Here be Dragons!

A guest post by Rob Levit, founder and Executive Director of Creating Communities

When lacking information on what was known beyond the visible world, ancient maps were inscribed with the words “Here Be Dragons” and frightening images to warn travelers to stay away. To be a creative individual and a master educator however, we must train ourselves to move beyond our own fears, limitations and perceived weaknesses to find the beauty and freedom in what I call “The Undiscovered Country” where our old models of teaching and doing don’t hold up anymore.


A perfect example of this in “real life” is dealing with a difficult student. From our “Here Be Dragons” perspective, we may shut down or, gulp, admit that we don’t like the student. We can even come home after a long day feeling exhausted and depleted and have it affect our personal lives. But what’s the cost – to ourselves and to the student – when our energy is expended on staying away rather than navigating through? Anger or resentment can build up toward ourselves and the student. Why?  Because we care, and because we are human. The problem with this is that it may not be the child – but our own lack of tools, insights, and strategies to reach a child that desperately, and perhaps silently, wants structure – even though their behavior shows otherwise. The master educator recognizes the amazing and at times exasperating avoidance techniques that failing and/or troubled students unknowingly practice. It reminds me of the famous quote: “The child who needs the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways.” That’s where personal creativity and arts integration come into play. To navigate successfully into “The Undiscovered Country” we must first have mastery of the conventional, tried and true techniques. This requires personal honesty, assessment, and practice.

Beyond that, we need new approaches like improvisation, creating poems and songs on the fly, being confident and enthusiastic about our hidden talents, and embracing that our most difficult students need new ways of learning that are hands-on and experiential. I thrive on being a guide to “The Undiscovered Country” and equipping teachers with confidence, tools, encouragement, and new skills to reach students. It’s amazing – once teachers grab onto these approaches, breakthrough after breakthrough happens in the classroom and our difficult students, although still struggling, begin to emerge because we have recognized opportunity, freshness, and possibility in them.  What once looked like a frightening dragon turned out to be the harmless shadow of ourselves. 

-Rob Levit

Rob Levit is an acclaimed educator, creative artist and community leader. He has created award-winning, innovative “Life-Skills Through The Arts” programs for hundreds of at-risk youth and adults. Levit is the founder and the current Executive Director of Creating Communities.

Register now to join us for Levit’s workshop and many others at the 2016 Joan Oates Institute, June 27-July 1, 2016.


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.


Storytelling in RVA

A guest post by Jane Crouse of the National Storytelling Network

We live in story like a fish lives in water. We swim through the words and images siphoning story through our minds the way fish siphons water through its gills. We cannot think without language, we cannot process experience without story. Christina Baldwin, StoryCatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story

The National Storytelling Network (NSN), based in Jonesborough, TN, brings together and supports individuals and organizations that use the power of story in all its forms. We advocate for the preservation and growth of the art of storytelling. With the theme of Story: Seed of Creativity, the 2013 National Storytelling Conference will be held in Richmond this year on August 1-4. The conference will examine and celebrate “the power of story in all its forms,” honoring our collective and diverse creativity through story. Plant a story seed, grow a dance, a film, a symphony, a video game…the possibilities are endless! Story is the foundation of all the arts, the seed of creativity. Storytelling is the root of film and theatre, dance and music, visual arts, and, of course, literature and the spoken-word tradition.

The annual conference provides opportunities for story practitioners to share and learn a myriad of ways in which the use of story can strengthen and transform communities and lives in the diverse fields of education, health care, historic and cultural preservation and business, to name a few. The Youth, Educators and Storytellers Alliance (YES!) pre-conference will be of particular interest to educators. The Alliance advocates for and offers support and resources in storytelling to mentors, educators and storytellers who work with young voices from early childhood through adolescence. Educators can integrate storytelling into reading, language arts, math, science and social studies while teaching the Virginia Standards of Learning.

Do you have a workshop or panel idea that explores the conference theme of Story: Seed of Creativity? If so, please consider submitting a proposal. The guidelines are available on the conference website, given above. The deadline for workshop proposal submission is November 15, 2012. Perhaps your interest leans more toward performance. Then you might consider applying for the NSN Conference Fringe, where you can present your most compelling, riskiest, experimental or work-in-progress storytelling.

Be part of the National Storytelling Conference this summer. Come discover that the shortest distance between two people is a story. Muriel Rukeyser said that ‘the universe is made of stories, not atoms.” A universe awaits you at the National Storytelling Conference. Come grow with us. We Grow Storyellers!

Plant the seed! Use Sandy time to submit a PIA Award LOI

Do you have any ideas for an arts integration project that you’ve always wanted to do in your classroom? Maybe there’s a little nugget or seed of a thought about bringing in your favorite artist to work with your students and colleagues in the back of your mind? The PIA Awards Letter of Intent(LOI) is a great opportunity to get that seed in the ground, and with 4-5″ of rain being dumped on us by Sandy over the next 24 hours or so, germination chances are high. The LOI deadline is December 7, 2012 and the New & Improved online application form makes it easier than ever to submit your proposal. PIA Awards range from $1500-$10,000 and support professional development, visiting artists, supplies and field trips. You can also schedule a FREE workshop for your school or interested team of teachers, and Liz or I will come out and help you turn that seed into a big ol’ tree of a transformative cross-curricular integrated project. So before you lose power and have to go back to school, check out the link above, get that seed in the ground and watch that tree grow.

Little nut coffee cup

One of my favorite coffee cups

Tomahawk Creek Middle School-thanks and congrats!

Thanks to the team at TCMS for letting me sit in on a Bluescreen in MovieMaker training session for their teachers.  Autumn Nabors, Coordinator for Instructional Leadership, gave me a great tour and Principal Jeff Ellick also was very generous with his time.

I was able to check out the Digital Book Jam prizes which Ms. Parson had just received.  One of her students’ digital book reports, “Yellow Star”, was a finalist.  Congrats on the great use of integrating arts with literature and technology.


Art + History + Technology + You Participating = Arts Integration

What do you think about the Texas board of education removing Thomas Jefferson from curriculum standards? How is our history generated, revised, taught?  How should we commemorate the Civil War and Emancipation 150th year anniversaries?

Once again all of the hats I wear (Many Hats=Messy Hair) are coming together nicely.  I have always thought of my volunteer work on the board of directors for 1708Gallery as Partners in the Arts (PIA) for grown-ups.  Now my professional work with PIA and other projects at the University of Richmond have freakishly aligned with the exhibition that opens at 1708 this Friday.

Friday AAIC image

Matthew Friday is an educator and transdisciplinary artist who is responding to the first question in this post.  Check out his project “The Liberty of Empire” and participate by filling out the questionnaire which will crunch the answers through some sort of art and technology transmogrifier machine and generate drawings that will be added to the installation throughout the exhibition.

As PIA is a program of the UR School of Continuing Studies we have been able to develop some great New Media workshops for bringing a technical and visual literacy to arts integration.  The visual, history and new media components also parallel the work of The University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab.  They have created a History Engine for students “to learn history by doing the work€”researching, writing, and publishing€”of a historian” and “to reach a wide audience by developing projects that integrate thoughtful interpretation in the humanities and social sciences with innovations in new media”.  Well designed graphs, charts, maps, etc. allow you to “read” the research in visual formats.

As an art-maker, gallery volunteer, parent and arts integration professional I have always believed in participation and discourse as the most important outcome of creative expression.  From Jan.7-Feb 12, 2011 you (and your students/kids) can participate in a discourse on a regionally and nationally relevant topic and have your ideas be part of a contemporary art exhibition.

How awesome is that!


A picture is worth…$250 in Cash Awards

Through the Lens: A Photography Show at the Petersburg Regional Art Center (PRAC) will be held on March 11, 2011 at 7:00 pm.  Click on the form link for information and entry form.  To get in the mood check out our super-talented friend Caron Sterling (see pastel image in our header) in the 1212 Gallery Women’s International Juried Photography Exhibition 2010.

Native Landscape “Native Landscape” Caron Sterling 2006

Here is the form: PRAC Photo Form

Just do it!


Onward and Upward with the Arts in Richmond

Last Sunday I had the pleasure of attending two local events that demonstrate the wealth of creative talent and good will in our community. First, I went with my friend Juliette Landphair, dean of UR’s Westhampton College, to see her daughter perform in Richmond Ballet’s Minds in Motion Team XXL production of Dancing for a Brand New Bay. There’s even more UR-related talent in Team XXL: the daughter of Holly Blake, director of UR’s WILL program, is also a gifted member. The group gave two performances, both of them part of the Richmond Folk Festival, also held this past weekend.  In addition, the ballet offered free performances by the professional company and by students of the School of Richmond Ballet.

Dancing for a Brand New Bay was terrific. Team XXL dancers are in grades 5 through 8 — they are alumni of the ballet’s regional 4th grade Minds in Motion program — and they are accomplished, graceful, witty, and expressive.  The Chesapeake Bay theme (hey folks, it’s the largest estuary in the United States!) allowed for dances illustrating aspects of the bay’s life processes.  The environmental message was strong, so strong that I was practically weeping by the end of the piece about the enormous dead zone created in the bay each year by algal blooms that cut off the production of oxygen.  But the performance ended on a lively, upbeat note while still reminding us that protecting the bay is everyone’s responsibility.  Kudos to Brett Bonda, who runs the Minds in Motion program, to the choreographers who work in the schools with the students, and to every young dancer who made this performance so thrilling.

After this exhilaration, Juliette and I wandered down to the Folk Festival, where we 1) ate, and 2) listened to Los Texmaniacs, who appeared on the Dominion Stage.  I found out later that Los Tex won the 2010 Grammy for Best Tejana Album, Borders y Bailes.  And here they were performing for everyone, for free, on a sunny afternoon along the James.  People were dancing and swinging and swaying  — it was not possible to hear this music and stay still.

It was a gorgeous day, the river was beautiful, and Richmond came out to celebrate itself.


Who is Joan Oates?

Sometimes it's easy to take for granted the fact that Partners in the Arts is able to offer arts integration awards to local schools as well as scholarships that lower tuition for our 3-credit Summer Institute. But these would not be possible without the vision and support of a unique woman named Joan Olmsted Oates, who founded Partners in the early 1990s in collaboration with the Arts Council of Richmond and who early on saw the virtues of teaming up with UR’s School of Continuing Studies.  

Joan is an artist, a teacher, and a proud mother of four.  She does not like the expression "patron of the arts" because it suggests someone who simply provides financial support from a safe distance.  I would say Joan is a life-long arts activist who has advocated for every child's right to express herself through the arts and who realized, long before the researchers and curriculum planners figured it out, that all learning experiences are enriched by creative expression and activity.   

I have known Joan for several years now, but I still learn new things about her.  For example, that she knows how to fly a plane.  That she studied dance with Martha Graham at Bennington College.  That she is related to Jesse James.  That her grandmother founded a school for girls and then one for boys back in Kansas City.  Joan’s more public credentials are stellar:  she did her master’s degree at the Harvard School of Education, taught at schools in New York and Richmond as well as at VCU, helped develop Virginia’s Standards of Learning for Dance, was named one of the YWCA’s Outstanding Women of the Year in 2007, and continues to serve on the boards of many arts and education organizations.

Joan is a true friend and ally of young people — and their teachers — in the Richmond region.  She has always led the way, and we are happy to follow.