In 2013, Chance Dickerson was working as a teaching assistant in the ESOL (English as a Second Language) department at Albemarle High School and he wanted to share his love of music with his students. So he set up an “underground studio” in an English class book closet and began teaching the ins and outs of audio production. The following year, when the school’s principal, Jay Thomas, wanted to create a makers space for music, he asked Dickerson to manage it. The result was A3 House, short for Albemarle Alternative Arts House, and the newly formed A3 House Records, which is an incubator for student art and music. Throughout the school year, students work with Dickerson and staff member Bernard Hankins to come up with project ideas and use the resources at A3 House to execute their vision.
“It’s basically like an entire house of production and creativity,” Dickerson says. “…unlike a traditional classroom, where I could run an audio production class like, ‘All right, everyone sit down with your laptop and we’re gonna go step-by-step through how to record and edit a vocal track.’ We’ve even tried that model and it’s not that it doesn’t work, it just doesn’t engage kids on the same level that the record label does, and it doesn’t give them the freedom to express and create art and the autonomy to create art like the record label does.”
A3 House Showcase
IX Art Park
Although the program is dubbed A3 House Records, the curriculum isn’t strictly limited to music.
“The vision initially for this place was never for it to be really a music place, it was a place for free creativity,” Dickerson says. “From day one, I was like let’s bring in painting, bring in photography, do video, let’s do poetry, all forms of artistic expression were welcomed inside A3 House, and that philosophy has been refined and focused through the record label.”
Because A3 House runs on a play-based model, it gives students an opportunity to engage on an interactive level.
“We’ve created a space that is free of a standard—there’s no standard for standardized testing or any tests or quizzes or anything like that—it operates like a business would,” Dickerson says. “[What} you have basically [are] employees that come in and they do their work to support the business and the business is providing resources for their work.”
“From day one, I was like let’s bring in painting, bring in photography, do video, let’s do poetry, all forms of artistic expression were welcomed inside A3 House, and that philosophy has been refined and focused through the record label.” Chance Dickerson
For Dickerson and Hankins, A3 House Records is more than just a class promoting alternative forms of learning. It’s a philosophy.
“When it comes down to brass tacks like what are we actually teaching these kids, we’re teaching them passion, purpose, meaning and identity,” Dickerson explains. “So, passion being whatever you’re excited about in life, whatever you find fulfillment in doing, whatever gives you a good feeling and a lot of times art is that common medium or vehicle for a passion. …We’re always trying to achieve equality, trying to achieve diversity in the classroom, but I think we can’t achieve that if our kids don’t have their own identity. And one of the things that we’re doing in the studio is we are helping them seek and refine and develop their own identity.”
Dickerson encourages students to create art that taps into themes that are true to their personal experiences and meaningful to them. “Is your art representing your true vision for your life or is it representing someone else’s vision?” he says. “You can’t find meaning in something that is not you.”
This philosophy plays out particularly well when Dickerson and Hankins work with kids in the program who are creating music.
“This is our approach to reconstructing the idea for what hip-hop is because hip-hop has a bad rep for being a violent genre, for being a genre that promotes misogyny and promotes drug dealing and all this stuff, and some of those things really are in these kids’ lives,” Dickerson says. “It’s not about censorship.”
Dickerson points out that authenticity is a key part of the creative process: “What are the challenges that you’re facing? What is your breakthrough? How are you overcoming this? Let’s get into the philosophy of these experiences and then put them into words so you’re creating actual rich, meaningful, personal content and not content that is a copy of someone else’s experience.”
There are currently 72 students enrolled for credit in A3 House Records, and Dickerson estimates that an additional 20 students, called walk-ins, come in before or after school, or during their free periods like study hall and lunch. Depending on the breadth of the project, a student may work on a single project for the whole year, or she may finish one in a week before moving on to the next idea. All of the students’ projects will be shared with the community at the A3House Showcase taking place on Friday. Along with displaying their work, students will also be running interactive stations where attendees can learn about different art forms and have the chance to make a beat, play with cameras or paint.