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.


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

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?


Phoetry and what PIA can do for you!

April is poetry month.  Can poetry survive in the 21st century?

I have pasted a paragraph, and provided the link below from a post by a former humanities teacher turned technology integration specialist.  There are many great resources in the link, but I wanted to point out the collaborative project she highlights and how it aligns with what we do at PIA.

Our mission is to integrate the arts across the curriculum.  Simply stated we do two things, provide teacher training and fund projects.

On the teacher training side, we’ll be holding our 17th annual week long, 3-credit summer institute, now the Joan Oates Institute,  June 27-July 1.  This institute is designed to give all educators the skills to use the arts in their classrooms through experiential workshops, field trips and great food.  Our Awards letter of intent deadline for the 2012-2013 school year will be in December.

The model is: Attend the Joan Oates Institute (JOI [joy]) with a team from your school, then take the knowledge you’ve gained and design a project like the one below.  Successful proposals incorporate teacher training, visiting artists and collaboration among a variety of your school’s classroom, art/music, or technology teachers.

This project stems from the vision of middle school teacher Natalie Bernasconi, who explains the steps: "Start with the support of the Central California Writing Project, then mix together a group of middle and high school teachers and students, add one very cool journalist / slam poet guest speaker and the Salinas Public Library to meet in, and you've got Teen Salinas Speaks."

Check out the whole post chock full of great resources at:

We’ll be covering most of the cool stuff she discusses at this year’s JOI in our Art and New Media workshops.  Using Voicethread, Phoetry projects and many more.


Alum of Mighty VCU

Go Rams!

PIA Awards: Woodville Elementary School

It’s good for the soul to spend time with creative teachers and their students. Today I visited Richmond’s Woodville Elementary, where art teacher Teresa Coleman is leading a PIA-funded project called Woodville: A Community of Promise.  Integrating visual arts, music, language arts and social studies, the teachers and visiting artists are helping fourth and fifth graders create an original musical production that will feature notable figures in Virginia’s past and present.  Rosalind C. Taylor is the principal of Woodville, a school full of positive energy and evident commitment to students’ academic and personal development.

As Mrs. Coleman wrote so beautifully in her proposal, “Our primary goal is to use the arts to show students how they are a part of the continuum of history, how history includes the famous and the lesser known, and how history — ‘his story’ — is actually their stories.” To that end, students are learning not only about well-known Virginians but also about family members and people significant to their school and the Church Hill community.  Woodville Elementary’s origins are deep, going back to the early 19th century, when classes were first held in Mount Tabor Baptist Church.

In Mrs. Coleman’s art room, I sat opposite a young girl who was clearly gifted.  She was using what I saw as sophisticated strategies to follow instructions while creating a unique piece of art.  I thought about the fact that when I went to school (talk about the early 19th century) there were no art classes.  I was very, very fortunate to have a family and family friends who valued creativity and all forms of art.

Afterward, I dropped in on Latasha Lee’s music class, where students were practicing a lively routine for “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”  Much more is to come as the students swing through the semester, and it will all mean a thing.


Draw Art from Your Beautiful Heart   Student work at Woodville Elementary: “Draw art from your beautiful heart.”






PIA Awards: Greenwood ES Learning Garden Progress

Update on Greenwood Elementary School’s Learning Garden: The clay (which is not mud) mural has colored underglaze on most of it and will be cut and fired soon.

I had a great time with the third grade class that was working with artist David Camden and art teacher Mrs. Slinkman.  As you can see by the music choice in the video it was a high speed YEEEE-HA type of day.

I was also struck by how little time students get to be creative and innovative.  Art teacher Anne-Marie Slinkman could have had those kids in there for a couple of hours and I know they would have learned not only a lot about art but biology as well.  Her side project for students not working on the mural was to create a bug, making sure that no matter how far-out and wild it was it had “what three components?”.  If you put a science teacher in with the art teacher and the visiting artist for more than a 45-minute block I guarantee they would not only reach, but surpass, any SOL goals.  Learning, learning creativity and 21st century skills are all…I’m going to stop here.

There is a lot of buzz about changing educational paradigms as seen in an animated version of Ken Robinson’s talk from February 2010, and maybe this multi-teacher, longer scheduling block is the beginning of the answer.  I will continue my learning diatribe in some other form and align it with gobs of research.

Until then enjoy the video update, notice the engagement of the students, the artist engaging both the group and individuals and see if you can spot the “bug” assignment instructions.


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.


From Blank to Bank

A big part of my current work is going through the 16 years’ worth of Summer Institute (register now) Unit Plans and our previous Awards for arts integration projects, then reformatting them as a resource available online.  As technology advances have been rampant over the last 16 years I have an assortment of media formats to deal with and of course the issues that arise with each.  The “Blank” was the CD of images I received from Courtney Howard of Salem Church Middle School.  The Final Report binder was good but I had no images, which as a visual person I really wanted.  A quick e-mail to Ms. Howard and I had a CD full of images within a week.  The “Bank” is my response to the project that they implemented, as in “take it to the bank”.  As far as our mission of using Arts Integration across the curriculum…they nailed it!  Teaching artist Dylan Pritchett provided the professional development for teachers, Poetry Alive! did residencies with classes, George Turman did a performance followed up by workshops, field trips….well anyway here’s some of the visuals.


Salem Church Reliving the Depression

PIA Awards: Swansboro Elementary School

“How did they get the jail underground?” This was the question a fourth grader at Swansboro Elementary asked Selden Richardson last week, following the latter’s presentation about significant sites in Richmond’s history, including the notorious Lumpkin’s Slave Jail. 

The question was excellent in a straightforward way. How did Lumpkin’s Slave Jail end up buried so far under the surface of today’s streets? But it was also a metaphor for how often history, especially history that is uncomfortable to think about, is obscured below the surface of official records, textbooks, and public memory.

Mr. Richardson, an architectural historian and author of the book Built by Blacks: African American Architecture and Neighborhoods, is one of the visiting artists working this year with Swansboro teachers Erin Conmy and Mary Ann Gryboski on a project called Studying the Past to Embrace the Future, which explores the history of Richmond and of the students’ own south Richmond community. The project integrates Virginia Studies with an examination of the city’s architecture and monuments, as well as less familiar sites, considering how these may tell varied stories about the past. Working with visiting author Jeannette Drake, students are exploring a range of literary genres as they read and write about Richmond history. Visiting photographer Brian Barker is helping students create images for their journals. Digital cameras for the students were generously provided by Richmond Public Schools.

Dorothy Rice, the Literature and History Resource Teacher at the RPS Arts and Humanities Center, dreamed up this project based on her deep interest in the history of Richmond.  At first she thought it might be best for older students, but Mary Pierce, Swansboro’s principal, suggested it would be perfect for her school’s fourth graders.  And so it has been, as seen by the enthusiasm, curiosity and imagination Swansboro students are bringing to Studying the Past to Embrace the Future.

Yesterday morning, Mr. Richardson led the fourth graders on a walking tour of some of the sites associated with Richmond’s history as a major slave market. We walked through a passage off Main Street to an area — now a parking lot — where slave auctions once took place. “You are walking in the footsteps of the men, women and children who were sold as slaves,” Mr. Richardson told the students. Soon we were at the site of Lumpkin’s Slave Jail, where Mr. Richardson used a box full of sand and some Lego blocks to illustrate exactly how the jail was buried as a result of hill-grading and highway construction.

Fourth grade students from Swansboro Elementary School learn from Selden Richardson how archaeological sites get buried.

There was a lot more to come, including a visit to the African Burial Ground on Broad Street, the Civil Rights Memorial in Capitol Square, and finally the Reconciliation Statue at Main Street. I had to go back to work, but I remembered Mr. Richardson pointing out to students the words at the base of the Reconciliation Statue during his Swansboro presentation.

Acknowledge and forgive the past, embrace the present, shape a future of reconciliation and justice.

“Shaping the future,” Mr. Richardson said to the fourth graders.  “That’s your job.”


More information about the sites on the Slave Trail can be found at the Richmond Slave Trail Commission website.

PIA Awards: Spring Run Elementary School

On Tuesday, Joan Oates and I visited Spring Run Elementary in Chesterfield County to see part of a book-making workshop organized by art teacher Michele Kelly for the school’s teachers.  Michele just happens to be Spring Run’s Teacher of the Year.  And Spring Run just happens to have been named the county’s Most Welcoming School by the Chesterfield County Council of PTAs.

Spring Run is the recipient this year of a PIA award for a project called Tracks From the Past, Imprinting the Future.  The project celebrates the school’s tenth anniversary as well as the tenth anniversary of CCPS’s core values of respect, responsibility, honesty and accountability.  Students will study and write about the recent history of their school and community, interviewing teachers and local residents.  They will work with ceramicist David Camden to create an art work that symbolizes the core values and that will hold a time capsule of the students’ writing and art.

The first hour of the workshop was led by artist and art book maker Diana Detamore, who is one of the VMFA’s visual artists and has taught several times at PIA’s Summer Institute.

Spring Run Elementary with Diana Detamore

Diana showed the group a fascinating array of hand-made books and journals created from recycled materials such as cereal boxes, grocery bags, old notebooks, and de-accessioned library books.  A handy how-to guide was provided to all the teachers, who spent the second part of the workshop creating their own journals.  They will take these skills back to the classroom and help students make journals for their research and design ideas.  Principal Sandra Blankenship spoke about how work on the project was “not to be isolated in the art room” but could be a  part of the school day’s science, social studies, writing and reading time.  I was impressed with her commitment to arts integration and her recognition that this approach would take some getting used to for everyone.

Spring Run is a school clearly dedicated to children’s (and teachers’) creative expression.  Click to enlarge the pictures below and see what I mean.

Starry Night windows  The “starry night” art room.

Spring Run Student Tiles  Students’ self-portraits, painted on tiles.