Gnome Home Build

10am to 12pm, September 27, 2014 Art and Nature Event, Belle Isle

Bring yourself and a parent to Belle Isle and join other students and their families from William Fox Elementary. We will build gnome, elf and fairy houses out of natural materials like grass, leaves, sticks and rocks. We will build these houses all over Belle Isle. This is a free community building event. Connect to nature and have fun. You can wear your favorite fairy wings or gnome outfit.

Questions? Email: jcrowder@richmond.k12.va.us


If anything is a metaphor for  real life, its papier-mâché. In using this material you have to collaborate, you have to get messy, you have to make layers and layers for it to hold up. You have to have patience. You have to have long range vision, you cannot complete it in one day. For my students these challenges offered by papier-mâché have such high stakes.

What does it mean to collaborate? It means letting go of the final say and control of something to the group. It means listening to other people’s ideas about something you may feel very strongly about. Sometimes it means sitting out for 5 minutes while you calm yourself down and allow yourself not to be the boss. Many students could jump into the messy joy of it. We did have to come to terms with not “owning” the balloon. We had to learn that we could make suggestions to other people but we couldn’t control what they did. Working in a group to layer in paper mache is enough to make some  students shake with frustration, and others laugh uncontrollably.

Its hard to let go, its hard to let other people have a say. Its hard to know we don’t have ownership of the completed orb. This is enough to make any teacher steer clear of papier-mâché and collaboration in general, but the benefits far outweigh the risks. If we can struggle through it, if we can accept that the whole group benefits when we work together, life is going to get a lot easier. We prepare ourselves for a future where we can discuss our problems and make decisions as a community (without any time outs or anybody kicking the table) when we collaborate in childhood. Some children might come home today and tell their parents that they didn’t get to make their own art. In some ways this is true, they don’t get to keep it. I prefer to think that what they did do, was learn to work as a community, and that the personal art that they made was an internal shift from singular ownership and control to collaborative decision making, and considering the good of the group.

How do you make papier-mâché? Well, its one part water, one part flour, a sprinkle of salt, and a whole lot of giggly joy, and patience.


Earth Day 2014….Be the Bee

“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

– Native American Proverb

Today is earth day, and we are celebrating at Fox by turning the lights out and wearing blue and green. I have seen straight lines of little children all day decorated in the colors of the planet walking through the sunlit hallways. Rays of light dance across their faces and cast fantastic shadows on the polished wooden floors. We are lucky to have  building with such large windows that a lights out day is possible.

In art class we are going outside and creating images with chalk that celebrate the earth. I also encouraged them to write catch phrases for the planet, that would make people think. The things that students think to write as messages about the value of the earth are so simple and thoughtful. “Thank you” and “The earth gives you life.”. It isn’t difficult to encourage students to see the value in our planet, they are already thinking about it. It is only one day out of the year that we take time as a whole culture to think about our planet. In reflecting on the idea of “borrowing the earth” from my students, I am imagining these students grown up and looking back on their youth and the way the adults handled the planet while they were too small to have much of a say in how the earth was treated. They have such an un-muddled viewpoint on what we should feel towards the planet. Can many adults say the same? How often do we think about oxygen and where it comes from? Or worry about the melting glaciers? This is the legacy that they inherit from us. I leave you with a quote from Katherine in 3rd grade. “Be the bee.”. She explains to me that it means “some people don’t like bees, because they sting…but they don’t realize that without them, there would be no honey, not for the bears and not for us.”. Be the bee, friends. This earth day, I hope you reflect on the sweetness that the world delivers to you, and that you deliver to the world.

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A Mystery 500 years in the Making (4th Grade)

1514 was a long time ago. 500 years to be exact. But in 1514 Albrecht Dürer created a masterwork that is still the object of speculation. Melencolia I is arguably one of the most famous prints in existence. This 18 by 24 copper engraving is jam packed with objects that peak our curiosity.


Some of the items that interested the fourth graders the most this week are the architectural and mathematical tools that surround the angel, the strange 4 by 4 square with numbers which add up to 34 in every direction…the mysterious solid shape with a ghostly skull that seems to ebb in and out of our vision…the hourglass, the scale, the very skinny animal…

We discussed this work of art in some classes for 45 minutes straight. My personal theory of an ancient treasure map, was met with excitement from some and strong argument from others. In Ms. Miller’s class, Conner reminded us of the Egyptian myths we learned in second grade. The hearts of the ancient egyptian dead were weighed against the feather of Maat on a scale much like the one depicted here. Julia pointed out the water of the background and made an argument that the whole image was set on a ship. Miles asked us to turn the whole image on its side and see how the orb becomes a doorknob and the planer becomes a lock, and suggested the keys on the angels belt could open the lock. Pow!!! Minds blown! A lot of really interesting and sound theories were put forth, and all were both respected while also being debated.


There are lots of viable answers. It doesn’t really matter what the answer to the mystery is. Scholars do not agree, we did not agree. What matters is that an artist 500 years ago put forth a visual challenge to viewers that still interests us today. In our fast paced digital age of 5 minute clips on youtube, it interests fourth graders enough to discuss it for 45 minutes. The debate from 1514 continues in 2014.

Art can do that. Artists can do that. We are all artists and we can all do that.

Gnome Home Build – Developing a Sense of Wonder

What is the point of giving up a Saturday and inviting students to join me on an island with their parents to build gnome homes?

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It sounds crazy, right? It sounds like something that a lovable old coot with nothing better to do with her life might do. In some ways that’s true. What better thing is there to do on a Saturday afternoon than to be outside in nature with my favorite people? There are scholars, however, who see the method in my madness. Let me introduce you to one.

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods asserts that children who do not engage with nature develop a series of deficits. He says that these children’s senses diminish. They have difficulties with attention. They are more often both physically and emotionally ill.

Louv goes on to say that  “An environment-based education movement–at all levels of education–will help students realize that school isn’t supposed to be a polite form of incarceration, but a portal to the wider world.”

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I try my best to take my students through that portal into that wider world during the school year. I take them outside to draw the plants, to draw horses, to draw dogs, to be in the middle of nature, and what I hear from many of them over and over again is fear.

Many of my students are scared to be outside.

They are scared of insects, of grass stains, of dirt on their clothes, of ants, of the itch from the grass. They are uncomfortable in the heat, in the cold, if its humid, if its dry. They find it too bright, they find the wind upsetting.

When I was little, I hated coming back inside from the park, or the river. I studied the bugs in my playtime, I learned from the leaves outside. By observing and sitting with nature, observing the anatomy of insects and small mammals, I became a better artist.

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What does it mean for my students’ future if the great outdoors are a place of terror and not of wonder? What will the green of the earth become if this generation doesn’t learn to value it in all its complexity?

What does it mean for my students’ future in art if the simplest place to observe creatures and environments is so frightening that they won’t venture out into it?

The Gnome Home Build on Belle Isle in Richmond Virginia is a way to make nature more inviting. When friendly 6 inch people invite you into the woods under the safe care of your parents to build them a home which they don’t yet have, you feel called there. You feel safe there.

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When parents or teachers sit down and engage with young children in the dirt, in the grass, in the woods, next to bugs, that environment shifts forever in the eyes of those children.

When parents or teachers put their hands on sticks and leaves and encourage their children to do the same, then children learn that nature is a good and a safe place. They learn that the adults in their lives value it, and are not afraid of it.

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If a teacher from your own school played pretend with you for a whole Saturday and documented your discoveries, what might that have done for your sense of wonder? I invite you now out into the woods. There are some very cold gnomes out there who need houses.

Don’t be afraid.

There is no wrong way to do it.

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“You are required to consider it.”

Asking students to look at abstract art can be a challenge. I often hear them saying things like “This isn’t real art…I could do that…why is that in the museum?”. It is a commonly held belief about modern and abstract art.

Gavyn art

In the movie Mona Lisa Smile, Miss Watson (Julia Robert’s character) shows her class a Jackson Pollack painting and says:  “Do me a favor. Do yourselves a favor. Stop talking, and look. You’re not required to write a paper. You’re not even required to like it. You *are* required to consider it.”

vilma art


Consider is an awesome word. Considering can take a life time. Considering should take at least 5 minutes, right? When was the last time that you considered a work of art for 5 whole minutes?

Katrina art

What does it mean to consider something? Considering can just be looking and taking in what is there. Maybe you ask yourself: Why might this artist have made this painting? or What was this person trying to tell me through this sculpture? What colors did the artist use and would I have used the same ones? What kind of movement would produce that kind of line?

Kathryn art

I hope you can take some time out of your schedule to take a trip to the museum this year, and when you do, I hope you consider some new pieces.

Devin art

You can find these and other awesome works of art at the VMFA:


2013 Gnome Home September 28 from 10a.m. – 12p.m. on Belle Isle



Come out and join the William Fox Elementary School family on Belle Isle from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.as we create our own Gnome or fairy or hobbit homes using rocks and sticks and leaves. You can bring a bag of natural materials to Belle Isle to use, or find items there on the island. We will take pictures of each Gnome or fairy house after it is built. Practice building gnome or fairy homes in your own backyard if you want to try it out.

Feel free to dress up like a fairy or a gnome when you come! Bring a parent.

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What I do Best (Kindergarten)

trophy 4Trophy 2Sometimes it is hard to remember that we are all good at different things. Some people are great at soccer, while others excel at art. The book What I do Best by Allia Zobel Nolan gives trophies for each thing that a person can be good at. We read this book together and then talked about what we are all best at. Ivan is really good at video games, while Sarah B is best at art.

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Well, if you wanted to look at a dog close up, here is one you could look at close up from any angle. Huey is huge! The fourth graders really enjoyed his giant jowls and carefully crossed paws as he sat on our lawn and did his best impersonation of Kate Moss. What a wonderful gift from Jennifer Allen Kyzer.


The artists in Ms. Yancey’s class are fantastic. These drawings are by Oliver, Emily, Zach and Nicholas.

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