Harlem trip’s aim is to aid ‘culturally relevant’ teaching

Susan Troller
The Capital Times

Dancing on the stage was the last thing on Madison school teacher Nancy Lanyon’s mind when she sat in the audience of the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem on amateur night. With her bad back and walking cane, the white-haired veteran teacher figured even getting out of her seat would be a stretch.

“When the MC picked me with four others from the audience, at first I didn’t even think I could do it,” Lanyon admits. But she threw down her cane and clambered up on the stage.

The audience went wild.

When it was all over and Lanyon had danced her allotted two minutes, it was clear she’d won over the hearts of the tough New York audience, say her fellow travelers and colleagues from Hawthorne Elementary. She also won her category of the amateur competition, and was mobbed with well-wishers as she left the theater.

“Even on the street, among the 16- and 17-year-old kids, she was like a celebrity. Everyone was saying, ‘Oh, I just love Nancy,’” fellow teacher Emily Grams reports.

Performing at the Apollo in front of a largely African-American audience was not just a capstone experience in a trip filled with remarkable experiences for Lanyon, who is white and in her 60s. “It was probably one of the best moments of my life,” she says with a smile.

Lanyon, Grams, and fellow Hawthorne teachers Julie Olsen and Abby Miller received a grant from the national nonprofit Fund for Teachers that allowed them to travel to Harlem to learn about the art, music, poetry, literary history and drama of this hub of African-American life. They all agree that they now have a new appreciation for the richness of black culture and its profound impact on American life and culture as a whole.

For these four, plus a dozen more local educators whose travel was covered by a couple of additional grants, the experience was part of a wider effort to help them better teach in what’s known as a culturally relevant way.

“Culturally relevant practice” is a relatively new movement in education that recognizes that learning, for all of us, is related to our cultural background and what we know from our daily living. Research shows that effectively bridging the gaps between a teacher’s background and student’s experience can improve academic performance.

Andreal Davis is one of two district administrators in charge of helping to create culturally relevant practices in local classrooms. A former elementary school teacher at Lincoln, Davis, who is black, now helps colleagues recognize that different groups of children bring their different backgrounds, expectations and even communication styles to the classroom.

She says teachers sometimes need help learning to translate different ways their students learn, or what kind of interactions make sense to different groups of children.

“Communication styles for all of us can vary a great deal. It can be like the difference between listening to conventional music, or listening to jazz, where the narrative doesn’t just go in a straight line,” she explains. “If that flow is what you’re used to, it’s what you know how to follow in a conversation, or in a class.”

Given Hawthorne’s demographics – 70 percent of the students are poor, with a diverse population that includes 18 percent Hispanic, 20 percent Asian, 32 percent black and 28 percent white – the school has respectable, rising test scores.

But the teachers there want to do even more to engage all students and help them excel. That’s what they’re hoping the trip to Harlem will help them do. “At our school, we do work really hard to try to reach all our students and I think it shows,” says Olsen. “But we can always get better.”

When the teachers return to school next fall, they will bring not just enthusiasm for Harlem’s rich culture and heritage to their racially diverse classrooms in Madison. They’ll also bring respect and new appreciation for the way that people and families communicate, interact and look out for each other, taught by example through their Harlem friends.

As teachers whose life is working with kids, they were especially impressed with the interactions they saw regularly between adults and small children in Harlem. “We saw an older gentleman walking down the street and when he passed a little boy he smiled and said, ‘Hey, little man, better tie your shoes,’” Olsen says. That kind of street conversation was common, they say, and so was routinely looking out for your neighbor.

They were also impressed with the friendliness and candor of 88-year-old Delores Leon, known throughout the community as “Doll,” whose beautiful hidden street-side garden they stumbled upon. She was eager to share stories of a lifetime spent in Harlem with her unexpected visitors.

“It was the spontaneous interactions that were so memorable,” says Grams, adding that the group felt a sense of belonging in the neighborhood, from their first day staying in a local hotel.

Lanyon tells of the time she was at a restaurant and noticed some women looking at her and whispering.

“I thought maybe they thought I wasn’t dressed up enough, and, as a white person with my sandals and my backpack on the table, I figured I did look out of place. So I got up to go and one of the women stopped me. ‘Honey, you don’t want to keep your bag on the table,’ she says. ‘Somebody will just snatch it right up,’ Here I was worried they were criticizing me and instead they were worrying about me!”

Joining the four Hawthorne colleagues who won the national grant for the trip were several other Hawthorne teachers; their principal, Beth Lehman; a teacher from Lowell Elementary teacher; as well as Davis and another district administrator. These individuals received grants from the Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools and the Evjue Foundation. The groups had overlapping time in Harlem, and shared many experiences.

“One of the things about travel is that you get off the plane, and the next day you wake up in someone else’s world,” Olsen says. “That’s a powerful thing.”

Both groups of teachers stayed in Harlem. Their list of scheduled activities included seeing August Wilson’s powerful play, “Fences,” starring recent Tony Award-winning actor and actress, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. They also visited the famed Cotton Club and toured several schools, including a public school with an arts focus and a successful charter school.

They also went to jazz clubs, churches, bookstores, public and private gardens and museums. They spent time at the New York City Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and toured Harlem on foot with Harlem historian extraordinaire, Neal Shoemaker. “Our tour was supposed to take two hours. It took three and a half, and every minute was worthwhile,” Lanyon says.

For Davis, a Milwaukee native, this first trip to Harlem was especially meaningful, both personally and professionally.

When she taught fifth-graders, she often used material about American history that described the flowering of the arts in Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s. “I loved teaching my students about the heritage of African-American culture and the Harlem Renaissance. But being here in person and seeing everything firsthand is better than I could have imagined.”

Now she can see first hand how enthusiastic teachers become when they learn something through their own experience.

“I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say this trip has changed my life,” says Lanyon.

Geometry in the world

Fund for Teachers sends YHS teacher on an international learning exploration

Candace Blomendahl

YORK – York High School geometry teacher Richard Saxer has returned from an international learning odyssey.

Saxer traveled to England and Ireland in order to bring back evidence of the relationship between geometry and prehistoric sites, architectural designs and art. His fellowship was made possible through a Fund for Teachers grant administered by Nebraska’s Malaika Foundation. The Fund for Teachers program provides Nebraska teachers with a means to take odysseys around the world that affect their own lives and careers as well as the education experience of their students. This summer, Fund for Teachers sent 23 Nebraska teachers from 18 different schools to other parts of the world to help transform their careers, lives and classrooms.

When YPS superintendent Mike Lucas sent out an email in late October with a link to the Fund for Teachers program, Saxer saw the opportunity but knew it would take some work. He had to complete a very detailed questionnaire about what he was interested in and what might affect students the most. Saxer also completed an extensive proposal describing his fellowship rationale and purpose, in which he gave a description of his project, how he will grow and learn as a teacher, how students will grow and learn from his experience, how it will benefit the school community and his plan for implementation of what he learned through his fellowship.

The overall goal of Saxer’s fellowship was to share with students how geometry can be related to something concrete. He said he has learned in his teaching career that it is always a good idea to attach something related to real life “rather than go through the book and imagine things.”

He chose England and Ireland as his destinations and researched places that he could visit that would be related to geometry. Saxer wanted to observe prehistoric sites in both countries, many of which still hold mysteries as to why they exist. He wanted to investigate how they are geometry-related.

By visiting these places, Saxer has made it possible for students to help solve some of these mysteries. He plans to look at these places with his students during the year and provide evidence of geometric principles that run deep at these sites. They will then make their own hypotheses about these sites and draw their own conclusions.

He traveled to the prehistoric sites of Newgrange, Knowth, Fourknocks, Stonehenge and Avebury. Each place amazed him.

At some of the sites, the placement of the stones were related to the summer and winter solstices, which Saxer found stunning. He was able to experience for himself the geometric theories that have encircled these prehistoric sites for centuries.

“It’s just fascinating,” Saxer said of how geometry relates to these places.

Saxer said he witnessed a lot of beautiful symmetric architecture in London. He studied the presence of tessellations and the constructions of arcs, circles and polygons at sites throughout his trip. He also visited art galleries and studied the geometric principles found in several works of art.

At a science museum in London, he visited a “History of Mathematics” exhibit that related brilliantly to his studies.

After having the chance to witness first hand just how deep the foundations of geometry run, Saxer said it has reinforced how important geometry has been in the history of civilization. His appreciation for art and architecture has grown. The trip brought theories and ideas to life.

“It was incredible,” he said.

Saxer found himself saying, “I can’t believe what I’m looking at,” all the time.

“Every day was like that,” he said.

Throughout the rest of his career, Saxer will share what he has experienced and learned with his students. They will be able to see the relevance of geometry to the world around them.

Saxer has been teaching for 19 years and this experience will not only engage student learning, but it will also continue to provide Saxer with even more inspiration.

“It’s renewed me,” he said. “It’s probably a once in a lifetime deal.”

Edmond Fellow Carrie Clark

EDMOND — Trusting that teachers know best how to engage and energize their students, Fund for Teachers recently awarded, through the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence and the Tulsa Community Foundation, 66 Oklahoma PreK-12th-grade teachers with fellowships for self-designed professional development totaling about $250,000.

Edmond Fellow Carrie Clark from Central Middle School will use LabQuest technology to collect soil and water samples in Yellowstone National Park to demonstrate how to maximize the use of technology in science exploration and methodology.

“We recognize that the teacher is the decisive factor in students’ learning,” said Karen Kovach Webb, executive director of Fund for Teachers. “We are deeply committed to the growth of teachers through strategic investments in their own areas of personal and professional interest.”

Clark said she is looking forward to using new technology that has been provided for the classrooms including LabQuest equipment and probes costing from $80 to $180 purchased through a bond issue.

“I will be able to use some LabQuest handsets that I have for the classroom,” Clark said. “Our school has a whole bunch of handsets with probes for motion detectors, light sensors and other things.”

Clark said she hopes to bring back knowledge of different ways to use the handsets so the classroom teachers will be able to use them more often.

“I am going to take of video of me using one at Yellowstone in some of the research I will be conducting,” Clark said.

She plans to bring the video back and use it in her own classroom to train students on how to use the equipment. She also plans on showing the other teachers practical applications they can apply in their own classrooms.

“We as grownups have a tendency to avoid technology, especially when we have to manage and trouble shoot for yourself much less for 30 students,” Clark said.

“Lots of problem-solving applications come with the program, and it is a terrific resource using electronic technology, what real scientists are using today. More and more scientists are using equipment like LabQuest.”

Each fellowship is as unique as the teacher who designed it; and regardless of the destination or discipline, these newly named Fellows will return to 37 Oklahoma schools inspired by the pursuit of ideas, terrains and cultures in 17 countries this summer.

“I felt that Yellowstone National Park is the complete package,” Clark said. “It contains something from every field that I teach: earth science, life science, chemistry and motion and forces.”

“In terms of being a perfect backdrop, I couldn’t think of a better location.”

The Fund for Teachers fellowship application becomes available online each October, with an application deadline in January. Awardees are notified in April and fellowships take place during the summer.

Clark and her Yellowstone experience may be followed by going to www.outsidewithus.com.

Newsletter – Volume 6, Summer 2010

In This Issue:
Brooklyn Dinosaurs
10TH Anniversary Celebration
Pi Society Fellows
Plank Award Winners

Read our recent newsletter, Odyssey.