Reading the world

It’s very early on a summer morning. Harrisonburg’s Explore More Discovery Museum is quiet, empty. The doors are locked for the moment. Soon, though, a handful of children trickle in with their parents or grandparents. Some are wide-awake, raring to go. Others are sleepy-eyed and hang back. They’ve all gathered for a photo shoot for Madison magazine, along with Dr. and Mrs. Fred Fox. They’ve come to illustrate what’s most important about the museum’s “One World” exhibition. The shoot could be chaos, but it goes smoothly. Perhaps it’s good parenting. Or maybe it’s the books. Or both. Either way, we get it done so we can tell a story that’s important for children in the valley, for families, for the community — and for discovering a wonderful way to get to know ourselves and our neighbors……

232586 Fred and Gail Fox Portraits-1026A passion for reading the world

Gail and Fred Fox are passionate about literacy, diversity — and their community. That’s why they’ve championed One World, a popular exhibit in Harrisonburg’s children’s museum. The collection features children’s books, many in their native languages, from more than 42 countries around the world. (The number just went up!)

The creation of the exhibit was a bit serendipitous. In 2010, Explore More Discovery Museum was expanding, and the Foxes were asked to help. When Executive Director Lisa Shull (’81,’95M) posed the question, “What kind of exhibits to you want?” the couple suggested one where literacy and diversity would converge.

Gail, who formerly taught reading and literacy at JMU and worked as a reading coach in Harrisonburg City Public Schools for “No Child Left Behind,” and her husband Fred, a local orthopaedic surgeon, proposed an exhibit where Harrisonburg’s rich cultural diversity could be showcased through books.

And then they championed it.

“We’d been in other [children’s] museums where they had reading corners or diversity represented by pictures of children or something, but we felt [it was] very important to have this sort of concept in the museum,” Fred says.

Harrisonburg city schools, one of Virginia’s most diverse school systems, enrolls students from 40 countries, representing 44 foreign languages. More than 100 students are bi-or multi-lingual.

232586 Fred and Gail Fox Portraits-1002 2The idea for the exhibit had been percolating with the Foxes for some time. Earlier, through the Harrisonburg Rotary Club, Fred and Gail, along with a librarian at Waterman Elementary School in Harrisonburg, had started a literacy program through the local schools. “It was just an interesting blend of Gail’s background in early childhood literacy and my experience with Rotary,” Fred says. “Out of those two interests we had formed … Project Read, focusing on elementary, helping support children to learn reading in K-3 and in the preschool reading program, which all the [local] Rotary Clubs in some form participated in,” he says.

A longtime Rotarian himself, Fred notes that literacy has long been a focus of Rotary International, so when the opportunity at the museum arose, once again, the fit was right. Many local Rotary Club members donated books they found abroad and brought back to Harrisonburg.

Because of Harrisonburg’s diverse population, the exhibit also presents enormous opportunities for international understanding, which Gail knows is essential for student success in the city’s schools. “It’s the United Nations in every school here,” she says.

The One World book collection’s location within the museum was strategic, the Foxes believe. It brings literacy and diversity into a place where children are automatically drawn. Its international character, Gail explains, “says to children, ‘you have a place here. Your culture is part of what is going on downtown at Explore More.”

Gail adds that children who might not otherwise have access to books can be exposed to them at the museum. “They have them right here in a safe environment where they can come.”

Immigrant families, she adds, are more likely to visit the museum before they visit the public library. And with Massanutten Regional Library located next door, it becomes an entre to the library next door. The placement also aligns with the museum’s longstanding mission to serve all community children.

Fred cites a local family whose child, adopted from Ethiopia, discovered a book in One World from his home country. “It was sort of a ‘wow’ moment,” he says.

Although electronic books and online sourcing is growing, there’s no substitute for a hands-on book when it comes to children, Gail believes. And she is an unapologetic advocate for traditional books.

Gail and Fred Fox help set the lights while the children pick out books.

Gail and Fred Fox help set the lights while the children pick out books.

“Through books you find the language,” she says, “you find how stories work, whether they’re oral or written…. There is such an intimacy between the reader and the child that you can’t get through flicking through a story on an Ipad.”

For a child from a different culture — or any child, for that matter — the experience of sharing a book is potent. Gail says, effusively: “Do you know how powerful it is when you’re reading a book to a child and [the child says] ‘Oh, that person looks like me!’”

The exhibit’s shelves have been filled with the help of several community organizations, including Blue Ridge Community College’s SPECTRUM International Multicultural Club. The group donated more than 40 bilingual books to One World. According to their website: “The purpose of purchasing these books is two-fold; it provides newly immigrated families the ability to read in their native language as well as learning the English language. It also provides SPECTRUM members the opportunity to share their heritage with the community.”

Books have also come from Rockingham Memorial Hospital’s Wellness Center, United Way, and Knitworks, a local business. Several were even sent by a AAA tourist group from Chicago after they visited Harrisonburg.

Impassioned advocates, the Foxes regularly encourage friends to bring books back from their international travels — including Gail’s fellow JMU alumni — to help grow the One World book collection. They hope it will encourage literacy and promote deeper cultural understanding throughout the community — and they believe it will, Gail says, “because children lead the way.”

Many thanks to Fred and Gail Fox, Daphyne Thomas (COB), Cristin Lambert Iwanicki (’03), Grace Tessier Weniger (’03), Sonali Aradhey, and university photographer Mike Miriello (’09) — and especially to Maya, Noah, Anish, Niranjan, Bree, Amaya and Connor for making our very early morning photo shoot a success!


Which one will you love?

Dr. Isaac Woo and his favorite student, his son Johnny.

Dr. Isaac Woo and his favorite student, his son Johnny.

If you’re coming to James Madison University as a freshman or transfer student next month, you probably have in mind the name of a former teacher who made a difference in your life. Maybe he inspired you. Maybe she challenged you at a moment when you needed a push. Maybe he disciplined you and in the process helped you understand the value of hard work or cooperation or integrity. Maybe she was just kind to you at a time when life was not.

Are you thinking of a name? I suspect you are.

Now, consider this:  The art and science of teaching, the kind of educational mentorship that inspires, is paramount at JMU. Here on our campus, teaching is not something professors do as a sideline while they conduct research. It is not an afterthought but a calling. Many professors come here because their primary mission as scholars is to impart knowledge and inspiration to a new generation. Many do research, of course, and JMU is very good at that as well, but commitment to teaching each student is their primary goal.

One JMU professor, Dr. Isaac Woo told me how much he loves the interaction and rapport he has with his students, how much he values the experiences he can provide for them—and in turn, how much is gained from the synergy that occurs. Growing up and going to school in his native Korea, Dr. Woo, who teaches communication studies in the College of Arts and Letters, says that he didn’t feel the same kind of engagement with his own teachers. But JMU is “very unique and engaging” in this respect, he has found. In deciding to join the JMU faculty, Woo says, “student and teacher interaction attracted me a lot. When I came here, they looked very close. They worked together.”

If you need more proof of our commitment to teaching, check out Madison magazine’s feature, Professors You Love —which, not surprisingly, is the magazine’s most popular feature for 14 years running. You’ll find the newest installment in the next edition of the magazine. Madison hits mailboxes and newsstands around campus in September and will explore changes in education and how we maintain our humanity in the midst of such change. You will also learn more about Dr. Woo and his Madison Experience.

Scholarship is not a barrier here, but it is the common ground that welcomes every student. It is a mountaintop experience replete with challenges, steep rock walls to ascend and inspiring vistas to savor—but it is also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that comes with talented guides who are eager to climb alongside you. It’s your job as freshmen to find them. In fact, the most oft-repeated advice from alumni to freshman is this:  Get to know your professors!

And if you do, it’s a pretty sure bet that in four years you’ll look back over your JMU experience and click off a roster of  professors you’ve come to love.

The ultimate JMU costume

imagesMadisonman-FansThe air is thick and blustery around the valley today, and it’s appropriately cloudy for Halloween. The leaves have turned and there’s a hint of wood smoke in the air. And all around campus there’s a little buzz.

Pint-sized, costumed trick-or-treaters are roaming some office halls with bags in hand, and you’ll find a few appropriately dressed staffers wandering around as well. All this excitement foreshadows even more this weekend as alumni return to campus for Homecoming festivities.

But tonight, as the witching hour approaches, as the oranges and reds of the landscape fade away to the glow of carved pumpkin faces, and as porch lights blink on to welcome little scary goblins, I thought it was a good idea to show you the ultimate JMU costume.

Conceived in the creative mind of alumnus Scott Worner (’81) — and produced by his willing and able mom — Madison Man and the costume he created live in the annals of the university. You can read the whole story here, and catch up with Scott (unmasked!) in the next Madison magazine. Look for it to hit newstands and mailboxes in early December.

And if you’ll stay tuned to this blog (better yet, if you sign up and follow it), you might hear more about Scott and his perspectives on the changing landscape of education in Virginia.

It’s really no surprise at all

In the upcoming issue of Madison magazine, which will hit mailboxes and newsstands next month, the subject of the regular and award-winning feature, “Professors you love,” is an individual who does not necessarily come to mind when thinking “professor.” He’s held a different job at the university — actually several different jobs  — over the past few decades.  The author of the essay, Paula Polglase (’92, ’96M), a public affairs associate in the JMU communications and marketing office, wrote this about her former professor:

“And, he brought the music. I had never had a class that started with music each week. [He] had the smallest, most powerful speakers I’d ever heard and started class each week with jazz, or The Little Mermaid soundtrack or classical selections — he surprised us. In fact, one week when he had to be away we didn’t quite know how to get started — there was no music.”

Jim Hartman (’70), rector of the board of visitors, recently said about this same professor: “He loves to teach. Not a lot of people know that about him, but he really enjoys teaching.”

It’s really no surprise at all for a professor at JMU to love teaching as much as students love their many professors. Neither is the newest Princeton Review‘s ranking of the best American professors. JMU  had the second highest number of “best” professors in a list that included some from venerable institutions like William and Mary, MIT, Harvey Mudd and some Ivies.

Why is it no surprise? Because since 1908 the art and science of teaching — the love of mentoring students — has been a top priority at the university. Even over the past 15 years as JMU’s enrollment swelled, the quality of teaching — and perhaps most importantly — the institutional commitment to excellent teaching has remained as solid and foundational as the Quad’s Bluestone. One affirming statistic is that while enrollment increased 37 percent, the faculty to student ratio decreased to 16:1.

Because teaching is important, students are front and center. Every day JMU professors change their students’ lives by closely mentoring student learners. That’s why it’s not surprising that the Princeton Review list included not one or two, but 11 JMU faculty members. Here they are:

Kenn Barron, psychology
David Bernstein, computer science
David B. Daniel, psychology
Kimberly D.R. DuVall, psychology
Stephen W. Guerrier, history
Larry R. Huffman, education
Raymond “Skip” Hyser, history
David Jaynes, biology
Scott B. Lewis, chemistry
Paul Warne, mathematics
William C. Wood, economics

As for that one professor Paula wrote about, well, I guess you’ll have to wait for Madison magazine to find out who it is.

To read about more the professors students have loved, visit

Or you can check out the virtual edition of Madison magazine’s 10th anniversary edition of Professors You love here

Our thanks to Chris Arndt, JMU professor of history, for letting us know about the list.

Corrugated change, bubble wrap and masking tape

Painter's Tape

Image via Wikipedia

Scarlett O’Hara once raged, “Death, taxes and childbirth! There’s never any convenient time for any of them.”

I have one addition to Margaret Mitchell’s heroine’s list….


Right now our offices are full of corrugated boxes, banker boxes, bubble wrap and masking tape. Next week, we’re moving. You might call it change via hand truck.

Because a university by its very nature is a place where something is always changing, moving is sometimes required. It is the result of a constant and never ending quest to shape the environment for students, staff and faculty members into the best configuration to do the important work of education.

Our move is spurred in part by the addition to campus of the old Rockingham Memorial Hospital (the new North Campus) and by new efficiencies in some of the university’s computing systems. A university is — and always should be — a work in progress, so we are moving.

But moving is also a metaphor for Being the Change.

Moving requires assessing what’s important and what’s not.  We’ve been throwing away lots of accumulated papers and rethinking what really needs to move, what can stay behind and what can be eliminated. That’s the kind of assessment Be the Changers do when they start projects. They decide what’s really important in life — to themselves, to their friends — and so often to people they have never even met, at least not yet.  It’s an important and essential step to decide how these days and years of life, these assets and these talents are best used.

Moving also requires flexibility. Michelle Hite (’88) managing editor of Madison magazine and Bill Thompson, the art director, have managed to pull together the newest issue of the magazine amidst boxes and packing and flurries of emails about keys and copiers and masking tape. Moving the offices of 20 some people is quite a production, yet Michelle and Bill, with the able help of their equally flexible staffs, have managed to pull it off with their usual professionalism. Flexibility in the midst of change requires first an unfailing dedication. Be the Changers are not easily distracted from their missions. They bend, they flex, they move, but they always accomplish great things. In other words, they don’t allow the unimportant to distract them from getting the important accomplished.

Moving also requires thinking ahead to consider the future, and envisioning how to make it better.  As we all anticipate our new spaces, we look forward to using this change to better serve the communication needs of the university, the JMU community at large, and the broader community. Once again, it’s what Be the Changers do: they look forward to a better future. But most importantly, they find ways to make the future better.

Whether the location is Harrisonburg or Cambodia or Irag or Biloxi or Franklin, W.Va., change with the right vision, the right flexibility and the wisdom to assess what’s most important is the key to Being the Change. If you want a nice, slick example of all this, watch your mailboxes, your email or drop boxes around Harrisonburg early in May for the newest edition of Madison magazine.  It is full of examples of the kind of change that JMU does best.

PS….And if there’s no blog post here next Monday, it will be because my computer is in transit.

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