together – not to mention construction skills using squares, drills and saws. Students grew in their communication competence, articulating the vision and pitching the project.
Most of all, they learned what a sense of belonging looks like.