How I Spent My Summer: Traci West

Talk Up APS – Atlanta Public Schools’ Communications Office newsletter

Last week, we sent out the call for teachers to let us know how they spent their summer. The email was focused on those who participated in the Atlanta Fund for Teachers program – featured both in the Summer 2009 issue of The Atlanta Educator (Page 15) AND the Atlanta Journal-Constitution – in which 18 APS teachers were awarded a total of $77,000 in professional fellowships that they can use for the fall semester. The fellowship is sponsored by the Atlanta Education Fund.

Today we focus on Traci West, a teacher at Bolton Academy who went to Ecuador to study Hispanic culture in the hopes of developing and enhancing teaching and learning skills. Here’s Ms. West’s summary of her trip, along with these beautiful photos…

Ecuador is undoubtedly one of the few countries of its size that contains a wide variety of culture and regions. I traveled to Ecuador this summer hoping to learn more about the three distinct regions, both in an effort to enhance my classroom teaching and to promote my school’s International Baccalaureate Program. I accompanied my personal Spanish teacher as we journeyed to each area.

The first week, we traveled to the eastern coastal region of Puerto Lopez, to the Machalilla National Park and the archeological village of Agua Blanca. Next, I visited the northern province of Pastaza, exploring the exotic landscapes of the Amazon Jungle. The native Quichua Indians guided me through the ecological reserve “el Amazonico.” We hiked through the flora, boated down the Napo River and explored waterfalls. The natives invited me to watch as they performed simple tasks just as their ancestors did.

The final part of my journey found me in the “Sacred Valley” of Vilcabamba located in southern Ecuador. Vilcabamba is famous for the longevity of its inhabitants. I conversed with many locals who were well over 100 years old and explored the Mandango Mountain on horseback.

During this incredible journey, I hoped to learn how to speak Spanish and to bring the Ecuadorian culture to life in my school. I learned this and much more. I left with a feeling that I had forged real relationships with the natives and the urge to return for a longer visit.

Stepping off of an airplane, in a foreign country where I knew no one and did not speak the language, was very frightening for me. It was the first time I had ever traveled by myself, and I was nervous. I also found it difficult to ask questions and explain my needs since I knew no Spanish at all. As a result of this, I have empathy for the Hispanic families at my school who struggle to convey their needs to English speaking teachers.

The most profound change that occurred as a result of this trip was its effect on my view of poverty. Before traveling to Ecuador, I assumed families who live below the poverty level must live in despair. I was wrong. I got to know some of the happiest people I have ever met. Ecuadorians value God and family, the two most important things in life to them. Thus, they are happy and very rich indeed.

As a result of my trip to Ecuador, I am not only excited about being able to converse with the Spanish-speaking students at my school, but I am also eager to utilize the information I learned in order to enhance our International Baccalaureate Program. I have brought back artifacts and photographs to create an interdisciplinary unit where students have the opportunity to learn about the various regions of this beautiful country. I hope to collaborate with the Spanish teachers in our school for cross – curricular instruction and to locate. Also, as a result of my new found information on poverty, I would like to conduct further research as to why some communities below the poverty level are crime ridden while others are not.

I have created several PowerPoint Presentations from the numerous photographs I took on my trip to Ecuador to share with my colleges. I will use these to give talks to the faculty members at my school about my experience in Ecuador.

In addition, I plan on creating an interactive, interdisciplinary unit to go with the artifacts I collected. I will share this unit with colleagues, students and their families. The unit will include a “virtual tour” with a passport (kid-friendly style Georgia Performance Standards) for different checkpoints (assessments) and will include many aspects of the core curriculum for elementary school students.

It all adds UP

Ariel Lown Lewiton
China Daily

Ellie Terry and Aneal Helms weren’t your typical American tourists. They hadn’t come to see the Great Wall, Bird’s Nest, or Terracotta warriors. As they packed for a three-week tour through China, they had other sightseeing goals in mind: They wanted to visit as many high school math classrooms as possible.

Terry, 26, and Helms, 27, are high school math teachers in New York City. They work in classrooms that are ethnically and economically diverse, and in the three years since they began teaching, they’ve noticed a striking pattern. At every grade level, their Chinese-Amer ican students seem to work harder – and perform better – than the other students in class.

“Twenty percent of my students are Chinese-American,” says Terry. “And they fill up all my top math classes.”

The teachers didn’t believe that their Chinese students were naturally smarter than the other students. But how could they explain the disparity they witnessed in their classrooms? Their observations suggested that the students from Chinese backgrounds were working with a different set of standards and expectations than their classmates.

Terry and Helms wanted to know more about the cultural environment that could produce such high-achieving students. So they decided to trace the phenomenon directly to its source, applying for a fellowship to study math education in China.

Left: At every grade level, Chinese-American students seem to work harder – and do better – than the others in class. Photo illustration by Jiang Dong

Right: Ellie Terry (left) and Aneal Helms at Hong Kong’s Shau Kei Wan Govt Secondary School, with the school’s math teacher Herman Yuen. Courtesy of Ellie Terry and Aneal Helms

Terry and Helms hoped they would observe successful Chinese teaching methods that they could take back to the United States and apply to their own teaching. Their journey took them through Hong Kong, Guilin, Yangshuo, Chengdu, Xi’an and Beijing.

In the US, we often use poverty as an excuse for poor math performance…there’s an expectation that economically disadvantaged students will not do as well… In China, there are no such excuses.” – Ellie Terry, High school math teacher

In each city, Terry and Helms sought out teachers and students to talk to and learn from. They relied on contacts they’d made in the United States, relatives of former students, and friendly strangers.

“Everyone knows someone who’s a teacher,” Helms says. “So we’d say, ‘Hey, do you know any teachers we can talk to? Can we visit their schools? Is there someone who can translate?’” The method was surprisingly successful.

They began their trip in Hong Kong with a visit to Summerbridge, a non-profit program that serves economically disadvantaged children. Summerbridge relies on a student-to-student learning model, with older, advanced students serving as mentors to students at lower levels.

In New York, they often work with students who, like the Summerbridge Hong Kong participants, come from poor families with limited English-language skills.

“In the US, we often use poverty as an excuse for poor math performance,” Terry says. “There’s an expectation that economically disadvantaged students will not do as well.” She noted that students and their families help to perpetuate this attitude, and school administrations rarely seem to challenge it. “In China,” she says, “there are no such excuses.”

Indeed, rather than seeing poverty as a barrier to their success, Chinese students may view it as a powerful motivation to excel. According to Lian Siqing, a professor of mathematics at Capital Normal University in Beijing: “Students consider math extremely important, because it’s relevant for higher education and can help them to get a job. Math skills are also key to the development of the Chinese economy.”

For these students, developing strong mathematical skills may seem like both a personal and patriotic duty: If they are successful, they can help to pull their families out of poverty while furthering the prosperity of the nation.

Throughout their travels, the women were also struck by the sense of pride that Chinese students took from their academic achievements.

Professor Lian believes that Chinese philosophical traditions have instilled in modern students a desire to excel academically. “Our methods can be traced back to the time of Confucius,” he says. Confucianism places high value on learning and knowledge.

Lian has spent time in the United States and observed the contrast of values between the two countries. “In the US, schools and society focus on the overall development of the student,” he says. “They pay more attention to those who show strong performances in the arts or sports, rather than in math or science.”

The New York teachers agree. “In the US, the top student is not exactly the coolest kid in the class,” Terry remarks ruefully.

Terry and Helms observed a consistent narrative unfolding as they traveled across China. “We kept hearing the adjectives ‘shame’, ‘strict’, and ‘pressure’,” they say. Teachers and students alike commented on the intensity of the Chinese education system and the pressure to excel, which drives students to devote much of their free time to practice and review.

The New York teachers were impressed by the energy and determination of the students they met. Yet they couldn’t help wondering if there was something mechanical about their learning. “Their fundamentals are rock-solid,” Helms says. “But many people we’ve talked to here say that students solve the problems without really knowing why they’re solving them, the way that they’re solving them.”

In the classrooms they visited in China, students always sat in orderly rows and were called upon to answer questions one at a time. By contrast, in their New York classrooms, teachers arrange their students in small groups and encourage them to work in teams to find answers. Their students may not always arrive at the correct answer, but – whether they’re aware of it or not – they’re putting another valuable skill into practice as they struggle for a solution. They are learning how to think creatively, testing and experimenting with different strategies.

Lian concurs with the assessment that group work has not been a focus of China’s math education historically. But he says that the Education Ministry, which is charged with designing and implementing a unified teaching philosophy across China, is currently addressing that issue.

“China’s math teaching authorities are looking for ways to improve students’ creative and active thinking,” he says. “We’ve started to pay attention to the idea of cooperation among students.”

Chinese math teaching philosophy will continue to focus on individual achievement. The strongest teams, after all, are comprised of strong individuals. “Without individual thinking,” Lian says, “effective collaboration would be almost impossible.”

Terry says her trip to China made her realize that “students are capable of a lot more than we give them credit for. If we raise our expectations, they will rise to meet them.”

“There’s a lot to be said for classroom culture,” she says. “Making it an academic-minded place, using peer pressure in a positive way to raise academic achievement.”

Helms, meanwhile, is pondering how to bring together the best of both worlds. “If we could somehow merge the intense cultural expectation and non-stop practice of the Chinese education system with the creativity and discovery model of the American education system, we’d have some really incredible thinkers and problem solvers in this world,” she says.

“Now, we just need to figure out how to do that.”

Local teacher studies lemurs in Madagascar

Juliana Bunim
Examiner Staff Writer

Elementary school teacher Deirdre Fitzgerald is currently assisting a research team on an in-depth study of the dietary habits of the endangered silky sifaka lemur in Marojejy National Park in Madagascar.

What are you studying in Madagascar?
I received a grant from Fund for Teachers to work with a team of primatologists and botanists. [The sifaka lemur] is found only in a few undisturbed, high-altitude rainforests in northeastern Madagascar. We are recording information about what they eat and how much time they spend feeding.

How will it influence your curriculum when you return to The City?
I am expecting to be able to use what I have learned to help my students understand the importance and vastness of the biodiversity in a place like Madagascar. At the same time, it is a striking illustration of the need for conservation, as only 10 percent of Madagascar’s original forest remains.

Do you have anything specific planned?
We won’t be able to focal, or record, minute to minute data of silky sifakas in the classroom, but I will be able to show my students the protocol and have them practice on the primates that surround them at school.

What’s a unique characteristic of the silky sifaka lemur?
It is one of the largest and the whitest of all the lemurs; hence their nickname: Angels of the Forest. They have some black on parts of their bodies, but it is striking how white they are.