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Building a School Community through the Arts

A couple of years ago I left an amazing, creative job that I loved, directing The Telling Room, a nonprofit writing center. I had a novel that would not write itself, and my wife and I were struggling to balance two jobs and two kids, all four of them growing by the day. With more time, I vowed to finish that novel (still working on it!), help hold our house together (also a work in progress), keep teaching writing (check), and get more involved at the kids’ schools. To help fulfill that last part, I joined the PTO at Ocean Avenue Elementary School.

Ocean Avenue was at the time a brand new school, bringing together families from the former Nathan Clifford School and several other local elementary schools. As I met other parents and became more engaged with the school community, I was struck by how diverse and accomplished the parents were, and how their talents were a resource that the school had not fully tapped.

Transformation through art

From my previous work, I knew how the arts could transform students and help transform a community, and I knew how to write a grant. So with the help of others at the school and PTO, I wrote a proposal to the Maine Arts Commission to put together a yearlong series of arts programs that largely drew on artists and professionals in the school community.      

What a year it’s been. There have been visiting authors and artists, local bands coming by for performances and music talks, a songwriting collaboration between the music teacher and a local singer-songwriter, a performance residency, and a dance residency. My own little corner of the grant paid for the printing costs for three issues of a new school magazine.


The Dolphin Press debuts

Over the course of the year, with the help of other parents and three teams of student editors in grades two through five, the Dolphin Press was born. Gathering many Tuesdays afterschool, we produced three issues, which included editorials like what should happen to the Nathan Clifford playground, interviews with teachers and school staff, reviews of books and where to get good Chinese, and fake ads for flying pants and robot kittens, not to mention stories, poems, and lots and lots of comics, like the instant classic, “Lord of the Donut: Fellowship of the Donut.”

All the pieces included in the magazines began with a student’s idea. The kids learned about how to follow those ideas through to completion, how to write on deadline, and what it feels like when your work goes public. Probably the thing that I’m the most proud of is that the Dolphin Press issues are among the most popular books at the school library.

At the end of May, several hundred parents and students from our diverse, talented school community met at the school for our first annual Arts Celebration. There was food, an art show, readings, dance performances, and various music classes performing songs they wrote. As I looked around the room that night at all those shining, rapt faces, I knew that our school community is a work in progress, like so many things, but it is on its way.

title image by Bill Melcher. 

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