New mountain mural promotes reading at RMES

David Peck

When Rocky Mountain Elementary School principal Betsy Sammons needed a way to stimulate interest in the school’s new accelerated reading program, she and her leadership team came up with a very graphic, illustrative way to promote the program: a mural of a mountain in the school library.

But who could paint it, they wondered. Sammons had done some mural work herself in the past, but this was a big project. Then librarian Dorine Strom had an idea: why not ask the high school art program?

The idea was a winner. Longtime Rocky Mountain Middle/High School art teacher Berta Newton agreed to tackle the project, and once she started work over the Christmas break, it only took Newton and assistant Angelina Mason, a senior at RMHS, two days to complete the work.

“She’s in the Rocky Mountain High School Art Club,” Newton said of Mason. “She’s the one art club member who came over to help me, the one person I could get because everybody was gone for Christmas. It worked out.”

“We were trying to come up with an idea and have it in the library so the kids could see it just to promote reading,” Sammons said. “I asked Dorine if we could do it in the library, and she came up with the idea. I said I wanted to do a mural of some sort to move the kids along, and Dorine came up with idea of the mountain. She contacted Berta, and Berta came up with this beautiful landscape, and we went with it.”

Accelerated reading

Sammons explained that the accelerated reading program motivates students to read by offering them rewards via a point system based on answers to a quiz taken about each book read. She restarted the program after it had been dormant for a few years, beginning with the summer reading program under the guidance of literacy outreach coordinator Lacey Bassett. Each student was given three books to read over the summer, based on grade level, and points were awarded based on their knowledge of the book they read.

“We were just trying to make it big again and incentivize kids to read good books, so now they read these books and they can take a quiz on it and they earn points. They earn a dog tag for every 10 points, and now they get to move on the mountain. It’s just an incentive to get kids reading. We don’t attach grades or anything like that to it. It is open to kids at every level. You can have parents read books to the kids, they can listen to books – just however they want to go about it.”

Strom, as school librarian, will run the program going forward.

Moving up the mountain – via the new mural in the library – is a visual stimulus for the young readers even more popular than a bowling outing or pizza party, which they enjoyed during the summer program, Sammons said, or the dog tags, which got the kids “really fired up” after the first trimester.

Sammons said fifth-grade teacher Pat Winland ran an AR program
last school year and is a “big fan” of the program, and she said Burlington used a painting of a castle to represent students ascending with AR points.

“I wanted to do something similar to that, that went more with us, though,” Sammons said. “My leadership team met, and we talked about what kind of thing we wanted, and we thought, ‘mountain.’”

The mural

The idea for the mountain mural was formed in around October, Sammons said, and it took Newton several weeks to get the project underway due to some life events. She finally had the time during the Christmas break. For Sammons, that timing was perfect.

“My goal was Christmas break, because we just really got our AR reading and rewarding kicked off at the end of trimester one at the end of November, and we rewarded the kids for that,” Sammons said. “You could tell kids wanted to start doing it. The kids that got rewarded, it made a big difference, and we wanted everybody to be involved. That’s why we did the mural.”

Newton and Mason painted the mural on Dec. 26-27, completing it in about 16 hours. Newton said she worked up a pre-drawing using colored pencils to get an idea of what she wanted to do, basing the central mountain on Mount Moran in the Tetons, then measured the wall and made a grid over the top of the drawing to get the mountain line to scale.

She and Mason taped off the top edge, as well as the electrical outlet covers below (planning to paint them later), then starting painting, working her way in layers from the background forward using interior latex in five colors – “background, midground, foreground,” she said. “Then we put in the bushes at the bottom of the mountain and we finished it with the river and the trees.

“I didn’t want it to be too realistic. I wanted it to be really fun and dreamy and happy – happy colors,” Newton said.

“It was so quick,” Sammons said. “Honestly, I came in and the next day it’s done. I was, like, ‘Whoa!’ It was so impressive.”

Through the accelerated reading program, students earn points represented by flags placed on the mural, and students slowly move up the mountain as they advance in their reading schedule. Each student’s photograph is placed next to a flag as he or she moves up the mountain.

“It surprises me, an incentive like that, how big an effect it has on the kids,” Sammons said. “This right here is a big deal.”

And the kids love it.

“I wish you could have seen the kids walk in today,” Sammons said to Newton. “They were so excited. Because we finally got the flags up today (Tuesday). You should have heard them. Just so you know, they were so excited to get to be on your wall.”

Newton made the flags, too, cutting them from quarter inch MDF (medium-density fiberboard) using a laser engraver.

“I’m just in my element when I can do things like this,” Newton said.

Mason assisted, doing some of the painting and being a great help to Newton.

“When I was up on the ladder, Angelina was really great about bringing me more paint,” she said. “I didn’t have to run up and down. My knees aren’t in the best shape anymore. Angelina handed me up colors. She’s a good worker. It was really teamwork, and I loved it. It was great.”

This isn’t Newton’s first mural. Years ago, in 1985, she painted a mural in the Minneapolis Children’s Theater 80 feet above the floor. She also painted the Showboat building in Deaver with her father in the late 1980s.

Sammons would like the accelerated reading program to be cumulative throughout a student’s elementary school career, she said, moving beyond the mountain.

“We’ll see where we end up, because it’s brand new,” she said. “It would be best if they can collect points through their whole career rather than just by year.

“Being pretty new to the district, I didn’t know Berta at all, so I’m hoping this is a start of a partnership between the art department and our elementary school, that we can do some different things. I’m excited about that. There are some different things we can bring in art-wise, not just her painting this but working with our kids.”

“I can guarantee that it is (a partnership). I love doing this,” Newton said.

Added Mason, “I would love nothing more than to help a little kindergartener paint a sky or give pointers on how a fifth-grader could (draw or paint).”

Sammons said the school will host a grand AR event and invite Newton and Mason over so the students can see who did the painting.

Newton is in her 22nd year teaching in School District One and has
taught art overall for 32 years, she said.