Lights! Music! Ducklings!

On January 22, preK and Kindergarten students from Miles Jerome Jones Elementary attended a performance at the University of Richmond Modlin Center for the Arts. Miles Jones has a PIA Award this year for a project called Dance by Design that uses creative movement to teach young children literacy and numeracy skills. The children were at the Modlin to see Corbian/Lightwire Theatre’s performance of two classic fables, The Tortoise and the Hare and The Ugly Duckling.

It was just amazing. The performers themselves were invisible on the stage but wore puppet forms that created the animals, each one illuminated by lights that made the characters come alive in every way. The performance was stunning – beautiful, funny, and moving. No wonder Corbian/Lightwire were finalists last year on America’s Got Talent. You can watch the videos on their website but they do not do justice to the genius and artistry of their work.

The students from Miles Jones joined hundreds of other children in the Modlin Center’s Alice Jepson Theatre. The show was an hour long, the perfect length to hold their attention. I too was spellbound. I realized after a while that I was leaning forward, mouth half open, enraptured by what I was watching.

This visit to the Modlin Center was a successful partnership among Richmond Public Schools, the Modlin Center for the Arts, and Partners in the Arts. Teachers and staff from all three made it possible, working out tickets, transport, and lunch for the students. Here you see some of the Miles Jones theatregoers in their winter-day clothes. On stage, it was all magic and light.




I was in New York for a few days and while there paid a visit to Lunch Hour: NYC, an exhibition running through February 17th at the main branch of the New York Public Library. This is the elegant Beaux Arts building on Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets that has the lions, Patience and Fortitude, flanking the entrance. You can go on-line to check out their excellent teaching resources.

Lunch Hour is about how New Yorkers have thought of and eaten lunch for over 100 years. In modern America, weekday lunch is rarely a family affair and in New York it is often a time when people rush, talk, and bolt down their meals while staying in high-pitched work mode. But it is also a time of escape, of shared confidences over a counter, and of eating outside in your private patch of sun. The NYPL has an enormous collection of menus, from fine restaurants to the lowliest diners, that reveal changing tastes (and prices) over the years. These and the many photos and objects on display give you a sense of the social and cultural meaning of food in urban American history.

The exhibition includes an enclosed space that reproduces the look of an old-fashioned Automat, a staple of New York dining from the early 1900s to the 1960s. Above you can see an original Horn & Hardart Automat wall of little compartments that once held enticing servings of food, all available if you put the right number of nickels in the slot. As a child I found it hard to decide where to invest my fortune. This slot or that one? Chocolate cake or lemon meringue pie?

These days we have Art-o-mat, a company that converts old cigarette machines into art-dispensing machines. The art costs more than a few nickels but at $5 it’s still a pretty good deal. Like the Automat itself, Art-o-mat offers an inexpensive, democratic way for people to get what they need, what sustains us physically and aesthetically.

New York artists have always been attracted to the Automat, the setting of so many late-night conversations and brainstorms. Berenice Abbott photographed one in 1936 and Edward Hopper’s 1927 painting ranks as one of the great works of American art. Many have viewed the solitary woman in Hopper’s Automat as a symbol of urban alienation and loneliness, but I prefer to think of her as mulling over some big decision. Marry or not? Stay or go? Coffee can make these decisions easier.

Think of the impecunious writers and artists who found inspiration in the Automat while sipping their third cup of five-cent coffee, of the novels and paintings we owe to cheap caffeine. These folks didn’t need fancy coffeemakers, and maybe we don’t either.


The Art of the Memoir

I recently visited Chesterfield’s Clover Hill High School, which has a PIA Award this year for a project called “Paths.” Students in the tenth through twelfth grade are working with a writer and a visual artist to interview local World War II veterans and their families to create literary and visual depictions of their stories.

The project team consists of Clover Hill creative writing teacher Barbara Bingham, history teacher James Triesler, and fine arts teacher Donna Stables. The visiting artists are painter Kendra Dawn Wadsworth and writer Erica Orloff. Kendra is a former student of Donna’s, which makes her a great role model for any young person who has a passionate interest but is not sure if it is okay to pursue that passion as an adult. Barbara has created a blog about the project and Erica has recently written a post for it. Barbara has also contributed a post to PIA’s blog, where she writes about the importance of learning from other teachers.

I sat in on a senior class that was working with Erica on the meaning, structure and making of memoir. This is a genre I feel very close to (perhaps because I like to talk about myself) and Erica laid out her information and insights in a compelling way. She asked the students to make a list of ten important events or transitional moments in their lives. Not just getting your driver’s license, for example, but what that meant to you. I joined in with the list-making and was surprised by what I came up with.

Erica then asked the students to do 15-20 minutes of free writing on one of the topics they had listed. With this approach, you try very hard not to edit yourself but to keep writing and let it take you where it will. I did this as well and once again was surprised that my pen seemed to be in charge. I appreciated that Erica and Barbara did not ask the students to share what they had written; their work was still private, something to think about and develop. Writing a little of their own memoir will help the Clover Hill students understand how personal experiences can have universal significance. And that is a lesson in itself.


Learning from Other Teachers

A guest post by Barbara L. Bingham, Chesterfield County Public Schools, Virginia

After three years of education courses and five years of teaching, I thought I knew a lot about teaching. I had participated in graduate-level classes and enthusiastically jumped into any staff development offered, but it was five years into my career as an educator that I learned my greatest lesson: other teachers know more than you do. I know this sounds contradictory for some experienced teachers and obvious for young teachers but it’s true for all of us.

That year I had been inspired to switch from general classroom teacher to exceptional educator for students with learning disabilities and I was tapped to collaborate in high school Algebra and Algebra 2. Never having taught math in high school before, I had to interact very closely with both of the teachers I worked with, two of the best teachers I have ever seen. That was when I learned my lesson: after watching them teach, I learned lessons and skills that I continue to use in an English class almost ten years later. It wasn’t that they had so many years more experience than me; it was that each of those teachers used skills and techniques that I hadn’t seen before. Every teacher has something they have developed that works really, really well. If we could just teach each other these things, all of us would become stronger, better and more inspired.

The best training a teacher can have is found in the classroom of another teacher, teachers of the same subject and of different subjects. It is this practice which sets the standard for student teaching. If you want to learn how to teach, then you need to work with someone who does. Unfortunately, in our busy careers as educators, we become too hyper-focused on our classes and distracted by red tape or requirements. If I told you there was staff development that was guaranteed to reach all of your teachers, which would bring improvement to every classroom and would raise camaraderie between all teachers across curricula, every school would pounce on it, particularly when they found out the cost was minimal. So why don’t we do it more? If the consensus is that inexperienced teachers can learn from experienced teachers, why don’t we make the leap to believe experienced teachers can learn from other experienced teachers?

Here’s what I propose: this year, make a commitment to learn at least one skill from another classroom. Schedule a time during your planning time to sit in on another classroom and ask someone you admire to share their skills with you. If you can, go in a few times and watch, learn. You will be thankful you did and, at the same time, you will learn to admire your colleagues and their skills anew. Both of you will be grateful you did.

Franklin Military Academy’s Walk through History

Students at Franklin Military Academy are integrating the Virginia-U.S. history curriculum with the art curriculum to create a large-scale mural that depicts significant episodes in U.S. military history. Panels feature people such as Crispus Attacks, Betsy Ross, and national leaders engaged in World War I. Well-known artist James Thornhill has worked with the students to develop the mural, which will soon be finished. World history teacher Phyllis Jackson has led the project, collaborating with the art teacher and another history teacher. Below you can see James Thornhill and part of the mural.

Founded in 1980, Franklin Military Academy is the first public military academy in the country. The students I have met there are remarkably astute. Together, they are helping to bring history to life.



Laurel Meadow Lion’s Den

Fantastic. That’s the first word that comes to mind after visiting the  fourth grade art class at Laurel Meadow Elementary School this morning. Art teacher Jamesha Hairston has created a wonderful PIA Award project for this year called Laurel Meadow Lion’s Den: An Interactive Reading Environment. For the first part of the project, third, fourth, and fifth graders are making books – beautiful artists’ books – and then creating content for their books, developing their non-fiction writing skills on subjects related to the science and social studies curriculum. A team of Laurel Meadow educators is collaborating on the project with Ms. Hairston, among them the librarian, the instructional technology resource teacher, the reading specialist, and classroom teachers. The books that the students make will be placed in the school library.

This morning the fourth graders were working with artist Ginna Cullen as they began to assemble their books. Ms. Cullen showed them a number of books she had made so they could see what was possible. The children were in awe: you can do that with paper and cardboard? Ms. Cullen’s hand-made books are incredibly beautiful, some simple and some complex, with detailed hand-sewn spines.

In the spring, the 4th and 5th grade students will work with muralist Janet Gilmore-Bryan on a mural for the reading area in the school library, the Lion’s Den. (Can you guess what the school’s mascot is?) The students will learn how murals impact the environment and how they can celebrate community. Then they’ll brainstorm as a group to create a design for their mural.


All Together Now

Henrico County Public Schools has done it again, after having done it twelve times before. The school system has been named one of the “100 Best Communities for Music Education” in the country by the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Foundation. Of all the school districts in the U.S., Henrico is the only one — the only one — to have received this honor 13 years in a row. You can read more about the award in the HCPS 2012 Annual Report.

Henrico’s music education specialist, Rick Tinsley, is quoted in the article as saying that the 13 consecutive awards are “due to our wonderful teachers, our supportive local community, and the support provided by our School Board, Superintendent, and administration!” We know this is true: it takes long-term, shared commitment to achieve this kind of excellence. Let’s add a big round of applause for Rick himself, who does so much to bring it all together and make it work. And while we’re at it, why not start thinking about a PIA project for your school that uses music, performing arts, visual arts and any other art form to teach the curriculum? Guidelines for 2013-14 PIA Awards will be up soon on our website.



PIA Awards: Trophies for Everyone

We had a special event at this year’s Joan Oates Institute, held June 25-29 at the Modlin Center: a celebration of the teachers who have won 2012-13 PIA Awards for their schools as well as those who carried out award projects in 2011-12.

PIA Awards fund cross-curricular, thematic projects that use the arts to change the way core subjects such as history, math, and science are taught. We believe that teachers and other educators who are close to the classroom are the best people to develop these projects. They know what will work and what will ignite student interest. They also know which of their colleagues would be perfect to be part of the team that carries out the project along with visiting artists. Awards can be up to $10,000 each to schools that are in the PIA consortium and are designed to make lasting changes in how the curriculum is taught. They also help build students’ 21st century skills, including innovation, collaboration, and critical thinking.

The PIA Awards celebration was held on Thursday, June 28, in Camp Concert Hall, a beautiful theater in UR’s Booker Hall that was also the site of several other JOI 12 events. Rob and I wanted to do it in style so we ordered custom-designed trophies for both sets of award recipients. Who knew you could mix and match trophy elements to get just what you’re looking for? Makes you want to order trophies for your next dinner party. We were delighted to see that the options included a leaping bass, which looked pretty close to Joan Oates’s signature salmon pin, representative of her fishing exploits.

Joan handed out the trophies but had a special guest to help her do this: Holly Rice, who co-founded Partners in the Arts in the early 1990s and gave her all to make sure it was a well-established and successful program. Holly lives in Los Angeles now but was able to be part of the event to talk about her experience with PIA and the value of the arts in PreK-12 education. Joan and Holly were given trophies as well. Joan’s said “Founder Award.” Holly’s said “Superstar Award.” Below you can see Joan, left, and Holly on stage with their trophies.

Joan and Holly receive PIA Awards

Here’s a list of the seven 2012-13 PIA Award recipients with a brief description of the award projects they will carry out in the new school year. More information about each project can be found in this feature story.

Armstrong High School, Richmond, $7,500, for Not too far From Here: A Plein Air History of Richmond. Students will investigate the history of their neighborhoods and communities through guided tours, journaling, video and audio recording, and “open air” drawing and painting.

Pocahontas Elementary School, Powhatan, $7,600 for Come Tell Your Story: A Powhatan Perspective –Local History through Storytelling. Students will document family and community members’ life stories, in writing and video, as a way to increase understanding of cultural differences in Powhatan County.

Miles Jerome Jones Elementary School, Richmond, $3,000 for a project called Dance by Design, for Pre-K and Kindergarten students. The project uses creative movement related to monthly themes in the core curriculum to teach young children literacy and number skills

Clover Hill High School, Chesterfield, $6,100 for The “Paths” Project, which combines English, history and visual arts to record the experiences of the community’s World War II veterans and their families.

Laurel Meadow Elementary School, Hanover, $6,500 for Laurel Meadow’s Lion’s Den, a project that will allow students to write across the curriculum on topics such as the life processes of plants and to paint a mural in the school library.

The Steward School, independent, $5,000 for The Leonardo Project, which will allow students to create a digital database exploring photography’s relationship to the acquisition of scientific knowledge.

Mary Munford Elementary School, Richmond, $6,300 for Seasonal Gardens under the Sun, a project that integrates history, environmental science, language arts and visual arts to help students explore the natural world and humans’ relationship to it.

Last year’s PIA Award winners were:

Linwood Holton Elementary School, Richmond, for Improvise, Innovate and Imagine!

Albert Hill Middle School, Richmond, for America Steps Out

Robious Middle School, Chesterfield, for Keep Your Watershed Together: Be a Part of the Whole!

George Wythe High School, Richmond, for Historical Perspective and Storytelling Applied to Contemporary Art

Powhatan Elementary School, Powhatan, for Jack’s Garden

Franklin Military Academy, Richmond, for The Walk through History Mural

Application deadlines for 2013-14 PIA Awards are online and updated guidelines will be posted soon. Feel free to run ideas for projects by Rob and me at any point. You can email us at or call us at 804-955-4016. PIA Awards are for you and your school. It’s your creative ideas and your know-how that make projects work. And don’t you want one of these fabulous trophies?


The Bulldog Art Collective

The bulldog is George Wythe High School’s mascot, and the collective is made up of the students who are working with art teacher/department chair William E. Johnson and visiting artist Keith Ramsey to create paintings that depict African American themes. The project is called Historical Perspectives and Storytelling Applied to Contemporary Art and is funded by a PIA Award this year. 

To develop the themes and connect them to notable events as well as lived experience, the young artists will study “narratives, letters, photography, videos, music, dance, fashion and artwork pertaining to twentieth century African American culture and history.” Mr. Johnson developed the project and is collaborating with US History teacher Sarah Boyd and AP English teacher Kim Jones, among others, to implement the project this year.  RPS Arts and Humanities Center Resource Teachers Dorothy Rice and Mary Alice Shaker are also assisting with the project. Principal Reva Green makes it all possible by giving her teachers the time and space to do this.   

Paintings that integrate English and History content are not the only school projects PIA funds, of course (a friendly reminder to those submitting Letters of Intent by December 5th for next year’s PIA Awards). But working with their teachers, Mr. Ramsey, and their own great ideas, Wythe students are bound to come up with something special.

The other day I sat in on a “crit session” with Mr. Ramsey and some members of the Bulldog Art Collective, who had brought in samples of their artwork. Below is art created by Dashawn Lamar Meredith, who is already an excellent draftsman with a rich sense of color. 

Artwork by Dashawn Lamar Meredith

Mr. Ramsey’s own work is very powerful, combining the clarity of graphic design with the noirish mystery of city life. During his session with the students, he showed examples of public art throughout Richmond, including murals he helped create. He also brought in graphic design magazines and books to give students an idea of how strong their work can be while conveying important content. The stronger the design, the more powerful the impact.

Mr. Johnson and Wythe colleagues Nate Boyd, Ta’Neshia Ford and Tiffanei Terrell attended the 2011 Joan Oates Institute, where they developed a unit plan about the Harlem Renaissance. They gave an excellent presentation of their work at the end of the institute. It was something like 3D graphic design: iconic poses, striking visual art, and a plaintive trumpet solo (courtesy of Band Director Boyd), all combined to send its own powerful message.


The Raven

You know what’s coming? Halloween is coming. That’s right, truly the most magical time of the year. Being Irish and Scottish, I like to think of it as the Celts did: Samhain, the end of the harvest season, the beginning of winter, and the time when darkness takes over from light. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Which of course brings me to Edgar Allan Poe, who is closely associated by many with Halloween. Poe himself seemed haunted but he also gave others a good scare through his stories and his famous poem, “The Raven.” Although he did not write the poem for Halloween, Poe’s “midnight dreary” and his narrator’s morbid preoccupations certainly qualifies it as Halloween fare. And then there is the talkative raven (or is there?), a bird associated in European myth with death and prophecy. 

Poe is also an unhappy son of Richmond, of course. His mother is buried in historic St. John’s Churchyard, while Franklin Street is still dotted with houses associated with his youth. We have the Poe Museum in the Old Stone House on Main Street, but Poe’s travels in the northeast corridor allow New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore to claim him as well. He is buried in the last city, where for fifty years or so, until 2009, an anonymous visitor would come to Poe’s grave in the pre-dawn hours of his birthday, January 19, and leave three roses and a half bottle of cognac. 

Perhaps the Halloween decor on this house, on Leigh Street in Jackson Ward, is in part a tribute to Eddie and his poem.  







If you’re the kind of grown-up who still wears a costume on Halloween, and why not, check out Skull-A-Day, the brainchild (skullchild?) of Richmond artist Noah Scalin, and come up with your own scary, funny mask. Noah is also the founder of  Another Limited Rebellion, a design firm with a strong social conscience, and an instructor at VCU School of the Arts. He just happens to be the son of two other artists, master collagist Chuck Scalin and mistress of mail art Mim Scalin, who gave a workshop at the 2011 Joan Oates Institute. 

Poe, ravens, skulls, mail art: No tricks, all treats.