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.


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.

PIA Awards: Greenwood Elementary School

I love visiting schools and seeing all the students’ art work on the walls.  On Monday, January 10, I visited Greenwood Elementary School in Henrico to see the work 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders are doing on a large mural for Greenwood’s Learning Garden, and while there I saw some fantastic work all along the hallways.  It’s no wonder these students are doing so well on their mural.

 Greenwood ES Fish HatGreenwood ES house  An art hat and a building design by students at Greenwood Elementary. 

Anne-Marie Slinkman is Greenwood’s art teacher and the coordinator of this PIA-funded project, which allows students to work with ceramics artist David Camden to create a circular mural, about 5 1/2 feet in diameter, that depicts animals, birds and fish native to Virginia in an outdoor setting.

The fifth graders first prepared work sheets with information about each animal as well as words, ideas, and feelings they associated with each one.  Along with this, the fifth graders made drawings of the animals which were then transferred to the paper drawing of the mural, and which will next be depicted in ceramics on the actual mural.  The fourth graders drew the rocks, plants, trees and streams to create the landscape in which the creatures will be situated.  With David and Anne-Marie’s guidance, the third graders pressed the clay base into the big wooden frame that will hold the mural.

Greenwood ES turtle  Drawing of a diamondback terrapin for the Greenwood Elementary mural.

I saw the site where the finished artwork will be placed: a sunny wall facing a grassy area near the entrance to the school library.  Native Virginia plants will be cultivated in the garden, and each grade level will get a plot to plant what they choose.  A whiteboard will be installed and parents and other volunteers will help build benches.  PIA cannot provide funding for these kinds of equipment, but since Greenwood has already secured two sources of funding for the learning garden it is very likely to secure more.

In addition to Anne-Marie and David, the team working on this project includes Kindergarten teachers Ginger Hudson-Banta, Nicole Barker, and Krystina Stansbury; Grade 2 teacher Nicole Hunter; and Special Education teacher Courtney Gibbons-Plowcha.  Greenwood’s principal, Dr. Debra Smith, is, of course, the person who sets the tone for such creative teaching at her school.

“We had fun today, Mrs. Slinkman!”  That’s what the children had told Anne-Marie as she helped them onto the bus just before my visit.  Who wouldn’t want to spend a little part of their school (or work) day creating magic out of clay?

Greenwood ES Teacher

Art teacher Anne-Marie Slinkman standing before the drawing of the circular mural being created at Greenwood Elementary.


Civil War Drawings from the Becker Collection

“To truly respect the past, you can’t romanticize it.”

This was a comment made by Dr. Edward Ayers during his talk on Friday evening, January 15, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.  Dr. Ayers, a prize-winning historian and the president of the University of Richmond, was speaking in particular about the Civil War but in general about all of history and the tendency to present prettified, ennobled, and sometimes wildly inaccurate depictions of the past.

Dr. Ayers’s talk was called “Seeing the Civil War through Fresh Eyes” and was the opening event for an exhibition at the VMFA and at UR’s Joel and Lila Harnett Museum of Art called “Civil War Drawings from the Becker Collection”.  The Becker Collection, the largest private collection of Civil War drawings, consists of over 650 images of battles, marches, and camp life created by “special artists” who were embedded with the troops for long periods of time, under grim and often terrifying circumstances.  Most of the drawings are by Joseph Becker but the collection also includes work by his fellow artists.

The drawings were sent to Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in New York and quickly transferred by teams of engravers into illustrations that ran every week in this very popular publication.  As Dr. Ayers pointed out, photographs could not yet capture split-seconds of action due to the long exposure time needed.  The special artists and engravers provided readers with the most realistic and immediate images of the war they would ever see.

These images were intended to convey information, Dr. Ayers said, not to create emotion.  It is comforting to see familiar tropes — crisply-uniformed young men kissing their sweethearts goodbye; perfectly unfurled flags on the battlefields; graceful, bloodless death under sheltering trees — but they do a disservice to truth and to human suffering.  And, if I may editorialize for a moment, they may keep us from acknowledging the true horror that is war.

The exhibition is timed to the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the end of slavery, an anniversary in which Dr. Ayers and UR are playing an important role through the collaborative project called “The Future of Richmond’s Past”.   As VMFA director Alex Nyerges noted in his introductory remarks, Ed Ayers is that rare thing in this country: a public intellectual committed to open, community-based conversation about consequential issues.

The exhibition runs from January 15 through April 3rd at both sites, the VMFA and the Harnett Museum at UR.  I urge you to see these drawings and consider how significant art and artists can be in times of turmoil and division.