The art of learning

A true education goes beyond old-fashioned book learning. Consider the Asheville Area Arts Council’s Arts-in-Education initiative.

Now in its second year, the local program funds a variety of projects in Buncombe County — bringing artists into classrooms, showing teachers how to incorporate the arts into the curriculum, artist residencies and performances at schools, and bigger initiatives such as the Smith-McDowell House Museum’s Heritage Fair 2002. The Arts Council awarded almost $21,000 in arts-in-education grants this year, coordinator Adrienne Crowther reports.

One grant recipient is a weeklong dance program at Claxton Elementary: Working with music teacher, Deborah Sizemore, dancer Giles Collard prepared the school’s fifth-graders to enact the story of Nitocris — a sort of ancient Cinderella tale about a Greek peasant who becomes the ruler of Egypt.

“Everything they’re doing [in the project] is related to what they’re doing in school,” says Collard. The kids research the story, period costumes and history. In the process, they explore issues of racism and prejudice, slavery and war, and the experiences of the two people caught up in these events (Nitocris and the Egyptian general-turned-pharaoh whom she marries), Collard explains.

Meanwhile, the students are also learning about dance — how to keep still, how to choreograph movements that tell the story. “I give them the framework, and they create their own movements,” says Collard. In Nitocris’ tale, there are soldiers with bows and arrows, spears and swords, so the “framework” includes learning how to create a warrior’s stance and combine that with the movement of drawing a bow, for example. The kids also work on sets and costumes in connection with their research.

“They see how everything links together — politics, geography, history, literature, dance. Everything relates to their schoolwork and to the world today. They get to see [the history and the story] in context,” says Collard.

They also observe professional artists at work and gain insight into what it means to pull together a performance, he notes. “A dance ensemble is a business,” stresses Collard. In addition, working on the production helps the kids get a sense of the varied skills and training that can be part of an artist’s work: Collard, for instance, has a background in mechanical engineering, painting and sculpture; he first got involved in dance and theater by designing and building sets.

And finally, the students get the reward of seeing their own efforts come to fruition when they perform for family, friends and teachers at the end of the weeklong residency. “We expect a lot of them in a very short time, but you do the show and they do so well. We’re very proud of them,” says Collard.

Arts Council grants also funded a residency by storyteller Douglas Haynes this year. In March, he helped 10th-graders at A.C. Reynolds High School create their own stories and perform them. Even before visiting the school, Haynes had already given the kids an assignment: solicit a story from your parents, whether a family tale or a favorite fable. The goal for the week was for the students to re-tell those stories, using the techniques of enunciation, pronunciation, movement and expression, timing and more, Haynes says.

“I [go] into the classroom and say, ‘By the end of the week, you’ll be up here doing what I do,'” says the professional storyteller (whose background includes teaching, carpentry and — of all things – explosives). “Many kids say, ‘No, not me,’ but by the end of the week, they’re telling stories,” continues Haynes, observing, “They can see that they can go further than their fears.” Kids — especially the ones who would never speak in front of a group — “get a sense of their own power and a sense of accomplishment. They learn, through the arts, a different way of learning than through books — not better or worse, just different.”

Haynes relates storytelling to a diverse range of other subjects, such as history, literature, public speaking and even mime. That multidisciplinary angle and the active inclusion of arts in the classroom, he argues, make education better by bringing to life some of the intangibles kids learn from books.

Students also see that you can make a living as an artist, muses Haynes. “They see what professionals do, in addition to lawyers and doctors, police officers and firefighters,” he says.

The Arts Council project, he concludes, is one of the best grassroots efforts he’s seen for getting the arts into classrooms. Asheville is an arts town, home to a number of nationally and internationally recognized professionals, notes Haynes. The Arts Council makes it easy for teachers to draw on that resource by providing an Artist Directory and the grants to make individual projects possible.

But those grants, says Crowther, rely heavily on donations: The Arts Council is in the final push of its annual fund-raising drive, and 20 percent of all pledges will go to the Arts-in-Education program. “Teachers,” says Crowther, “are developing some wonderful ways to incorporate the arts into [their] curriculum, and … it’s important for the community to hear about them.”

For more information about the program, contact Crowther at 258-0710 or by e-mail ( or visit the Arts Council’s Web site (

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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