This award-winning teacher considers herself a lifelong learner - and perhaps that's the most important lesson she imparts to her students: Never stop joyously reaching out to learn more.
- story by Pat Saik
“We ran free for hours, playing games we made up, and exploring the woods around us,” Dale recalls. The area around Starkville was a haven for discovering Native American artifacts. “We had special collections of things we found. At school I impressed my classmates at 'show and tell' with parts of cattle skeletons.”
“Both of my grandfathers were natural-born story-tellers. Learning from them, it didn’t bother me at all to stand in front of my classmates and tell stories about a field filled with cattle bones.”
“I was only four years old when I started playing in the woods. That special time lasted until I was in the sixth grade.”
Dale's family always kept a vegetable garden, where they grew vegetable like corn and tomatoes. Neighbors grew okra and had a peach orchard, so Dale grew up learning how to plant and harvest okra and pick peaches every summer.
“Kids I work with today have no idea of where their food comes from. As far as they know, it’s just something you buy at the grocery store.”
When Dale began her working life, she had no intentions of being an art teacher. She worked in Huntsville, Alabama in a graphics job and in Savannah, Georgia in communications for the convention and visitors’ bureau.
A few paintings by Dale
Happily for the Bay St. Louis community, Dale and her husband, Richard, encouraged by the late, and much beloved, Mary Kay Deen, moved to the coast before Hurricane Katrina hit. As one of only seven houses on Carroll Street that didn’t flood, Dale and Richard opened their home to anybody who needed it after the storm.
After Katrina, Betsy Grant, director of the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center in Gulfport, offered Dale a job to design community outreach programs that would involve both children and parents in activities at the center.
Betsy Grant, already a mentor and role model for Dale, "would not take ‘no’ for an answer.” One of Dale’s favorite ideas she implemented in her new job was the construction of a giant bird’s nest designed as a quiet place for children to read to their parents.
“We also made quilts that were sent out all over the country,” Dale recalls. “A project like that gives kids an audience, and exposure of their work instills confidence.”
During the post-Katrina chaos, Dale also offered to teach art on a part-time basis to kids attending Bay-Waveland schools. Her enthusiasm for her job combined with innovative teaching skills eventually earned her an award for Teacher of the Year. Dale has been recognized over and over again with awards and recognition for her community service.
Her teaching style is key to her success. Dale interacts with students using “visual thinking strategy” or “VTS.”
When she shows children a work of art, “I ask them to look at it and describe what they see and ask questions about what the picture may make them wonder about. It’s an interactive exchange that gets children to observe, to think and then to feel free to say what’s on their minds.”
“When a child asks a question I can’t answer, I tell them I don’t know but I will find out. I want to make sure the kids know that the teacher is still learning herself.”
She also encourages kids to talk to their own parents and ask about stories they have to tell. “Tell me the story of when I lost my first tooth, or tell me about your favorite dog you grew up with. It’s another way for children to learn self-esteem and to learn to listen.”
Dale places a priority on teaching students about Mississippi artists and musicians. Last year, she created a classroom project to teach kids about the blues and the Mississippi blues artists who created their own art form.
“When I asked the class if anyone knew about B.B. King, none of them did. By the time it was all over, they not only learned about guitars and the history of the blues, they wrote letters to Mr. King and sent pictures of themselves. They also produced a sock puppet show to send to Mr. King.”
“When the news got out that B.B. King had died, some of the kids just cried.”
Having taught so many children in the past ten years, this popular teacher has rock star status; it’s nearly impossible for Dale to go shopping or out to eat without being recognized by a former student who is delighted to see her and anxious to engage her in conversation.
Not only has Dale nurtured creativity in the community, she has also nurtured a creative path for her four children. Sadie, their youngest, is a budding writer at eleven years old. Marion, their fourteen-year old, is drawn to writing and photography. Sixteen year old Aidan is a painter and cartoonist. Aubrey, the oldest at twenty years, and also artistic, is currently studying graphic design at Mississippi State University.
Music plays a role in this artistic mix. The whole family has a band of its own. Sometimes just for fun her husband Richard rides around town on the trolley playing mandolin.
Although Dale is still teaching, she is becoming more interested in pursuing her own art. “I experiment with thin layers of acrylic to create the feel of a watercolor. I love to paint, especially using a bright color palate.”
She says that some of her paintings are based on stories or songs drawn from her grandparents' era. Others take shape from imagined scenes and stories, or from relationships with objects that interest her, like old tools and ordinary household items.
“I see myself as a life-long learner," Dale says. "And I want my students to know that they can be life-long learners themselves.”