McNeil multiplies kids’ creativity

Make that not one, but two artists at McNeil Canyon Elementary School. Musician Johnny Bushell, who performs under the name “Johnny B,” and author Sharon Bushell just completed a residency that has kindergarteners through sixth-graders well versed in the creative flow.

The double residency, a brainchild of McNeil teacher Debbie Piper, began Jan. 6 and wrapped up with a celebration Jan. 30.

“I knew both of them had great strengths in very different art forms,” said Piper. “Sharon is a delightful author. Johnny B is an incredible musician. … We wanted to get kids excited about writing by understanding that writing is like any of the other art forms in terms of being a way to express ideas, be creative and having to be organized.”

Using her Bernie Jones series of children’s books, Sharon Bushell shared with the students the process she uses as an author. 

“Johnny B talked about how music paralleled the writing process, how you have an idea, you think about it awhile, you go back and remove and change things, make it better,” said Piper. “It takes awhile before you get to the final product.”

McNeil teacher Lenore Swanson built on what the husband-and-wife team was teaching, with the fourth-grade physical education class choreographing a dance to one of Johnny B’s songs. Piper took the Bushells’ writing-music lessons another step, translating what the students were learning into visual arts.

It was not the first time the Bushells have worked with students at McNeil, but it was the first time they have been there together.

“The kids are so lucky out there,” said Johnny B. “The staff is just an incredible staff. McNeil has always had a great reputation and it was such a pleasure working, not only with the teachers, but with the kids. … We had a great time.”

The Bushells’ schedule was six lessons a day, and included more hands-on activities for the younger grades and more talking with the older kids. 

“The bottom line was that once you have an idea, there’s a process you go through,” said Johnny B. “It’s the same whether you’re putting dance together, a piece of art, music or writing a story.”

After hearing Johnny B play a piece of music inspired by a New York City snowstorm, the students created a mural depicting the storm as it approached and finally descended upon the city.

“It turned out beautiful and is hanging in the school hallway,” said Piper. “People are saying, ‘oh, we hope you don’t take that down.’” 

While the mural will eventually come down, the students have one creation that will remain: “Friends,” a new school song for which they wrote the lyrics and Johnny B wrote the music. A video of the students singing, Johnny B performing and images of the mural can be seen on YouTube,

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at