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Artists Use Their Craft to Educate

Photo by Yasmina Karrakchou
Photo by Yasmina Karrakchou

In 2010, Congress passed resolution 275 - declaring the second full week in September as National Arts in Education Week. Discover how these art educators use their craft to transform teaching - in classrooms, in literature, in health, and in their communities. For more inspiring stories, visit @myVPM on Instagram. 

Ana Ines King

Once, I taught a prodigy child who was too smart for his age. He needed to come with a nurse to school because he would become aggressive with himself if the other students did not understand what he already knew. He used to bump his head on the walls when he was frustrated. When I taught a Spanish-through-dance class, the school teacher said to me that this boy would not participate. I was on the stage teaching other children a merengue dance, playing maracas, and singing in Spanish, and the boy got up from the chair and came to participate. The first thing he said was, “Wow! This is very challenging for me. I want to try!” Singing in another language, coordinating the steps with the music, and playing maracas at the same rhythm was way too hard for him at first, but he loved the experience of having to work to acquire a skill. He later received a scholarship from the Latin Ballet of Virginia to attend regular dance classes. Today, the boy is an engineer with a master’s degree in science.” 
- Ana Ines King, Founding Artistic Director of the Latin Ballet of Virginia

Valerie Davis

“When I play the role of Martha Ann Fields, the audience sees her grow from being an enslaved woman to being a free, regal woman and the mother and matriarch of her family. Three years ago, I was performing for fourth graders visiting Hanover Tavern. There was a woman sitting in the corner and she came up to me afterward and she was visibly shaken. She was literally shaking and crying. She said, “You just told my great-great-grandmother’s story.” Her great-great-grandmother was Martha Ann Fields. The hair on my arms stood up. She said, “I feel like I just met my great-great-grandmother.” At that moment I knew that this was what I was created to do. I know that I've been called by my ancestors to do this, to tell the stories that they could not.”
- Valerie Davis, Playwright and performer of “From Tragedy to Triumph” at Hanover Tavern
 

Madeline Michel

“I believe that theatre has a larger purpose than just to entertain. Theatre can change people's perspectives, open people's minds, and start discussions.
One of my students - Josh St. Hill - was really interested in discussing police brutality. As a young, black man, he is always aware of it and afraid of it. Over the summer of 2017, he got the idea to start working on a show about it called A King’s Story. That same summer, the Unite the Right Rally took place here in Charlottesville. Heather Heyer’s death felt really personal to the students in my program. So, Josh incorporated what happened at the Unite the Right Rally into his show. He performed a fictional story about a kid who was killed by the police against the backdrop of Heather Heyer’s death. When we first performed A King’s Story at the Virginia Theatre Association Conference, strangers were coming up to him afterward to hug him and cry in his arms. I thought, ‘Wow. Theatre really has the power to move people.’”
- Madeline Mitchel, recipient of the 2019 Excellence in Theatre Education Tony Award 

David Bowles

“Though I was a Mexican American kid living on the border of Mexico in the 70s and 80s, in none of my classes did we learn any of the mythology from the people just to the south - many of whom were our ancestors. No Aztec or Maya mythology, nothing. There were 60 indigenous nations in Mexico when the Spanish invaded. That's a lot of sacred stories, a lot of legends, a lot of vital stuff that hadn't been tapped into. I decided to bring that rich heritage to an audience that would crave and enjoy them if they knew they existed.
I started by “contextualizing” local folktales that were syncretic versions of those older stories, giving the characters names and adding dialogue. These pieces showcased for young readers our shared culture and community, proving they are worthy of being written about.
In my third year teaching English, I had a group of students who really struggled to connect with the state-adopted textbook we were using. Many of my students had recently exited the ESL program and this was their first regular English class. Others had failed the state assessment. Then there were students who, for whatever reason, reading hadn’t clicked with.
So I began reading from my contextualized folktales. I told them to put their books away, dim the lights and listen to the story. It was a sea-change for me as a teacher because the students responded well. So for the rest of that year, we worked together to find ways to go into our community and recover stories that we had heard when we were younger, retell them, and preserve them. I did that for the next seven years. The stories that I created with those students became the basis for my first short story collection. 
Now I want to bring greater exposure to the wealth of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican myths and legends in which my culture is rooted so that they stand alongside the Greek, Roman, Japanese, Egyptian, and other traditions that kids are more familiar with.”
- David Bowles, James River Writers Conference Keynote Speaker

Jamie Jones

“I wanted to find a way to help children and create a space where educational gaps are filled and kids can really learn about who they are - mind, body, heart, and spirit, so I created 528 The Academy.
One day I was teaching a little girl to make a pillow with the rest of the class. Our pillow took longer than anyone else’s pillow. She was looking around the class and seeing that everyone else had finished. I told her it’s not about how long things take sometimes, it’s about the process and the quality of the item at the end. Even at seven years old, she understood that and was encouraged. She was just grateful for one on one time with an adult who was genuinely interested in helping her be her best. Moments like that inspire me to keep educating. Every child has a fire for life and if you just encourage them and let them know they’re not alone, they can do anything in this world.”
- Jamie Jones, founder of 528 The Academy

Mariagracia (MG) Rivas Berger
“I knew I wanted to be in a helping profession. During my senior year of undergrad at Shenandoah University, I went to a Chimers concert. Chimers is a concert group specifically for adults with varying intellectual disabilities. I bawled for a whole hour at that concert, primarily because I was thinking about my brother. He has autism, and I thought about how wonderful it would be for him to have a program like this.
When I discovered Music Therapy, it almost felt like the clouds were parting. Like this is what I was meant to do. I see the impact of my work every day. I recently worked with a patient who was very subdued and soft-spoken. So I facilitated an improvised singing experience. Singing taps into a specific part of your soul and psyche, so you’re able to express so much more. The patient started revealing a lot about their mood, their personal life and started to cry but in a cathartic way. They told me that it was the first time they felt heard and hopeful.
Experiences like these have really put a lot of things into perspective. Working with children, adolescents, young adults, and their families that are facing such difficult diagnoses - whether it be cancer or a blood disorder - really helps me see that every hour matters.”
- Mariagracia (MG) Rivas Berger

The Podium Foundation
“I never used to tell people how I felt, but being in Podium* taught me that it's okay to tell people how you feel. It's okay when something puts you down, and in fact, here are ways you can pick yourself back up. Here’s what you do with your frustration. You put it into writing, and you put it into art. Don’t let walls confine you.
Be who you are and tell people about it. Don’t stay quiet! I thought I wasn’t a very strong writer, that I didn’t write well, and that it would be best if I just kept to myself and never shared with anybody. Now, I am in my fourth year of Podium, and I feel great! I perform any chance I get. I’ve grown as a writer and expanded so many horizons. I’ve broken down my comfort zones and created many masterpieces I never thought I could.”
- Destiny, and Kevin, students at the Podium Foundation. Quote by Rachelle, graduate of the Podium Foundation.