Koonlaba: Mississippi Whole Schools Initiative Hosts Successful Summer Institute

Last week, I attended the Mississippi Whole Schools Initiative’s Summer Institute, appropriately titled Believe in Something Big. The Mississippi Whole Schools Initiative is a

comprehensive statewide arts education program, that uses the arts as a vehicle for promoting high-quality instruction and learning for students in all disciplines. This unique program goes far beyond “art for art’s sake” and applies the learning power of the arts across the entire curriculum.”

It was started way back in 1991. Today, this initiative partners with schools across the state to increase student achievement by integrating the arts into the core curriculums. This is a research-based approach to education reform that engages students in constructing and demonstrating their learning through an art form and a creative process.

Mississippi Whole Schools Initiative

This Summer Institute included keynote presentations by Kid Chef Eliana de Las Casas, Dr. Harry and Mrs. Rosemary Wong, John Anderson, and Kevin Spencer.

Kid Chef Eliana, a 15 year old culinary celebrity, presented The Perfect Blend: How Cooking & Gardening Can Transform Communities, in which she discussed how culinary arts programs make a difference in communities through sustainability, curriculum, and community involvement.


Kid Chef Eliana, a 15 year old culinary arts celebrity, discusses Cafe Hope in New Orleans.

The Wongs are celebrities of the classroom management realm of education. They have spoken to over one-million teachers world-wide. Their presentation, based on their own written works, included basics of classroom management and back-to-school ideas for establishing rules and procedures.

John Anderson, son of Mississippi artist Walter Anderson, discussed his father’s life and work. He challenged teachers to think of their work as a creative artform that cannot succeed on technique alone but must include vision.

Kevin Spencer, a Mississippi native, is a world-class magician who is also considered a leading authority on the therapeutic use of magic tricks in physical and psychosocial rehabilitation. He presented his Hocus Focus Project which promotes the integration of learning modalities with magic tricks to meet the needs of all learners. Magic tricks? Yes, magic tricks. Please check out his website. I promise you this keynote was so moving there was not a dry educator eye in the house. 

There were also curriculum tracks that addressed integrating major art forms into the regular curriculum. For instance, I attended a Drama/Visual Art curriculum track geared toward 4th and 5th graders. I learned how to help students use drama and visual art in character development for their own writing.


Visual artwork produced during the 4th and 5th grade Drama/Visual Art curriculum track on character development.

Several arts experiences and breakout sessions were also offered each day. Art is at the Core presented ideas for using measurement, data collection and analysis, Haiku writing, patterns, and syllabication based on Kandinsky’s Concentric Circles. Chihuly Chandeliers taught measurement conversion within a singular system and was based on the work of Dale Chihuly. Singing is Good for Your Brain explored the power of group singing and music-making to build community, expand literacy, encounter history, and express emotion. A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words explored the language arts concept of theme through the analysis of visual art prints. Art and the IEP identified materials that can be used with a diverse special education student population. Projects were identified that incorporate sensory learning and adaptive equipment.


Art is at the Core participants create a visual representation of math problems based on Kandinsky’s Concentric Circles.


Finally, off-site arts excursions presented attendees with the opportunity to explore and learn from both the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art and the Walter Anderson Museum of Art. My favorite was the guided tour of the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs, which culminated with a hands-on art lesson on block printing.  


The Ocean Springs Community Center murals painted by Walter Anderson as seen at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art.

This was a fantastic professional development opportunity. I sincerely wish every teacher and administrator in Mississippi could attend and be a part of the Whole Schools Initiative. In addition, I wish every legislator would attend a part of this institute to see how important the arts are in student achievement.

The arts have the potential, when used effectively as advocated by the Whole Schools Initiative, to reach every single learner in our state. Wow! Talk about improving educational outcomes for Mississippi students.

Amanda Koonlaba is an elementary art teacher in Tupelo, MS. She is a contributor to MSEdBlog. Her views are her own and do not represent the views of any other entity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *