Students Bring the Bookshelf to the Hallway at Southwood

At first glance, it may look like a bookshelf in a library, but it’s actually a hallway at Southwood Secondary School in Cambridge.

The striking artwork is the result of months of work by the Paint a Book Club at Southwood – a group of students, led by English teacher Kathryn McPherson, who are working to inspire their peers to pick up a book and bring a bit of colour to the hallways.

“Over the years I have created a learning environment that celebrates literature…so the locker project was a natural extension from that,” said McPherson. She has taught English and Math at Southwood for the last 21 years and her passion for inspiring her students is immediately clear.

Her classroom exudes a warm and inspirational feeling – one she has spent the past two decades cultivating. According to McPherson, she still has masks made by her grade 9 students the first year she taught at Southwood. “I have extended out the door and into the hall,” she said of the painted lockers which allow the welcoming environment of her classroom to flow into the hallway.

The project caught the eye of CTV Kitchener journalist Randy Steinman, who featured the hard work of the students and McPherson on the nightly news. He marvelled at the work the Paint a Book Club had completed and spent time speaking with each of them to get their take on the impact the artwork was having on their school.

The passion for literature demonstrated by McPherson has clearly rubbed off on her students, including Hannah Kamutzki, a grade 10 student who, along with the help of her friend Emma Heartfield, is painting a locker with the cover of her favourite book, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. “I think it’s so cool that Ms. McPherson decided to brighten up our school like this,” said Kamutzki.

Hannah Kamutzki, a grade 10 student at Southwood, chats with CTV’s Randy Steinman during an interview about her work as part of the Paint a Book Club.

Kamutzki has a passion for reading and writing, even going so far as to declare her love for writing essays. Naturally, she jumped at the idea when McPherson suggested it and said she “wanted to help make her dream a reality.”

For her, being able to make her mark on the school helps her to feel more a part of the Southwood community. “It’s kind of like I get to leave my mark here forever,” said Kamutzki, as she looked forward to feeling a sense of pride every time she walked by the finished piece.

Rylee Small speaks with CTV’s Randy Steinman about why he chose to paint his locker with the cover of I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson.

Not all the books are from the classics section of the library, though. Rylee Small chose to paint his locker with the cover of I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, a coming of age book focused on the LGBTQ+ experience. This book, in particular, was chosen to contrast with the classical literature featured on the other lockers, and because, as Small said, it was “one that I could definitely connect to the most.”

Small echoed Kamutzki’s sentiment about leaving his mark on Southwood. “It’s good to have a piece that stays here,” he said. “When I do eventually leave this school there will be a part of me that stays.”

Vida Collis, principal of Southwood, is elated to see the project sparking students’ curiosity and inspiring them to pick up a book they might not otherwise have read. “To me, we’ve done our job as educators to inspire that curiosity,” she said.

When McPherson came to her with the idea, she was on board. “I did not say no, and that’s all we needed,” said Collis, as she explained McPherson’s energy and passion for literature assured her of the initiative’s success. “Knowing that it was in her hands, it would be a wonderful project,” she said.

For McPherson, the true reward is inspiring students to pick up a book and delve in. “I love teaching English because we get to learn about ourselves as human beings,” she said. Reading, she explained, teaches us empathy, compassion and how to navigate through life.

Kathryn McPherson, english teacher at Southwood, speaks with CTV’s Randy Steinman about what inspired her to lead this project.