As the visual arts teacher at Russell Byers Charter School, I begin each academic year with excitement, anticipation and a healthy dose of anxiety! Like classroom teachers, I am charged with implementing the goals of “the first six weeks of school” such as establishing rules, routines and behavioral expectations, fostering collaboration and autonomy, and creating an engaging curriculum.

I must also introduce our 10 School Design Principles and encourage students to articulate their academic and personal “Hopes and Dreams.”

After joining the RBCS staff in 2005, I immediately acquired a self-imposed sense of urgency during those first six weeks. October 2 is our Annual Founders’ Day Celebration, a school-wide event that marks the birthday of Russell Byers, our school’s namesake and a well-known columnist for the Daily News who was tragically killed during a robbery. The day features readings, singing, and the presentation of awards.

Since it was my first year at RBCS, I wanted to add a visual component to the event. I chose to work with second-grade students, and helped them paint giant birthday cakes. After they presented their mural and were acknowledged for their contribution, they simply glowed. Their delight and pride sparked an idea – an annual Founders’ Day mural.

The following year I worked with our sixth graders. The goals for their Founders’ Day mural would include: serving as a signature piece for the graduating class, providing our oldest students with additional responsibility, and a way for sixth-grade students to express their gratitude to the school. Inspired by a case study of Chuck Close, the students collaborated to create a six-foot, girded portrait of Mr. Byers. After the presentation, it was displayed throughout the rest of the school year and was even featured in their yearbook. The sixth-grade mural sparked another idea – why not create a mural so that every student could feel the same sense of pride and accomplishment?

While I still wanted to keep the same goals for a sixth-grade mural, I believed that a school-wide mural would help build school culture and a sense of community. In 2007, the sixth-graders painted a 10’ x 30’ family tree on canvas, which provided them with a leadership role and responsibly. Then, every student in the school created a bird that was glued to a branch. Perched on the lower branches were birds covered with seed beads made by four-year-old kindergarten students. Each grade level used different media and techniques to create unique birds. Each set of hierarchical branches represented a different grade level. Hundreds of birds graced the mural while others were suspended from the ceiling, symbolizing our school motto, Roots to Grow, Wings to Fly.

The all-school Founder’s Day mural still acknowledges sixth graders as our school leaders, because they paint the background and provide the structure of the mural. But it also allows everyone the opportunity to contribute, gives younger students something to look forward to, and helps build a sense of collaboration. Keeping our mural a surprise for Mrs. Byers each year heightens the students’ sense of responsibility, anticipation, expectation and shared mission. Students giggle and whisper, “Elvis is in the house” when they catch a glimpse of Mrs. Byers in the building. After the celebration, students love to point out their particular contribution to classmates and family members. They gaze, share and reflect! Parents and other members of our learning community become active participants as students describe and discuss the mural with them.

The Founders’ Day mural has become part of our curriculum. Returning students know, and new students learn, who Russell Byers was. They understand why we have a Founders’ Day. Most of all, the mural is just one more way that our school strengthens our learning community and builds school culture.

-Amy Jared, Art Teacher
Russel Byers School, Philadelphia PA