Nurturing teachers’ quests

101 Houston-area educators were awarded $344,000 this year to pursue studies that will enrich their ability to reach students.

Jennifer Radcliffe
Houston Chronicle

Naomi Brown had a sick feeling as she pulled away from the car dealership in March. Just two months after watching her husband of nearly 30 years lose his battle with lung and brain cancer, she parted with his beloved Ford Expedition and decided on its replacement.

A 55-year-old teacher on a tight budget, Brown settled on a used Toyota Prius. She already was second guessing the choice as she pulled into the driveway of her Sugar Land home, where, for some reason, she opted to brave the mailbox for the first time in two weeks.

On top of the pile of hefty medical bills that she’d been trying to ignore was an envelope, marked with a bright red apple, from the Fund for Teachers.

The letter inside congratulated Brown for earning a $5,000 scholarship to spend part of the summer watching hummingbirds migrate through southeastern Arizona. That was enough to reassure the veteran teacher that she had made the right decision – about the car, about her career, about forging forward with life.

“It was a redemption moment, truly” said Brown, who teaches science at Baines Middle School in the Fort Bend district. “It sort of proved to me that I’m doing exactly what I’m suppose to be doing at this moment.”

Brown was one of 101 Houston-area teachers to receive a share of $344,000 in grants this year from Fund for Teachers, a non-profit group that provides money for teachers to hone their craft through professional development.

Since 2001, the group has awarded $8.4 million to 2,571 teachers.

This summer, for instance, a teacher at the Houston school district’s Rodriguez Elementary studied art in Italy. Also in HISD, two Worsham Elementary teachers studied dolphins in Greece, and a Jackson Middle School teacher studied natural resources in Alaska.

They were among a record 500 Houston-area teachers to apply for the money.

“The reason we do it is because there’s so many Naomis,” said Karen Kovach-Webb, executive director of the Fund for Teachers. “If they’re given just a little bit of leverage, they can do much better than teaching to a test.”

While all the award winners returned to their campuses last month with renewed energy, the trip to Arizona had incredible meaning to Brown.

Her 73-year-old husband, Garland, encouraged her to apply for the grant from his death-bed, sensing that she would need something to look forward to. He died in January. By the time her notification letter arrived in March, the recent widow had forgotten about the application.

Brown was almost giddy the day she learned she had won.

She was equally happy early this month as she told a class of seventh and eighth graders about her three week trip.

She proudly showed off dozens of photos of colored birds, rare insects and unusual flowers.

“In nature, most of the males are the colorful ones; not the females,” she explained as she showed a picture of a broad-billed hummingbird.

She told the class how she saw thousands of hummingbirds, helped tag a few birds and even caught a glimpse of two rare spotted owls.

To stretch her grant money, she slept in affordable motels, where she, unfortunately, had more chances to commune with nature.

“I had a whole food web in my bed one night,” she said, recalling the bugs and lizards in her room. “All I needed was a hawk. I needed a top-level consumer in my cabin. That would have straightened things out.”

Brown will use her experience to help her students build a hummingbird nature center on the Baines campus. They also will create a Web site to post pictures and information about hummingbird migration.

The middle-schoolers said they appreciate their teacher’s resilience and dedication.

“After her husband died, she could have quit right there,” said 13-year-old Kristie DePuma. “I hate bugs, but I like learning about hummingbirds.”

Brown said she wanted to teach science since she had a passionate, skilled science teacher as a little girl. She’s fascinated by trying to make sense of the world around her, especially plants and animals.

She was grateful to have the chance to take the Arizona trip – to momentarily escape her grief and refocus on her passion to teach.

“For most of the world, scholarships go to kids like you, not old people like me,” she told her class.

Brown won’t forget this summer’s lessons anytime soon.

“It reminds me that what I do is valued. While it might not seem like it on a daily basis, there are people committed to helping teachers,” she said. “That’s something to remember when you’re pulling your hair out with the TAKS.”

Chicago teacher studies bats in Madagascar

Jenny Celander
Chicago Union Teacher

According to Eileen Day, Bats have gotten a bad rap. To reverse misconceptions about the flying creatures, Ms. Day has spent much of her teaching career developing programs to educate her students about all the good bats do. This past summer, funded by a grant from the Fund for Teachers (FFT), she traveled to Madagascar to work with a scientist there doing similar work.

Each year, the FFT awards individual or team grants to teachers in selected cities across the country who propose a summer activity that will improve their teaching. In Chicago, the FFT works with The Chicago Foundation for Education and this year the two organizations distributed $194,000 in grants.

Eileen was one of 53 Chicago Public Schools’ educators to receive money, and her trip was something she had been reaching for months. A teacher at Blaine Elementary School for more than 20 years, Ms. Day has been fascinated with bats since she was a little girl. The students and teachers at Blaine have become enthusiastic about the animals because of the programs she implemented at the school.

Eileen Day (left) meeting with Dr. Richard Jenkins, Director of Madagasikara Voakajy. In Madagascar, Dr. Jenkins is leading the Flying Fox conservation effort.

Right: Julie is a Malagasy biologist working with Dr. Jenkins. She and Ms. Day will continue to share material as they work on the bat education projects.

At Blaine, Eileen works coordinating the Gifted and fine Arts Program. For a few years, the school participated in a project she started, “The bats of the month club,” so students could learn about a different kind of bat each month. Ms. Day developed everything that teachers at Blaine would need to teach about bats curriculum, bulletin boards, bat-themed projects, bat literature. The project began with species indigenous to Illinois and each month Ms. Day added a new one.

“Rather than viewing them as some rabid monster, we should look at the benefits they provide,” she says. Eileen want her students to understand that bats are important – they keep the mosquito population down and help populate certain fruit plants.

Mr. Day contacted Dr. Richard Jenkins, Director of Malagasy NGO Madagasikara Voakajy, after reading an article about a project he developed with some of the remote village schools in Madagascar. Dr. Jenkins begin his conservation project – similar to the education projects Eileen utilizes at Blaine – to help the Straw-Colored Flying Fox, a bat that is being eaten by the people on the island.

The scientist hopes that if students become educated about the benefits these bats provide, they will share information with their parents and other adults and eventually, islanders will avoid eating the creatures. After reading the article, Ms. Day recognized an opportunity to connect the tow projects.

She had heard about the FFT through the Chicago Foundation for Education, an organization in which she is active. She gives workshops on grant writing and promotes some of their project ideas can be applied to improving their schools.

Eileen was in Madagascar for just over two weeks where she met with scientists and observed the flying foxes and their roosting area. She worked with Dr. Jenkins and his assistant Julie, a Malagasy biologist, to discuss ways to bind the flying fox project to Eileen’s projects in Chicago.

At the end of the last school year, Ms. Day asked some of the upper grades at Blaine to prepare bat fact sheets for students in Madagascar. They drew pictures and clooected information about different species and when the Malagasy students saw the pictures they were amazed.

“These are remote village areas,” said Ms. Day. “They had never seen bats that looked like this.” Julie and Eileen plan to continue some sort of “bat exchange” between the Madagascar schools and Blaine. They will share information and tools for teaching about bats. This school year, Eileen’s students will also create an informational leaflet to promote “bat viewing” in the south eastern region of Madagascar.

Eileen says Dr. Jenkins’ conservation efforts have been successful. There is a big effort to try and reduce the killing of the flying foxes but also to protect areas they roost in,” she explained. “people in the villages have been very receptive to it.” The group currently is working on making the project more inclusive among communities.

Left: A Straw-colored Flying Fox in flight – the bat scientist in Madagascar are working to protect. Photo provided by Eileen Day

Right: While in Madagascar Ms. Day also had the opportunity to see other animals most of us have seen only in the zoo. Picture above is a Ring-tailed Lemur.

Eileen said her trip to Madagascar was especially unique because “this trip I created for myself.” The FFT works to “enrich the lives of school teachers and students by providing funds for direct grants and support learning opportunities of the teacher’s design” – something Eileen took full advantage of.

Teachers can apply for FFT grants if they work in pre-kindergarten through grade 12 classrooms, have at leas three years experience and spend at least half their time in a classroom. More information may be obtained by visiting the website at www.fundforteachers.org.