Normally on a Saturday morning, Oliver Blake would be watching TV or sleeping, but for six Saturday mornings last year, the Grade 6 student built, programmed and played with robots.
At Albert College in Belleville, Ontario, it's opening night for A Streetcar Named Desire. With four months of after-school practice behind them, the cast of 12 and crew of 30 appears free of jitters. With her hair up in rollers, Carly Heffernan, who plays Blanche DuBois, is the picture of calm. Jai-Michael Phillips, who will star as Stanley Kowalski, sits quietly while another student smooths on his makeup. Suzanne Smith, already in costume for her role as Stella, applies mascara.
An hour before the curtain rises in the school's chapel, stage manager Sheena Kennedy, wearing headphones, dispatches her crew on last-minute errands. One student tapes down cords for the sound system while the lighting crew consults with Leslie Austin-Proffit, head of the arts department and producer of the Tennessee Williams play.
Mounting dramatic productions, joining environmental and language clubs or practising public speaking, students at private and independent schools face a dizzying choice of after-school activities beyond sports, fine arts and outdoor adventures.
Mike Besner, a teacher at Kells Academy in Montreal who supervises the computer club, says after-school programs are "incredibly important" to a well-rounded education. "Extracurricular programs make all the difference," he says. "Life skills you learn outside the classroom are at least equal to life skills learned inside the class. Whether it's computer club or chess club, you're meeting the same people at the same time, talking about your interests."
This kind of experience is invaluable throughout life, Besner says. On an immediate practical level, the computer club gave a couple of kids who had been getting into a "bit of trouble" at the local Metro station "a place to go" until the after-school crush was over. "They have told me they're not running into trouble on the way home anymore."
Louise Marzinotto, director of St. George's High School in Montreal, puts it this way: "When children are productive, happy and valued, they usually don't get involved in negative activity such as loitering, hanging around. And they develop self esteem to resist negative peer pressure."
For Carly Heffernan, 18, who is involved in piano, singing and sports, dramatic productions at Albert College add a different dimension to school. Although she isn't leaning toward show business as a career, it's fun to act as different people on stage and, she admits, "since I was little, I have liked the attention."
Carly lives in nearby Brighton, so she was expecting her parents and some of their friends in the audience. So was Suzanne Smith, 17, who's from Cincinnati, Ohio.
Albert College mounts plays and full-scale musicals on alternate years, as well as one-act plays that are entered in the Independent Schools Drama Festival. Suzanne had already taken part in Little Shop Of Horrors, Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The Crucible. "I think it's rewarding and challenging, learning people skills. It's a lot of work learning your lines. It teaches deadlines and teaches people to be responsible."
Jai-Michael says acting in a school production also requires a lot of energy and a willingness to try new things and overcome obstacles. "Ms. Austin-Profit teaches you to take your time, feel comfortable, concentrate on character, how they would feel.
"Lots of moments the silence says more," he has learned, observing: "When you look in the eyes of the other person, you know what they are thinking and feeling."
Singing is "my number one thing", says Jai-Michael, but he also takes part in soccer, track and field and the basketball team at Albert College.
Sheena Kennedy prefers "the crew stuff" to acting and revels in her position as stage manager for the second year. "I'm generally an organized person, that's important. People come to me with, 'Where's this?' and 'Where's that?' and I tell them. I like that whole aspect of it. I like people to need me to be a leader."
Montcrest School's Saturday Morning Club is open to Grade 7 and 8 students identified as "gifted," either formally, through teacher nomination or by achieving a score in the 98th or 99th percentile on at least one component of a standardized academic achievement test. The club costs $200, with an extra charge for robotics kits, which can be purchased or rented. Some bursaries are available.
Assistant principal Nancy Steinhauer says when a Saturday-morning club for gifted kids aged 7 to 12 at University of Toronto Schools folded, Montcrest, located in midtown Toronto, stepped in. School officials believed "it would be a great service to our own kids and we also like to provide service to our community."
Of the 23 classes at Montcrest, five are especially for the learning disabled. "We're good at teaching bright kids who learn differently, and that includes students with learning disabilities and kids who are gifted. Sometimes those are the same kids."
About 450 brochures went out to public, separate and independent schools across the Greater Toronto Area and 20 students signed up for the first session. Steinhauer says Montcrest pays well to attract top instructors and the students made it clear they appreciated the level of teaching. As one said of a teacher on an evaluation form: "She knew her information very well and wasn't stumped by any questions I gave her. I am very inquisitive."
Another child noted with approval: "No yelling or catastrophes in the class at all."
Recommended another: "I would make it longer so I could learn more."
The students took Robotics Inventor, Introduction To Law and Public Speaking or Introduction To Medicine, including ethical issues. "We were looking for courses that were interesting topics not necessarily covered in curriculum and also courses that were interactive, with a lot of depth," Steinhauer says. "All our kids take public speaking as part of English, but not necessarily in terms of law."
Oliver said the instructor explained how to build a two-way gear differential to make things go at two speeds. "He teaches us about programming Not Quite C, a hackers' program, but with it you can make home-made sensors."
Ohe kids always started building by booklets but with some alterations "we quickly got into battle mode so we can ram and have friendly battles."
Sofia Harquail, 13 and in Grade 8, chose the medicine course because she is considering veterinary medicine as a career. In the club, she researched heart worms for a mock medical conference. "We did cloning, we worked on cells, we made models with Jell-O and we got to eat the experiment."
Edward Watson, 13, says he chose the robotics course because "I'm into cars and everything that goes. "There were only six people in the class, so the instructor was able to walk around and help people" as they learned how to program their creations by computer.
Edward is involved in soccer, baseball, volleyball "and I play the piano" and isn't sure what career to pursue - "maybe brain biology."
Indeed, students face so many extracurricular activities choices that at least one school, St. George's in Montreal, sends a letter to parents each fall that outlines activities but reminds them that children should not be overly programmed. They need time to just be with their friends.
Among the choices: a club at which Grade 2 and 3 students enjoy baking, drama, scavenger hunts, art and music - in French - and a production for Grade 4, 5 and 6 students, supervised by music teacher John Plante, that takes eight months of preparation. A hip-hop class, mostly for girls, is "a terrific workout," says Beatrice Lewis, director of St. George's elementary school. There also is a robotics club, which attracts girls as well as boys. "They stay after school building, programming, working with sensors, motors and gears."
Ten-year-olds at St. George's join SWAT, Students Working at Advanced Technology. They're given digital cameras to record school activities, and post the pictures on a Web site.
"They are far more advanced working on these than I could ever be," Lewis says.
Kozo Ota dropped in on an Amnesty International Club meeting at St. George's College in Grade 9 and by Grade 11 had become the club's co-ordinator. Club members write letters and collect petitions on behalf of people unjustly imprisoned. The club also raises funds for Medecins Sans Frontiéres (Doctors Without Borders).
"It just makes me feel I'm doing my part," Kozo says. He says a lot of people who graduate from the club join similar groups when they graduate.
At St. George's, about 18 Grade 9 students take part in the Kids On The Block program, forming troops that visit elementary schools with life-sized puppets to teach children about disabilities.
"The kids are really excited" about this activity, says Pam Berlow, St. George's moral education teacher. "They develop arm muscles to move the hand-made puppets, learn a scripted dialogue between disabled and non-disabled puppets and research a disability so they can answer questions from the audience.
They become so involved that when it comes time for community service, they often volunteer at institutions such as those for the deaf and blind. They have developed sensitivity and are interested in meeting real people" with disabilities, Berlow says.
At Kells Academy in Montreal, at least 40 per cent of students are from other countries, usually boarding in private homes. A group from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mainland China meet at lunch hour once a week in a Chinese Club, where they feel comfortable speaking their own language, playing cards, mah jong or Chinese chess and meeting others who are also far from home and family.
"It's very popular, particularly at the beginning of the year," says teacher Yasmine Ghandour, who studied Chinese and has lived in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
At Elmwood School in Ottawa, the Classics Club meets once a week all year and twice a week after school as well as once on weekends leading up to the Ontario Students Classics Conference, which brings together about 550 students from public and private schools across Ontario.
Jessica Wilson of Ottawa, who was in Grade 12 last year and also participated in robotics and debating, says the club's chief draw is the chance to research civilizations beyond the curriculum, "learning about artifacts, architecture, mythology and various things like that."
Beth Ellison, who teaches Latin and classics at Elmwood School, says the club is "wonderful at opening the students' minds to the beauties of the ancient world and the cultural heritage of the western world."
At Elmwood School, it's compulsory for Grade 9 students to participate in the Duke of Edinburgh Awards at the bronze level. Girls who are interested then go on to silver and gold levels.
"It's a really rounded program" involving components of skills, service, fitness and an expedition, says Jessica Harris, a student working on her gold level.
"At this level, we have to do 60 hours of community service over 12 months, 50 hours of physical fitness, pick a skill that has to be beyond regular school, such as a musical instrument. I'm doing the IB (International Baccalaureate) program. We're going to go canoeing in Algonquin Park for three days.... I love canoeing and kayaking and camping and stuff. I think it pushes you to add a little more."
While Jessica is "more outdoorsy," Maggie Thompson, 16, enjoys the service aspect. "I work at the Ottawa General Hospital once a week with some of my friends . . . mainly with the older people," says Maggie, who says she has met some "great" seniors.
Maggie says she particularly likes the awards program because it "motivates people" to explore areas to which they are not naturally attracted.