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.

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!

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.


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

Congratulations to Henrico’s Mike Gettings

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Michael C. Gettings, Instructional Specialist for Art in Henrico County Public Schools, has been named Visual Art Educator of the year by the Virginia Art Education Association!  This honor reflects Mike’s great commitment to fostering art education resources and opportunities in his school system as well as his leadership roles in the VAEA.  The Henrico Citizen has a nice article — which I cannot find online — about Mike receiving the award that lists his many contributions to art education.  It also lists some of his previous awards, which include 1999 Teacher of the Year at Swift Creek Middle School, 2004 Virginia Secondary Art Educator of the Year, and 2006 Southeastern Regional NAEA Secondary Art Teacher of the Year.

We are privileged to have had Mike as an instructor at Partners in the Arts’ Summer Institute (by the way, early registration for the 2011 institute is now open), where he regularly teaches a print-making workshop.  Mike’s own creative work has been shown in many venues.

Mike is just one of the dedicated arts specialists upon whom we rely to get the word out about PIA school awards and the Summer Institute.  Of course, this is just a small part of what they do for the teachers, students and schools with whom they work.  We are all indebted to them for their commitment.


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.