Beginning with a kernel of an idea to draw old and new closer together in her class of fifth graders at Brownsville Elementary, teacher Susan Greenwood embarked on a yearlong history lesson. “We don’t talk about it very much, but there’s actually a big divide between kids who have lived in Crozet forever and kids who are new to the area,” said Greenwood, “and sometimes the two groups really don’t bond at all.” The lack of shared experience and knowledge of the history of the town seemed like an obstacle she could tackle with her class.
“I’m from northern Virginia and have only been here five years, so I thought it would be cool to learn about the history of the area together,” said Greenwood. “We started reading Phil James’ book, Secrets of the Blue Ridge, out loud, and the kids noticed the familiarity of some of the last names, like Gibson and Shifflett, and they said, ‘Oh!’” Next she paired students from different neighborhoods and varying lengths of Crozet experience together to create mini-murals about how they see the town and what they like about it.
That’s when Greenwood’s biggest idea took root. “I wondered how all of those big murals around Charlottesville were getting done, and I did some research and found Alan [Goffinski, director of the Charlottesville Mural Project] to help me. We needed funding, so I pitched the idea of painting a student-designed mural in Crozet to Coran Capshaw’s Red Light Management for some grant funding.” Greenwood wrote the request herself, and to her surprise, she got it.
Local artist Sam Gray of the McGuffey Art Center met with Greenwood’s class and showed them murals she had painted in other places. “We talked about ideas of community and togetherness, and the kids all drew their own piece of what they would want in the mural,” said Gray. “I drew it all out on a computer, and used a projector to project it onto canvas, then brought it to school for the kids to paint it.”
Fifth grader Sydney Iannuzzi came up with the idea of a big sun in the design, its rays stretching over all. “We all had very different ideas, some nature, some buildings,” said Iannuzzi. “We used four colors—red, green, blue and yellow—so some things might not be the color they really are, like some of the people are red or blue. I think people will feel happy when they see it, because it’s really colorful.”
The color palette was drawn from the mini-mural of student Katie Mazurek, and student-suggested elements from barns to lakes to pickup trucks were incorporated into the final design. All of the students worked on painting the mural onto 10 panels of fabric-like fiber, for a 50-foo-wide final product. “I usually work by myself,” said Gray, “so I was nervous about working with a class honestly, but it was great.”
The acrylic paint fully soaks into the fabric and is sealed with a clear top coat to hold up against the elements. “The mural will be mounted on the wall with a permanent gel medium, and the paint has a 30-year color-lock technology,” said Goffinski, whose program is part of THE BRIDGE Progressive Arts Initiative, which is also responsible for the wall art near Starr Hill Brewery, as well as many other Charlottesville installations.
Originally slated to grace the barbershop wall facing the post office, the mural project was moved to the Parkway Pharmacy east-facing wall for better adherence to the cinder block there. The mural’s location will make it a colorful enhancement to downtown Crozet’s future plaza and building plans.
“The great thing about murals is that the more you do, the more normal they become, so eventually they are part of the landscape,” said Goffinski. “Every mural is different. This one was an effort to bridge old and new elements of the community, uniting factors and things that everyone appreciates about Crozet, and it worked out really well.”
For Greenwood, the whole experience has been a wild success. “It was a tremendous learning experience for me, and for the students as well,” she said. “The project has really changed the students’ attitudes towards each other for the better.”
Birds of a Feather
The Kindergarten classes from Murray and Greer Elementary Schools participated in a collaborative exchange event in May, united by their love of birds. When the teachers at each school realized that they both had active bluebird house trails on grounds, complete with ongoing education and monitoring activities, they decided to partner up to give the students more than just a bird’s-eye view of each other.
“Our bluebird journey began when we were playing down in our lower playground below the outdoor track, and we noticed a bird box that had a Virginia Bluebird Society (VBS) tag on it,” said Murray Kindergarten teacher Marcy Williams. “We called them and asked, ‘can we help with this?’ and now Gretchen, our VBS person, comes every week and takes us out on the trail.”
In addition to visiting each of the four birdhouses around Murray in true project-based learning style, the classes tie in their bird watching with the study of the life cycle in their science curriculum, as well as learning practical skills. “We talk about the materials we need to build a house, how we take care of our environment, and what kinds of things we can plant to help the birds,” said Williams.
Connecting with Greer’s five kindergarten classes, Murray’s two classes traveled to Greer to tour their birdhouse trail, and then hosted the Greer students at Murray the following week. Williams said the exchange “added a whole other dimension” to their studies. “Greer is so completely the opposite of our school,” she said, noting that it’s a much bigger, more urban, and more diverse school. “We met one boy who speaks three languages. It’s been great for the kids to experience that.”
As the combined classes trekked through Murray’s fields from house to house, the students heard and identified bird calls and compared and contrasted playground equipment. At each bird box, Williams asked students to read clues about what was inside. “We observed eggs in the nest that were speckled brown and white,” read one clue. “What does that tell us?” It’s a chickadee!
One box carried a more somber message. “First we came and saw grass and moss,” Williams explained to the students, “and then we saw a wasp and now it’s empty.” The students learned the word “abandoned” and also that a sprinkle of Irish Spring soap can help keep blowflies and wasps away. “The kids have been using technology to stream video and talk to each other as well, so it’s been a great experiment.”
Aiding the Amazon
Henley Middle School’s eighth graders participate each year in a culminating project for their Civics class called Peace by Piece. The project builds on the lessons students have absorbed about citizenship and current events, as well as how to be involved in their community.
“For Peace by Piece, we connect with an international organization and hold a community silent auction to benefit that organization’s work,” said eighth grade teacher Pam Koury, who oversees the effort along with fellow teacher Amelia Bochain. “The students design products to be sold that relate to their idea of a better world. Last year, we raised just under $5,000 to benefit children of Syrian refugees. This year, we are working with Amazon Aid.”
The May 30 silent auction was held in Henley’s cafeteria and featured handmade student projects ranging from artwork to quilts, tables and chairs to games, candles to planters. “One of the things I love about this project is that it gives the kids a chance to show off skills,” said Bochain, “or if they want to look up something and take a tutorial and learn a new skill, they can do that too. There’s an arcade game that’s amazing—three boys built a tabletop cabinet to hold a monitor, and hooked up joysticks, and they have 89 vintage arcade games loaded on there—Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, you name it. That will probably be a big seller.”
The Amazon Aid Foundation (AAF) was founded in 2009 by Ivy resident Sarah duPont, whose four children all went to Henley. “I did a lot of work for the arts and environmental education at Henley with Margie Shepherd while my kids were there years ago, and it’s great to come full circle like this,” she said. With a background in the arts and a passion for working on climate change issues, duPont launched the AAF to apply her skills to the plight of the Amazon rainforest, where she had been working with teams of biologists since 1999.
“The Amazon is the most important ecosystem in the world for the life of the planet; it’s the lungs of the planet,” she said. “And I realized that their information was not getting out to the general public in a way that was understandable for global audiences, it was just going to research journals.” So duPont decided to use the power of images and film to create change, and the AAF made a documentary about the problem. But the film’s hook turned on more than just the mass destruction of trees.
“After 9/11, the price of gold went from $250 an ounce to over $1,800 an ounce, and people started coming to the Amazon basin to mine for gold,” said duPont. The gold is embedded as flecks in the soil sediment, so the trees are burned down and the gold is drawn out of the soil using mercury, which is then released into the atmosphere. “The process is done in horrible, dangerous conditions and totally destroys the habitat, and we were the first people inside the mining camps to film it,” she said. “There’s human trafficking, mafia, narcotics—$3 billion a year in illegal activity in Peru alone. I had no idea what I was getting into.”
The documentary, called “River of Gold,” has been screened worldwide and is collecting awards and accolades for its clarity and stark beauty, and will be released publicly this fall. The message is already making a difference, from increased law enforcement in Lima to policy changes in the U.S. The AAF’s next major initiative is youth empowerment.
“We are so concerned about the kids’ future,” said duPont, “and want to help them to be involved and aware.” The foundation has created multimedia specifically for young people, including 300 pages of curriculum around the film, suitable for university, middle and high school classes and SOL-compatible. “It’s too important,” she said, “it just can’t wait. We’re at a tipping point.”
For more info about the Amazon Aid Foundation’s work, visit amazonaid.org.