Randy Granger: Holding Space for Creativity

“To see a hillside white with dogwood bloom is to know a particular ecstasy of beauty, but to walk the gray Winter woods and find the buds which will resurrect that beauty in another May is to partake of continuity.” —Hal Borland

For as long as anyone can remember, Randy Granger Hon. 1689 has begun each class with a reading from Twelve Moons of the Year, a collection of 365 meditations on nature by journalist and naturalist Hal Borland. In 47 years of teaching art and design at Penn Charter, Granger has found beauty and continuity in this ritual.

“I read Hal Borland each day,” Granger said, “because I want to give my students a chance to transition from the social chaos of changing classes so they can be more present and available for deeper learning in my class. Another reason is that we are so disconnected from nature in our lives today. Borland writes primarily about nature, so it gives the students an exposure to things in the natural world that they can recognize and experience in their own lives.”

Randy Granger Hon. 1689 became the first-ever National Board-Certified Teacher in 2000 and, in 2005, the first non-public school teacher inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame.


At the age of 10, Granger was apprenticed as a signwriter, a nearly-lost art of hand-painting signs. “Every little town had a good signwriter,” Granger said, and in the maritime community in which he grew up on the tip of Barnegat Bay, N.J., carving boat transoms and gold-leafing the names of the vessels offered him continual creative opportunities.

Aware from the age of 14 that he wanted to be an art teacher, Granger enrolled in art school on full scholarship, studying art education, and secured his first teaching position at the Philadelphia Parkway Program, an innovative and nationally recognized educational experiment that used the city as the school. There, Granger taught 16mm film production, which he would later teach at Penn Charter for 35 years.

His teaching career was interrupted in 1970, at the height of the Cold War, when Granger, a Navy submarine reservist, was activated to serve as a navigation and education officer on nuclear-missile submarines. Granger cites his experience being submerged for three months at a time, isolated from the outside world, as invaluable to his development as a teacher because, he said, “in a deep and authentic way I came to rely on other people, realizing that any of them could teach me new understandings or save my life at any given moment.”

In 1975, Granger was hired by Penn Charter Headmaster Wilbur Braxton to chair the Art Department as well as to fill another open job — coaching the ski team. “Use me where I am best suited,” Granger advised Braxton, “in theater arts or as advisor to the PC Art Society.” (He would do both, and the latter for 31 years.) Granger also shared his woodworking skills and joined the maintenance staff as school carpenter —“one of my proudest contributions to the school” — to augment his teaching salary and to keep the building and furniture, including the Meeting Room benches, in top repair.


That same year, a Penn Charter student was also negotiating his extracurriculars with school leadership. Brent Sherwood OPC ’76 bargained with Peter Reinke, director of Upper School, to be excused from the sports requirement. “I can either sit on the bench the whole season,” he told Reinke, “or you can let me be productive and do a thing I love, which is stage crew.”

Sherwood, now a sBoardspace architect at Blue Origin, an aerospace manufacturer and sub-orbital spaceflight services company, remembers building the colonial-era interior for the comedy She Stoops to Conquer while Granger painted trompe-l'œil illusions to make pieces of the set appear 3-D. “Randy was sort of like a member of stage crew in that production,” Sherwood said. “He loved creativity, and he was interested in everybody’s story.”

An 18th century German jack plane for final smoothing of larger timbers or boards. Granger used it for hands-on teaching in both Historic Preservation and Architecture classes. c. late 1990s.

The stage crew, too, was creative — and clever. “We found ways to make keys to everything,” Sherwood said. “We had access everywhere that we weren’t supposed to, including up in the attic. Up there along with old stage sets I found this bronze plaque. It weighed a ton.”

That 3-and-a-half foot tall solid bronze plaque featuring the school seal had been dedicated by the graduating class of 1909 and seemingly forgotten for some time.

Sherwood and his stage crew friends somehow brought that piece of history down from the attic and loaded it into a Volkswagen. At home in his basement, Sherwood cleaned it up and with a little brush repainted the black around the raised lettering. “And then we presented it back to the school,” he said. “It was our gift for tolerating all the things we weren’t supposed to be doing. Randy was semi-complicit in some of these things.”

This result of stage crew shenanigans, the restored school seal that declares “good instruction is better than riches,” has been proudly displayed at the foot of the Senior Stairs for decades.

Never mind that Sherwood wasn’t a student in one of Granger’s classes—the good instruction was clear. “One of the things I learned from Randy,” he said, “was that a teacher can also be a peer, the kind of peer that is a friend. Randy collaborated with us, and that was very different from the standard student-teacher relationship.

“He was one of the many influences at Penn Charter who reinforced the principle that we need to be curious about everything and we need to follow our passions, and there’s joy to be extracted even from simple things.”

Design Thinking

Granger is a pioneer in the field of design-based thinking. A process for creative problem solving, design thinking has a human-centered approach to designing products or services.

“Randy did design thinking before anybody else was doing it,” said Sheila Ruen, who taught art at PC 2002-2016 and chaired the Art Department for the last 10 of those years. “He was so dynamic, and he let everybody know they were capable as creative problem solvers.”

Granger’s work at Penn Charter was transformative, Ruen said, because “in a lot of art programs, it’s about genius. You’re born with talent or you have genius. Randy was inherently interdisciplinary and really believed that everybody was capable of creative problem solving, and he offered systems for people to do that — and challenges. And he scaffolded everything.”

In 2001, Granger assigned a project to his Design Science students that would produce, in 2005, a U.S. patent for the Dignified Broad Footprint Beach Wheelchair. In collaboration with students from Widener Memorial School, a Philadelphia public school for children with disabilities, the assignment was to design a beach wheelchair that could navigate boardwalk and beach and allow the user to enter the water unaided “with the grace and dignity that should be offered everyone.” Students had to conceptualize how it would function, how it would fold, what materials would resist corrosion. The Penn Charter and Widener students would present the design weekly to a team of rehab engineers at the Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., via video conferencing, high-tech for its time.

Granger believes his students are “capable of accomplishing every bit as much as adults and maybe even more,” Ruen said. “He got that patent with the kids because he expressed his confidence and belief in their capacity to solve complex problems.”

Ruen, science teacher Corey Kilbane, and Gummere librarian Doug Uhlmann were so inspired by Randy’s design thinking and his embrace and integration of technology that they conceptualized a makerspace that could be used pre-K to 12 and applied for a professional development grant from the school. Penn Charter’s first IdeaLab, with its 3-D printers and scanners, laser cutters, GoPro cameras, soldering stations, smart cutting machine, standing drill press and much more is now located in the lower level of the Middle School.

“Randy can teach anybody to draw,” former colleague Sheila Ruen said. “The way he scaffolds it, moves from simple to complex; the way he moves people around the room; the objects he chooses for the still-life class. Everything he does is so incredibly artful.” Pictured: Granger’s 2022 Observational Drawing class.

Elevating Young Artists

The trust that Granger places in his students goes both ways. Young people relate to his irreverence, his questioning of authority and the world, and his authenticity.

“When you are with Randy you know that he is seeking to understand and relate to you on a personal level,” Ruen said. “He’s committed to making the world a better place and he wants you to be a part of it, and he believes you can do that.”

Wyatt Gallery OPC ’93, a photographer currently living in Trinidad, found refuge in classes with Randy Granger, or Grange.

“High school was a challenging time for me,” he said. “Granger’s photography and art room became my safe place, my oasis within school, where I would go to eat lunch and work on my photography outside of class time. Grange was always supportive and so upbeat. Because I had to be by myself, or felt at times like I needed to be by myself, photography let me explore and create while doing that.”

Gallery absorbed all of Granger’s technical teachings: focus, depth of field, the difference between lenses, the art of composition. But he learned more than that.

“He has a way of elevating you and moving you forward with praise and acknowledgment and using the good to build you up. I’ve watched him do that with other students. I was able to sit there and witness his amazing talent. The thing is it’s genuine. He used to call us hucksters. But he’s not a huckster. He’s finding and extracting the beauty of what you're creating as a young artist.”

For another young artist, Zion Weeks OPC ’20, the habits of mind that Granger has spent the better part of his life teaching are life lessons.

“He stresses believing in yourself and coming back from your mistakes,” Weeks said. “That’s why he was such a good observational drawing teacher. He didn’t correct you; he showed you the other way to look at it.”

Mysterious Figure

“The first thing I knew about Penn Charter was Randy Granger, this mysterious figure who helped my dad fall in love with photography as a high schooler,” said J.D. Dillard OPC ’06, son of Bruce Dillard OPC ’77. “While my dad never pursued his art professionally, through his career in the Navy he took a hell of a lot of pictures. And that all started with Randy.”

Dillard did pursue his art professionally and is best known for directing the films Sleight and Sweetheart. His latest, Devotion, premieres in October 2022.

“Mr. Granger is probably the first person in my creative life to impress on me the importance of process,” Dillard said. “It's really easy to look at creativity as fluid and boundless and an unwieldy process. In sitting in his classes and getting to know him, I quickly became intrigued and sort of calmed by this notion that there can be a method to the madness. That has held with me to this day in such an intense way.

“In the very first movie that I made, Sleight,” he said, “there’s a moment where the character has to dig back into his life and seek counsel with an educator who was really impactful in his life, and it was kind of fun to name that character Mr. Granger, the teacher in our main character’s life who held space for his creativity, understood his potential.”

When J.D. Dillard’s Sleight premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Randy Granger, fresh from hip surgery, proudly made his way to Park City, Utah. Pictured: Granger with two former students: Bruce Dillard OPC ’77 and son J.D. OPC ’06.

History Preserved and Revealed

Granger also fills the role of historic and architectural preservationist, conserving and preserving many of the school’s artifacts. His love of preservation was born in the mid-1960s when he lived and worked in newly transforming Queen Village, and it was refined over the four decades he lived in a national landmark printing office in Montgomery County.

From 2014 to 2018 he embarked on Penn Charter’s 325th anniversary book project, History Revealed: Treasures from the Archives of William Penn Charter School. A truly collaborative endeavor, the book celebrates the school through artifacts and memorabilia as raised up by faculty, staff and trustees, from a handwritten copy of the 1777 Students Gazette to the 1987-88 girls basketball sweatshirt that marked the first girls basketball team.

“What I set out to do,” Granger said, “was to give voice to my colleagues by allowing them to decide what is historically significant to hold up and celebrate. That’s a powerful opportunity that is reserved for few people in the world, and that’s what our faculty and staff did in the book.”

This Old School

The back wall of the Meeting Room is beautifully lettered with the explanation of the Alumni Award of Merit: “To a graduate of the William Penn Charter School whose character and outstanding achievement have reflected lasting credit upon this old school.”

Each year Granger employs the signwriting skills he learned as a young apprentice to letter the name of the latest recipient of the award
in gold leaf, an honored tradition. But in his career Granger has also challenged tradition, as that Meeting Room wall bears witness.

That language for generations of the all-boys Penn Charter had originally read “... upon his old school.” For five years before the school would become fully coeducational, with its first class that included girls ready to graduate in 1992, Granger had raised his concerns. We need to think about this, he’d tell the business managers. The language ought not exclude the girls who would one day be graduates.

Eventually, on a spring day in 1992, with the cherry blossoms in bloom outside the Meeting Room windows, a determined Granger took his lettering quill and added a “t” to the wall: “upon his old school” became “upon this old school” weeks before the first coed class would become OPCs.

– Rebecca Luzi