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Teachers followed the Tour; now students reap benefits

Doug Belden
Pioneer Press

If you watched CBS coverage of the Tour de France this summer, you might have seen a short interview with two St. Paul teachers stopped on their bikes as they made their way up a road in the French Alps.

The clip shows DeWayne and Renee Combs, tired but smiling in sunglasses and biking clothes, telling the camera crew they’re following the Tour to learn all they can and bring it back to their students.

The couple, with help from a $6,000 grant, spent 2Ĩ weeks in France and went to five stages of the Tour.

This fall, they’re drawing on that experience to enhance the physical education and health curriculum at Battle Creek Middle School.

The school received 35 mountain bikes and helmets this fall from Medtronic, and DeWayne Combs has made cycling the centerpiece of a new class he’s offering called “Fit for Life.”

The elective also will expose students to golf, bowling, lacrosse and exercise machines. “That’s our goal. Lifelong sports,” DeWayne Combs said.

Renee Combs has put up newspaper clippings, posters, hats and other Tour mementos on the wall of her health class.

She draws on the race to help her teach \ talking about seven-time winner Lance Armstrong in a lesson about cancer, for example. The kids now come in on Mondays and tell her about their biking adventures during the weekend, she said. “They’re into it.”

The couple are both mountain bike racers, and they commute to school by bike, 14 miles each way from their home in Stillwater. One day last week, DeWayne Combs used his mud-splattered bike to teach students about riding in ugly conditions.

“Mountain biking can be done in bad weather,” he told them. To prove it, he took them outside to ride on a 45-degree, drizzly morning. “It’s a little cold now. But you will get warm,” he said.

The kids were supposed to practice keeping their butts off the seat on the downhill portions of a three-quarter-mile course DeWayne Combs set up on the huge fields at the school, next to Battle Creek Regional Park on the city’s eastern edge.

Seventh-grader Nick Bethel took a spill on one of the descents. “I was riding a little too fast,” he said.

Before taking the class, Nick had only been on a bike with a foot brake. Combs said about eight of the 70 kids in his classes had never been on any kind of bicycle before signing up.

Seventh-grader Samantha Olson has her own mountain bike at home, but she said she’s picking up tips from the class that even her older sister, who usually doesn’t listen to her, is paying attention to.

The Combses received a grant for the trip through the Fund for Teachers, which distributes about $50,000 annually in private and foundation money to help St. Paul teachers enhance their skills during the summer.

The experience is supposed to be used to benefit students, and one tangible benefit from the Combs’ trip is a duffel bag full of T-shirts, hats, pins and other Tour trinkets they lugged home for the kids.

DeWayne Combs said the prizes will be given out the same way colored jerseys are awarded at the Tour de France: “We’re going to start some racing.”

Doug Belden can be reached at dbelden@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-5136.

The Combses

Teachers: DeWayne Combs, 42, and Renee Combs, 44

Occupations: DeWayne teaches physical education, and Renee teaches health at Battle Creek Middle School in St. Paul

Family: Five children ranging in age from 13 to 26

Home: Stillwater

Accomplishments: Traveled to the Tour de France this summer and are incorporating lessons from the bike race into fitness instruction for students

Trips abroad inspire new lessons

Teachers come back fired up after spending summer picking up ideas for classroom

Chicagotribune.com

Gloria Moyer rediscovered her passion for teaching this summer in a French village called Coupvray, fingering some of Louis Braille’s reading slate in the home where he invented his literacy code for the blind.

Lucy Klocksin was renewed on a New Zealand mountaintop, during a predawn “Matariki” ceremony shared with Maori schoolchildren blowing softly into conch shells.

Michelle Greenfield felt a rush during the deafening takeoff of the space shuttle Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, an experience narrated by a former astronaut who shared his firsthand knowledge.

For the first time, 51 Chicago Public School teachers won the opportunity to travel to six continents this summer-all-expenses-paid adventures designed to inspire classroom educators and their students.

These city teachers will return to their classrooms Tuesday refreshed and toting a trove of memorabilia-wood carvings, spacesuits, pen-pal letters, Johannesburg prison photos, Italian mosaics and chunks of meteorite.

“We were like little kids, watching the launch,” said Greenfield, a science teacher at Armstrong Elementary in Rogers Park, who won the summer fellowship in Florida with her husband Dan, who teaches math at Eberhart Elementary in Chicago Lawn. “To know you can share that excitement with kids, it makes you want to go back to work. It excites your passion.”

The summer professional development program was created by the non-profit Chicago Foundation for Education, which partnered with the Fund for Teachers to sponsor $200,000 worth of exotic travel.

The winners were chosen among 250 applicants and awarded grants ranging from $1,800 to $7,500 for 39 solo and team projects. The organization hopes to fund another 40 study proposals next summer.

“What we were looking for is ultimately how these grants were going to impact children and increase student learning,” said Kris Reichmann, executive director of the Chicago Foundation. “Teachers had to justify how this was going to improve their teaching practice, help students and the broader school community. If teachers were looking for funds for a summer vacation, that was automatically cast aside.”

The screening committee said no to a teacher looking to take a Mediterranean cruise with other educators.

Otherwise, no idea seemed too offbeat to qualify.

Yoga in Ecuador. Conservation in Botswana. Whale research in Brazil. Bicycling along the Tour de France course.

“I will have the opportunity to explore nearly all the regions of France, cheering on the racers as I stand shoulder to shoulder with actual French citizens, in real French villages, against authentic French backdrops,” Abby Imram, a French teacher at Walter Payton College Prep, wrote in her grant application. “While I will be seeking an authentic and intimate experience, every moment of every day will be a potential lesson to share with my students.”

A special education teacher for 31 years, Moyer brought back more concrete lessons to share with students and colleagues at Otis Elementary. Her pilgrimage to the birthplace of Louis Braille will enrich the lessons she creates for Braille Literacy Month. She will team-teach a unit on French culture in a 1st grade bilingual class.

Her class of 16 vision-impaired students will be encouraged to find pen pals from a stack of letters she brought home from South Wales, also a part of her travels. Her experience volunteering at a British adventure camp for the blind taught her new challenges she can share with her students.

“I have always wanted to visit schools in England to see the difference in how kids are taught in Braille,” she said. “I’ve always loved what I do, but to be able to develop something that was entirely my own idea… it’s just an incredible fantasy come true. I truly feel so energized.”

For Cynthia Townsend, a dream of studying apartheid in South Africa first took shape six years ago, when she and her classroom of 4th graders immersed themselves in a monthlong study of the country.

She was awed by the history she discovered and angered by the racism that still plagues Soweto and Capetown neighborhoods. They toured schools and museums, and interviewed residents about their lives.

“Socially, things were much better, but economically it was a mess,” said Townsend, a North Lawndale native who said she drew suspicious stares at restaurants and inns where the only black faces were those of the workers.

Yet this is not the lesson Townsend wants to impart to students about her adventure. “There’s nothing like being able to teach from experience, for the kids to be able to see that I talked to these people, I visited this orphanage. I want my students to realize this is possible, to know that Madison [Street] is not the limit of their world.”