Grants build student interest in the arts

Photo credit: Des Moines Performing Arts

Broadway calls on Iowa

Brian Sammons was smitten with New York City.

Swept away by the sights and sounds of the Big Apple, the teacher from rural Iowa knew he had to share the experience with his students.

“That was 10 years ago and it was my first trip to New York, and ‘Hairspray’ was the first show I ever saw on Broadway,” he said. “There was so much energy at the theater and in the city, and I thought there were people back home who could really benefit from that kind of experience.”

When he returned to Aplington, he emailed the producers of “Hairspray” and pitched an idea:

  • He wanted to give his third-grade students a broader view of the world and help them learn more about the arts, and…
  • Would one of the “Hairspray” cast members be a pen pal with his students and share stories about life in New York and working in the arts?

Brian was in luck. The actress Hayley Podschun answered the call, and she’s been working with his students ever since.

They exchanged letters at first, and students sent disposable cameras so she could take photos of New York City and send them back. The relationship evolved a few years ago when they started emailing and using Skype.

“Now that we’re able to Skype with her, that’s opened up a lot of new possibilities,” Brian said. “She can put her camera out her window, for example, and show us her neighborhood. The kids end up having a better understanding of what New York is because, otherwise, it’s such a fantasy place to them at this age.”

In the classroom, Brian incorporates the fine arts into lesson plans, often drawing on themes from shows Hayley is rehearsing. When she starred in “Sunday in the Park with George,” a musical inspired by a George Seurat painting, her mailbox was soon filled with pointillist paintings created by Brian’s students.

The teacher also uses the partnership to help his students sharpen their reading and writing skills and make connections to social studies and literacy lessons.

“Hayley’s stories have been a perfect tie-in for our lesson plans across several subject areas,” Brian said. “Sometimes math lessons don’t go well at all. But all I have to do is plug her name into the problem and I’ve got their attention.”

In 2013, Hayley got their attention in a more personal way.

Photo credit: Des Moines Performing Arts

With support from an Iowa Arts Council’s Big Yellow School Bus grant (now known as a School Arts Experience grant), Brian took his students to meet Hayley in Des Moines, where she was starring as Glinda, the good witch, in the national tour of “Wicked.”

“The grant paid for our travel expenses to the Civic Center, and the kids got to meet her and visit with her in person,” Brian said.

Later that year, Brian received a big surprise from the Broadway League, the national trade association for the Broadway theater industry. He was nominated for and received its Apple Educator Award for bringing Broadway and theater education into the classroom.

Brian Sammons and Hayley Podschun. Photo credit: Des Moines Performing Arts

In 2015, he left Aplington and took a job as a principal in Grundy Center, and he brought Hayley with him. It wasn’t long before he used another Iowa Arts Council grant to create a long-distance artist-in-residence program for her and his new students.

They exchanged letters and emails, and Skyped, and worked on projects with her input and guidance throughout the year. The program culminated last June when she visited Grundy Center to review their projects and do a series of presentations in every classroom.

“She talked about growing up in Kansas, living in New York City, her work on Broadway, and what kinds of jobs are available on Broadway,” Brian said. “So, part of what we’re doing here is making (the arts) more real for the kids, whether it’s something they want to pursue as a career or simply as a way to develop their interest.”

This is just one example of the many projects supported by the Iowa Arts Council. If you have a great idea for a project of your own, we encourage you to apply for a grant for your own school, community or nonprofit organization.

Applications for most our grant programs are coming up May 1, and the deadline for the School Arts Experience grant is June 30. Links to pre-recorded webinars about the application process are available under each grant program category.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Iowa Culture’s story.