Arts programs help students make sense of a challenging year

CREATION: Squad members at Asheville Writers in the Schools & Community work on their latest project. The group did not meet for several months at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of AWSC

Having lived through 2020, we now know what life is like when music venues, movie theaters and museums simultaneously shut down for extended periods — things get rather dull. Still, we managed to fill the void through home streaming services, record collections, craft projects and literature.

But now imagine the last year without these options as well.

“I think there’s been a recognition that art is essential,” says Copland Rudolph, executive director of the Asheville City Schools Foundation. “It is essential for our well-being.”

Even more significant, she adds, “it’s important for kids’ well-being.”

Throughout the pandemic, local arts programs such as Teaching Artists Presenting in Asheville Schools, which the city schools foundation launched in 2010, have rallied and adapted to the demands brought about by COVID-19, providing much-needed relief for educators confronted by the challenges of virtual learning.

But of even greater importance, stresses Rudolph, is how such programs continue to offer students a way “to talk about how difficult a time this is that we’re living through.”

Life doesn’t frighten me at all

This past fall, Dusty Fox, a fourth grade teacher at Ira B. Jones Elementary, welcomed Sondra Hall, a local poet and TAPAS instructor, into her virtual classroom for a six-week poetry residency.

“When I was learning poetry as a kid, it was not exciting at all,” Fox says with a laugh. “But Ms. Sondra brought these poems and poets to life, which was really incredible.”

Among the featured poems discussed was Maya Angelou’s  “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me,” which, as its title suggests, concerns confronting one’s anxieties.

Borrowing from Angelou’s work, students used the poem’s structure and theme to create original pieces. The exercise, notes Fox, was particularly helpful for children who typically struggle with the creative writing process.

The prompt also invited the class to open up about their worries. “What we found was that students who really engaged with it were able to express their emotions,” says Fox. “Some poured out their deepest fears, while others were of course very funny and lighthearted.”

Along with Angelou’s piece, students studied works by Pablo Neruda, Nikki Giovanni, Mary Oliver and Billy Collins. Each poem explored unique topics and introduced the class to new ways of thinking about poetry, writing and self-expression.

“The idea was to mimic the different poets’ styles so that you could start to see the multitude of ways that you can express yourself,” Fox explains.


Like TAPAS, Asheville Writers in the Schools & Community also nourishes creativity and community engagement with its students, who call themselves “squad members.” Not surprisingly, losing access to such a network at the start of COVID-19 pandemic was difficult for the group’s participants.

GATHER AROUND: Following the police killing of George Floyd, healing circles became part of the weekly sessions at Asheville Writers in the Schools and Community. The new addition allows students to “discuss stuff around diversity, race and growing up living in white America,” says Laura Padilla, the organization’s program coordinator. Photo courtesy of Asheville Writers in the Schools and Community

“We didn’t see each other until like July,” says Samiya Currie, a 16-year-old junior at Asheville High School, who has been a squad member for over three years. “I wasn’t used to not seeing my friends.”

During the shutdown, AWITSC’s leadership did what they could to prepare for the program’s eventual return to the Arthur R. Edington Education & Career Center. Part of the work involved AWITSC renting its own room; prior to the pandemic, the nonprofit shared a space with another organization.

“That changed everything for us,” says Laura Padilla, the group’s program coordinator. “We made the space our home.”

With safety measures in place, AWITSC reopened in the summer.  By then the organization’s squad members — who are predominantly Black and Latinx students, ages 13-18 — were coping not only with the pandemic but also with the police killing of George Floyd. Healing circles became part of the weekly sessions, allowing students to “discuss stuff around diversity, race and growing up living in white America,” says Padilla.

For Currie, these conversations have been essential for getting through a difficult year. “We can open up without having to hold back whatever we need to say,” says the high school junior.

Furthermore, the healing circle helped inform one of the group’s creative projects — a podcast written and produced by the squad on the issue of cultural appropriation.

“It’s an eye-opening program,” says Currie, reflecting on her time as a squad member. “I think that it really helps you understand the world in a different light … and from different points of view.”

Laughter is the best medicine

Perspective is also highly sought after by members of the Brevard Academy Comedy Club, an after-school program recently launched by Tim Arem, an instructional assistant at the charter school.

FUNNY BUSINESS: Members of the Brevard Academy Comedy Club strike a pose. Pictured, from left, are Saya Geer-Hardwick, Timothy Keadle, Samuel White and comedy club instructor Tim Arem. Photo courtesy of Brevard Academy

Using the workshop model, each of the group’s 10 members brainstorm and write a new joke each week during the club’s one-hour in-person session. Once composed, punchlines are shared, and the group evaluates.

“I told them, ‘For us to make our jokes better, we need input from others in the room,’” Arem explains. Students responded to the call enthusiastically, he adds, offering thoughtful and constructive feedback.

The process, says Samuel White, a seventh grade member, is rewarding and beneficial. “I don’t think our jokes would be good if we didn’t have that criticism,” he says.

Furthermore, White feels his participation in the club has helped expand his overall creativity and thought process.  “I’ve learned to think about how other people might react to a joke before I tell it,” he explains. “It’s made me a better writer.”

Having spent much of the last year in virtual classes, White also notes a deeper appreciation for the time he spends with the comedy club. “I’ve learned to make the most of the days I’m with people.”

Arem says his decision to hold in-person sessions was intentional. “This is my attempt to help bring more socialization to the students through comedy and humor,” he says. “Humor has gotten me through life.”

Little speedboats and revolutions

With a third of its funding coming through donations, Rudolph praises local companies such as Mosaic Realty and East Fork for their generous support during the current economic hardship. She sees these contributions as a reflection of the community’s recognition of the important work creative programs offer the area’s youths.

Rudolph also notes that, unlike larger institutions, smaller nonprofits face less red tape, allowing them to respond more quickly and effectively to the community’s needs. Such responsiveness, she believes, is a huge benefit to the students they work with.

“Public education is like a giant freight and we’re a little speedboat,” she explains. “We’re able to pivot really quickly and make things happen.”

Meanwhile, back at the Edington Center, Padilla offers similar praise. During AWITSC’s annual November fundraiser, The Art of Abundance, “We raised absolutely every dollar that we hoped for,” she says. “We have an extremely supportive community.”

These contributions, Padilla notes, are critical for continuing the work AWITSC does with the city’s youths. And the work, she adds, is essential. “To me, they are all little revolutions,” she says of her squad members. “And they deserve all that we can give.”


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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