Dancing out of the ivory tower

image031Next year Harrisonburg High School will open a Fine Arts Academy, a school within a school for students who want to delve deeper into choral or instrumental music, art, drama, dance or creative writing. The academy will offer classes that will be interdisciplinary, collaborative and experiential.  Open to freshman and sophomore students, the academy is currently accepting applications for their first year. Those accepted will select one or two arts disciplines and plan their high school curriculum to accommodate classes that will cover history, culture and practice. During the senior year, students will tackle  a collaborative “capstone” project affirming their learning and putting it in a broader context. Classes will be taught by a team of teachers, all artists, and students in each discipline will experience not only their own art but that of their classmates.

If you’re a JMU person, that description should sound rather familiar. It’s a formula for learning that permeates the university from art to zoology, including everything in between like engineering, business and health sciences. As you might guess, the similarities aren’t coincidental; they’re deliberate. They reflect the input of many of the individuals who have helped plan the academy.

One of the great benefits of living in a “college” town, as is Harrisonburg, is the resource of people who are experts in their given fields. That is especially beneficial when their knowledge and experience is shared. Such is the result in Harrisonburg. Planning of the Fine Arts Academy, which is directed by J.R. Snow (’99,’08M), Harrisonburg’s fine arts coordinator and director of bands, has involved the university’s College of Visual and Performing Arts and the College of Education. Among those contributors to the process is Suzanne Miller Corso, professor of dance at JMU. The high school has never had a dance program before, so in planning this component of the academy, such expertise is essential. In a very real way, the venture represents a university dancing out of the ivory tower.

Suzanne is not alone. The team of teachers includes JMU alumni Bethany Houff (’01,’03M), Richard Morrell (’83) and Juann Brooks (’94,’05M). The board of the academy includes: Eric Ruple, professor of piano; George Sparks, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts; Phil Wishon, dean of the College of Education; Jon Gibson, professor of ethnomusicology; Kate Arrechi, professor of musical theater; and Mary Ann Alger, wife of President Jon Alger. And there are many more. But lest you think it’s all JMU, faculty members from Eastern Mennonite University are also involved, as is the Arts Council of the Valley. It is a community effort, centered around giving students the rich and life-changing opportunities that the arts afford.

Such a collaborative process, between a university and local school system, exemplifies the best of what a truly engaged university can and should be. It is change through shared knowledge, collaboration and a vision for what’s possible. We applaud JMU’s efforts and Harrisonburg’s new venture.

You can learn much more about Harrisonburg’s new Fine Arts Academy on YouTube.

And if you’re close to Harrisonburg, you can see a sample of Harrisonburg’s lauded theatre arts program next month when the high school stages their annual — and often sold-out — musical. This year’s performance is Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Henry Buhl and the yellow socks

Henry Buhl ('64, '74M) in his element, surrounded by students.

Today is Groundhog’s Day, a day that optimists love and pessimists dread.  The sun is shining here in Harrisonburg and in Punxsutawney, so according to the legend, we can expect six more weeks of winter. Call me a doubter, but I don’t see how we can have  six MORE when we haven’t had six YET this year….but weather aside.

Groundhog Day, always hold a different meaning for me.

It’s Henry Buhl’s (’64, ’74M) birthday. Mr. Buhl was my high school U.S. history teacher and adviser to many senior classes at Harrisonburg High School. The year I took his class, our class gave Mr. Buhl a pair of yellow socks for his birthday. I’m not sure why. That part of the story I don’t remember, but I do know that the birthday gift was rooted in the admiration and affection we all held for him. The yellow socks represented more than a simple, practical and somewhat silly birthday gift. They said, in the awkward way that teenagers can say things, that we all loved Mr. Buhl.

Mr. Buhl was an exceptional and beloved teacher for more than three decades. In fact, when he retired in 2005, the senior class of HHS chose him as their graduation speaker. And if you need more proof, the last time I looked, he had almost 450 Facebook friends and his own Fan Page  —  no doubt started by former students.

The incomparable Mr. Buhl.

Many teachers are excellent at their craft. They know their subjects backwards and forwards. They are experts in their given fields. After years of teaching, many can recite lessons in their sleep. But one characteristic always distinquishes the very best teachers: They care about their students. And second only to Mr. Buhl’s wife — the “luckiest woman in the world” — Mr. Buhl cared about his students. And we all knew it.

Mr. Buhl’s classes in U.S. history and A.P. government were not easy, but the academic material was always secondary to us. Mr. Buhl understood intuitively that his first concern should be our lives, not our grades, although he cared about those too. Throughout his career, he influenced thousands of lives and helped launch careers in medicine, business, law, education, journalism and dozens of other fields.

The very best educators are those who see students as people first, as Mr. Buhl still does. Today, when former students run into him, they see that familiar little half grin and that ever-present twinkle in his eye. He’s genuinely glad to see them.

So here’s a shout out to Mr. Buhl.  Happy Birthday!  And say hello to the luckiest woman in the world. We all like her too.

In honor of Mr. Henry Buhl’s birthday, I would like to propose that everyone who reads this, do something in his honor — thank a teacher who cared about you.

Many, I am certain, will thank Mr. Buhl.

To learn more about JMU’s College of Education where Mr. Buhl got his start, visit http://www.jmu.edu/coe/index.shtml

Fashion forward change

Jessie Taylor ('12) gives a thumbs up to a prom dress.

What if recycling were fashionable?  No, not popular — fashionable? Literally fashionable?

That’s what Jessie Taylor (’12) wondered two years ago when she considered if barely-used prom dresses might be recycled. After all, what woman doesn’t have at least one lovely gown hanging in her closet gathering dust?

“I had done a project on eco-fashion in my GCOM class,” Jessie wrote in an email after I inquired. “It seemed to make sense to collect prom dresses from college students since we’ll probably never have another use for them.”

It sounded like a win/win to Jessie.

“It’s environmentally friendly and can save the high school students in the area some money (which is great considering the economy right now),” she wrote.

Jessie, however, needed some help.

She contacted Monica Johns (’91), a licensed professional counselor at Harrisonburg High School who works with at-risk students. Monica, who earned a degree in social work at JMU, was eager and equipped to work with Jessie. In fact, she had collected and distributed prom dresses before, since 2005 when the new Harrisonburg High School building opened.

Together Monica and Jessie made plans to distribute the dresses during lunch at the high school.

Monica originally got the idea from a brochure she received from an Indian Reservation. That year, she and some fellow teachers collected a box of dresses to ship off to the reservation.

“What about doing it here?” Monica had wondered.

“It started out pretty small, but since that time it has grown,” she said. Monica collects dresses from a local consignment store and from teachers and students. Dresses are distributed through the Blue Streak Boutique to any student who wants one.

Modeling fashion forward green change

While free prom dresses may fill a financial need for some with the cost of new gowns running into the hundreds of dollars, “it’s about going green,” Monica said.

When Jessie and her JMU friends started helping two years ago, it made a big difference, Monica said. JMU students donated about 150 dresses.

“That year we borrowed the clothing racks from the theater department and hung up all the dresses for viewing.  Students were allowed to try them on and take one if they wanted,” Jessie wrote.

Monica has a closet in her office that she has turned into a dressing room. “It’s small. The girls have to share it with my filing cabinet and a ‘fridge,” Monica said.  She also rolls dresses out into the hall for students to see.  “The boys love to look them over and say ‘how’d I look in this?'”

“It’s become kind of a fun thing,” Monica said. She hopes that in the future she can involve other area high schools. She has also snagged a listing for Harrisonburg’s program on the donatemydress.org website.

Teaming up, Jessie and Monica are making a difference again this year. Jessie is co-president of the Environmental Management Club, which is sponsoring the drive. It begins on campus tomorrow (Jan. 31) —  time enough for anyone to dig through closets and give a second life to some of those lovely dresses.

Here are the times, hours and locations where prom dresses will be collected:

January 31 and February 1 between 10 a.m and 12 noon, in the ISAT lobby.

February 29 between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. in HHS* 1007 (behind the copy center).

You can learn more about Blue Streak Boutique at http://staff.harrisonburg.k12.va.us/~mjohns/index.php?pages_id=5&t=Prom-Dresses

*JMU’s Health and Human Services building (not Harrisonburg High School)

Change to the Nth degree

On the op/ed page of a recent Daily News-Record, two letters to the editor criticized JMU and its impact on Harrisonburg. It’s a tiresome complaint. Plenty of naysayers dislike the fact that JMU is a big presence in Harrisonburg. And it always gets me steamed. I’ve started writing posts about this before, but this morning as I thought about it, I realized there is one impact that Madison has on the area that no one can disparage.

I could mention, of course, the revenue and jobs generated by JMU in the community. It is very substantial. In 2009, the number was somewhere around $442 million. JMU is also one of the area’s largest job creators, not only as a direct employer but through ancillary services created as a result of the university’s presence. I could also mention the many arts and sports programs that provide a dizzying array of theater, dance, recitals, art shows, concerts, games and opportunities for culture, entertainment and sport. I could point out the hundreds of thousands of hours contributed by faculty, staff and students to community organizations and outreaches. All by itself, I could cite the dream of the late Vida Huber and the influence of her Institute for Innovation in Health and Human Services. I could list the many graduates who have stayed in the area to establish new businesses, bringing yet more jobs to Harrisonburg. And then there are JMU’s facilities that host community concerts, swim meets, high-school graduations, home and garden shows, fundraising banquets and many more.

One impact, however, dwarfs the rest. And that is the impact JMU has on the community’s children through generation after generation after generation of talented educators.

What brought me to this conclusion was a random thought this morning about the late Robert Saum (’60,’68M). Mr. Saum was my chemistry and molecular biology teacher at Harrisonburg High School. Anyone who sat in his classroom will remember his over-the-top enthusiasm for science and students. He was one of the best teachers I ever had. Decades later, I can still tell you about the innards of a cat and how chemical compounds work together. I also learned many principles about life and learning. As a student who leaned heavily toward the arts, English and social sciences, I was no chemistry whiz. In fact, in Mr. Saum’s class, I repeated one experiment 10 times before I got it right. From that victory on, Mr. Saum always called me the “KCLO3 Kid.” I wore my nickname as a badge of honor — and pocketed a wonderful lesson in perseverance.

But as talented and committed as Mr. Saum was, he was not the only great Madison teacher who taught me. He was one of many. As I thought about Mr. Saum and the most influential teachers in my life, I realized that the majority were graduates of Madison. For me — and my own three Dukes — the list of influential Madison teachers is very, very, very long: Angela Reeke, Charles “Bill” Blair, Jackie Driver, Keith Holland, Robert Saum, Sue Haley, Henry Buhl, Katherine Seig, Linda and Bob Failes, Garney Darrin, Elizabeth Neatrour, Nancy Mast, Ginger Alliotti, Joyce Jellum, Phillip Heap, Judy Warren, Nancy Stewart, Brooks Marshall, Daphyne Thomas, Harold Logan, Elias Semaan, Anna Lyons Sullivan, C.B. Dix, Bob Scott, Mac Long …… I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.

While I was also not a math whiz (despite the best efforts of Anna Lyons Sullivan and Harold Logan) I do remember the principle of exponentials — and that’s what Mr. Saum, Mr. Buhl, Miss Sullivan and Mrs. Stewart represent. One teacher’s influence on a single student can be stunning.  But teachers times students times classes times schools times years times decades. That is astonishing influence.  If you stop to think about it, few institutions impact communities with change that is deeper, wider or more important than schools — and that changes communities, Harrisonburg included. Henry Brook Adams wrote, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

That’s change to the Nth degree.

Anyone who sat in Mr. Saum’s chemistry class at Harrisonburg High School knows the kind of teacher I am talking about. Everyone who learned from one of the thousands of Madison teachers who fanned out all over the city, the county and the state has their own list of teachers. Great teachers change students’ lives. Mine certainly did.

Years ago, I went to see one of them, one who truly changed my life. Katherine Sieg. I told her how much she had meant in my life. Miss Sieg is no longer with us, as Mr. Saum is no longer here, but I thanked them both, and I am glad I did.

So when I hear someone talking about JMU in a less than complimentary way, I ask, “Who was your child’s favorite teacher?”

That usually does the trick.

Read more about JMU’s College of Education here: http://www.jmu.edu/coe/
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