An Assistant Librarian and Choral Director Take a Lyrical Approach to Black History

Meet Collaboration Award finalists Thea Paul and Ariel Mitchell of Meadowbrook High School in North Chesterfield, VA.


Thea Paul, assistant librarian, and Ariel Mitchell (left), choral director, Meadowbrook High School, North Chesterfield, VA
Photo courtesy of Meadowbrook High School


Remote school wasn’t going to ruin the plans that assistant librarian Thea Paul and choral director Ariel Mitchell had made to collaborate on lessons for Black History Month in 2021.

About 43 percent of the students at Meadowbrook High School in North Chesterfield, VA, are African American. Another 47 percent are Hispanic, and more than half of the 2,000 students are English language learners.

Their six-session curriculum, called Lyrical Literature, provided an overview of Black history and focused on song lyrics to tell the story of the African American experience. Students showed up for their online classes and were highly engaged as Paul and Mitchell co-taught the Black history lessons on topics including the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights movement, and different genres of poetry and music. They conducted how-to sessions, teaching students how to use tech tools such as WeVideo to layer tracks and record songs or spoken word pieces. Because of this creative programming, Marshall and Hitchins were named finalists in the SLJ Librarian/Teacher Collaboration Awards (launched by SLJ with support from TLC).

“My students enjoy the opportunity to reflect on issues happening in the country,” says Mitchell. “We allowed them to use music and art to express themselves. They had the autonomy to dig in.”

Mitchell says her students responded strongly while learning how spiritual music connects with different popular genres today. “They were amazed at how this music underpins modern music,” she says.

Students’ comments during classes showed how engaged they were, Paul says. “There was an energy. Students would unmute and respond; one wrote a letter explaining how he benefitted from our lessons.”

They made use of the tech lessons to create and share poems, songs, and multimedia projects. One imaginative project came from Brooklyn Jones, a junior at the school. She took the pictures from a children’s book and retold the story in her own words, incorporating gospel and jazz music from that era.

Another student, Hans Relano, wrote song lyrics about the Harlem Renaissance. Paul and Mitchell’s curriculum changed his views not only on the movement’s impact at the time, Relano said, but also how the progress those artists made in 1920s and 1930s continues to influence African American artists today.

The project, which used the library’s $11,000 annual budget, a $1,500 on-site cash fund, and a $3,000 tech fund for the school, earned the pair Virginia’s School Library Program of the Year award.

During remote schooling, the library team also created a series of tutorials for teachers to help them access materials and tools such as Mackin ebooks, Gale resources, and WeVideo. Library staff conducted 80 virtual orientations for students to help them access materials during the pandemic.

Paul also created virtual field trips for students, featuring local notable officials including LaKeisha Cook, a justice reform organizer who helped abolish the state’s death penalty; Judge Cleo Powell of the state Supreme Court; and Jessica Noll, executive producer of WTVR-TV.

“Beyond their instructional results, our library team has worked extra hard to establish a community presence during the pandemic,” wrote school principal Marcie Rice Terry in her nomination for the collaboration award.

Since Meadowbrook High was one of the first schools in its area to give each student a computer, when learning went remote, students had the appropriate technology. But they didn’t always have strong Wi-Fi at home. This year, Paul and Mitchell are happy to be repeating their lessons at school, in person.

“I love Thea’s ideas and being able to collaborate,” says Mitchell. “When she approaches me, I’m all for it.WD

Wayne D’Orio is a journalist who writes about education.


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