Jann Terral Ferris wanted to help children learn

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 28, 2009

Jann Terral Ferris had an idea.

Because children learn differently, why not incorporate the arts — the visual arts along with song and dance — into lesson plans, especially those used by elementary teachers, to help cement information into young minds?

Ferris, Vicksburg artist and arts leader, died last week at the too-young age of 59.

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She was the widow of Grey Flowers Ferris, Mississippi senator and education leader who died just over a year ago. They married in June 1970 and at a tribute to her husband last fall — to raise funds for education — Ferris described her life with Grey as “an adventure.” It was an adventure from which many benefited.

The concept of using color, motion or rhyme in teaching is not new. From the earliest times until the days of “Sesame Street,” stimulating learning with artistic devices has been commonplace. It’s hard to say the English alphabet without singing it. Most of us know a noun is a person, place or thing due to educational segments aired during Saturday morning cartoons.

But after earning her bachelor’s degree in art at Sophie Newcomb College, Ferris went back to school to earn master’s degrees in art education and education administration at Mississippi College. Then, with those schools, she set out to create practical guides that married the basics of learning to the arts across a broader scale.

At Beechwood Elementary here, her pilot Project ABC (arts in the basic curriculum) was so popular and successful it earned a Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 1998 and put the school in the spotlight as a national model for educational excellence.

Adapted, the program of teaching standard academic concepts through the arts grew into what’s called the Whole School Arts Initiative through Mississippi Arts Commission. About 100 schools in the state use the model.

Randy Jolly, a retired Vicksburg public school art teacher who is director of the Samuel Marshall Gore Art Galleries at Mississippi College, was Ferris’ friend. “She was interested in children and their ability to learn,” Jolly said. “She used the arts as another way to help children grasp the big concepts of reading, writing and arithmetic — and build their thinking skills.”

Though a small, quiet woman, she had a great gift, and leaves a great legacy.