Virginia first lady visits Powhatan Middle School

Virginia first lady Pamela Northam is shown on a student-led tour of Powhatan Middle School. The  #whatLiftsYou Project was inspired by Kelsey Montague's murals.  Over 100 students in five digital design classes collaborated together to create the Wing Mural.  The wings have over 450 individual feathers created using design software. The students discussed the use of experiential marketing, the power of social media, and the importance of collaboration. Along with the student’s feathers,  the wings feature feathers created by parents during Back to School Night in September.  

POWHATAN – Virginia first lady Pamela Northam recently visited Powhatan Middle School to tour the facility and hear from students and educators about learning in Powhatan County’s newest school.

Northam, herself a former educator, took a student-led tour on Tuesday, Jan. 28 to visit a variety of classrooms and spaces in the building. Nine students in sixth through eighth grades took turns leading Northam and sharing subjects and areas they are most passionate about, whether it is music, math, agriculture, or art.

Northam is a former high school biology teacher and is currently the chair of both the Virginia Children’s Cabinet and the Virginia STEM Education Commission. After the tour, she said she had a great time meeting the students and faculty and praised the amazing work the school is doing with the middle school students, especially in the areas encompassed by STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics).

“When I taught, we could see from the test scores that our young women would outperform the young men in elementary school, and then in middle school we would see this shift. We thought what is happening to our young women?” she said. “Well, today, we are seeing a lot of tools being applied to encourage our young women to get into STEAM careers for the future. You can see how much involvement there is and what great role models there are at the school today.”

Casey Grell, an eighth-grader, joined fellow student Breanna Gillespie in showing Northam the highlights of the agriscience classroom and lab, where students were working on woodworking projects as the tour group arrived. They also paused for a few minutes at the fish tank that is part of the Trout in the Classroom curriculum, which lets students observe their life cycles, environments, and ecosystems.

Casey said she was happy to show off the agriscience program, which has wonderful hands-on activities for students, and appreciated Northam’s interest.

“She seemed very involved in it and very excited that our school had a program like that,” Casey said.

Sophia Hoffman, sixth-grader, led the tour in one of the art classrooms, where the visit focused on both the current project students were completing as they did pencil drawings of school buses from different perspectives as well as other projects they have tried.

“I wanted to show all of the stuff that is going to be in the Longwood Showcase because it is pretty interesting stuff that is going to be shown to everybody. So, it was cool we could show them to her,” Sophia said.

Eighth-grader Jacob Hanna talked about the school’s band program. The tour group heard a few minutes of rehearsal by the seventh grade band before Northam interacted with the students and band directors. She told the band that her husband, Governor Ralph Northam, played the French horn when he was younger and she played the flute.

“She seemed pretty involved in learning and seeing our band and orchestra – where they practice and perform pieces. And she seemed pretty involved with the seventh-graders while they were rehearsing. She was very kind to them,” Jacob said.

Jacob added he personally found the tour interesting, saying “some of these parts of the school I didn’t even know about.”

Zachary Durrbeck, sixth-grader, agreed he also learned a few things about his school he wasn’t previously aware of, but he was especially excited to show off PMS’s innovation lab. He is a regular visitor to the room and loves the different opportunities the space provides. During Northam’s visit he was proud to show her a model solar car he built with another student because he hopes to be an engineer one day.

The other students who helped with the tour were Eastan Weber, Jaiden Michael, Reili Machotka, and Zoe Broaddus.

Dr. Samantha Martin, principal, said in planning the visit, she wanted the students to lead the tour to highlight the work and accomplishments of teachers and students at PMS. She praised the way they represented the school and the community to the first lady.

“It would have been awesome to have more time to be able to see all of our amazing teachers, but we had a great time popping into some of the classrooms and having the kids explain some of the projects and everything they are working on,” she said.

In addition to highlighting the programs at PMS to Northam, Martin said she hoped the students benefited from the experience of speaking in front of a group and explaining what and how they are learning.

Northam said she enjoyed the school and appreciated that it was “built with our 21st century learners in mind.”

Laura McFarland may be reached at

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