Educator returns from Costa Rica with life lessons

David Riley, Daily News staff

Boston Day and Evening Academy math teacher Janet Platt of Ashland spent five weeks in Costa Rica.

Ashland, Mass. – On a five-week trip to Costa Rica this summer, a math teacher from Ashland found countless lessons to bring back to her students.

At a banana farm, Janet Platt discovered ways to teach high school teens about the economics and science behind their food.

In cooperatives run by Costa Rica’s indigenous people, she found ways to talk to students about what it means to live a sustainable lifestyle.

Platt, who teaches at a public charter school in Roxbury called Boston Day and Evening Academy, made the trip with a grant from the Fund for Teachers. The nonprofit Boston Plan for Excellence awarded the grant in the spring.

“I’m really grateful to have had this opportunity,” Platt said yesterday, four days after returning to her Rodman Road home. “I wouldn’t have been able to afford this on my own.”

During the trip, she spent weeks in an intensive program to learn Spanish, toured indigenous farming communities, and saw such sights as a volcano and a mountain cloud forest.

Platt traveled to the coastal Central American country with a science teacher from her school, Alison Hramiec. Last winter, they worked together to complete an elaborate application for the grant.

The Fund for Teachers offers grants for teachers to pursue special interests that can play a role in their classrooms.

Platt said she and Hramiec picked Costa Rica in part because the nation has a good record of sustainability – limiting humanity’s impact on the environment and society. Both teachers wanted to bring that concept to their classes.

“We also teach in Boston, so about 50 percent of our students come from Spanish-speaking families,” Platt said. Though many speak English, knowing Spanish can help in talking to their families, she said.

The teachers also wanted to learn through community service, something they urge their students to do.

Platt left July 14, two weeks after school ended for the year. She began the trip by attending Centro PanAmericano de Idiomas, a language school in Monteverde where she took Spanish classes for four hours every morning.

Platt then toured organic and fair trade farms and cooperatives in indigenous towns and villages, where she said people are trying to hold onto their culture as they do business in the wider world.

“They’re trying to stick to their old farming practices, but they also realize they can’t live apart from the rest of Costa Rica,” Platt said.

She also learned about the Central American Free Trade Agreement, a new set of trade rules countries in the region are struggling to understand.

That leg of the trip was organized by Global Exchange, a human rights group that supports the communities it tours, she said. She said she was impressed with the organization and stayed with families or in Costa Rican establishments only, traveling with local guides.

Before the trip, Platt said she mainly thought of living sustainably in environmental terms, but came back seeing it differently.

“I went down thinking it was about the environment and recycling and being green,” she said. “But in Costa Rica, it’s also about preserving their culture while making sure people have jobs.”

In her down time, Platt said she toured Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast, where she saw turtles lay eggs en masse; the volcano Arenal, where she saw lava flowing down its side; and a cloud forest where she saw sloths and toucans.

“Their beaks really are like Toucan Sam,” she said.

Platt, who spent three years in the Peace Corps more than a decade ago, said she hopes to talk to her students about sustainability by relating it to their own neighborhoods and cultures.

She and Hramiec also are working together on teaching about the economics of trade and food, and the science of growing crops organically.

Even puzzling over an ATM to figure out how many Costa Rican colons add up to an American dollar, she thought of a lesson on currency exchange rates.

But one of the biggest lessons was a personal one, which Platt found while staying with a Costa Rican family.

“People in general don’t have so much stuff. We really have a lot of stuff here that we think we need,” she said. “People there might not have everything we have, but they may still have everything they need.”

(David Riley can be reached at 508-626-3919 or

Fund Sends Teachers Around Globe

Local 2 News – KPRC Houston

Forgotten war hero a personal quest for Bellaire coach Walker

Heath Hamilton

Bellaire football coach Jeff Walker was a 12-year-old boy when he started reading about legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne.

Little did he know he’d eventually write about a man who considered Rockne a mentor.

Walker is working on a book about Jack Chevigny, a football star in the 1920s and coach in the 1930s. As a Marine, he was killed at age 38 during the U.S. invasion of Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945.

Chevigny is comparable to modern-day Pat Tillman, a player for the Arizona Cardinals who had enlisted in the Army and was killed in Afghanistan in 2004. However, Chevigny’s legacy has not stood the test of time, as Walker realized while looking through a University of Texas football media guide in 2000.

The only information he could gather on Chevigny, who coached at Texas from 1934-36, was that he was the Longhorn’s only losing coach and was killed in Iwo Jima.

“That was it,” Walker said of the small blurb. “I looked online and couldn’t find anything on him.”

Walker, along with his coaching duties, has written 17 instructional coaching books. He always believed his pen had more in it than that, and he thought Chevigny’s story must be more complex than a win-loss record.

For the last seven years, Walker has been working on the research for his book. As an 11th-grade history teacher, he was recently awarded a grant by Fund For Teachers, a nonprofit organization that helps teachers travel the world for independent studies in hopes of enriching their classroom.

Thanks to the grant, Walker will travel to Guam and then Iwo Jima in March 2008 at about the time his lesson plan concludes with World War II. He hopes to establish a Chevigny blog for his students back home.

He didn’t think he’d be selected, but Walker thought he at least had to go through with the formality. This is more than an extensive research project. Chevigny’s tale has become a personal mission.

“The reason I’m going is a debt I have to pay in this quest,” Walker said. “I can’t morally write about this guy when the central part of this guy’s story is his death, his sacrifice and willingness to go there.

“I don’t think this happened by accident. I think its all part of what’s supposed to happen. I was supposed to come across his path and look into his life story. This wasn’t just pulling someone out of a hat.”

Chevigny played for Notre Dame in the 1920s and coached there in the early 1930s. He was a player/coach for the Chicago Cardinals in 1932 before heading to Texas. After coaching, he moved back home to Indiana about 1940. By Walker’s estimation, Chevigny was drafted by the Army at age 36 and quickly left the Army for the Marine Corps.

Chevigny became a football coach at the Marine base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina before requesting a transfer overseas to fight with “his boys.”

Chevigny, at the time, was known for playing in the 1928 Army game, which included Rockne’s famous “win one for the Gipper” halftime speech. Chevigny scored a touchdown in the third quarter, and was recorded by officials (who were also journalists covering the game) saying, “That’s one for the Gipper.”

A penchant for women and fast cars, Chevigny dated movie actresses and was friends with celebrities such as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. He was seen as a publicity coup for the military, appearing in ads promoting enlistment.

While the Gipper story has been confirmed, there were several stories about him at the time that proved untrue. One false tale was about a gold pen taken from Chevigny’s dead body that was later used by Japanese officials to sign their surrender on the U.S.S. Missouri in 1945.

There have been many challenges in putting the story together and, early on, Walker wondered if he would ever find anyone who knew him as an adult. In 2005, Walker was given an extensive scrapbook by Chevigny’s family. Since then the “sky has opened up.”

Still, Walker feels as though he’s putting together a massive jigsaw puzzle and not all of the pieces are in the same place. It’s going to take a while longer, but he hopes in the investigative process his students learn the value of thinking for themselves, rather than taking everything they read at face value.

When he teaches history, Walker also tries to give his students more of a personal connection between their subjects than just names and dates.

“This is just an outreach of my philosophy,” Walker said. “Being able to appreciate someone you know nothing about allows you to give more appreciation to yourself.”

Football coach to be awarded grant to research WWII hero

Walker will travel to Iwo Jima, where UT football coach Chevigny died ‘with his boys’ during invasion

Jeff Jenkins, Houston Chronicle

Bellaire High School head football coach Jeff Walker is pouring his love of sports and history into a project that he hopes will inspire students and athletes alike.

Walker, who teaches 11th grade U.S. history since Reconstruction at Bellaire, earned a 2007 grant from Fund for Teachers. It is a national nonprofit organization that pays for select teachers to travel the globe in pursuit of independent studies.

Walker’s reward is a trip to Guam and Iwo Jima in March 2008.

Bellaire High School head football coach Jeff Walker tells the story of the late Jack Chevigny, a forgotten Depression-era sports hero who served in the Marine Corps and died in the invasion of Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945.

For Walker, it’s the culmination of a six-year personal quest to tell the story of the late Jack Chevigny, a forgotten Depression-era sports hero who served in the Marine Corps and died in the invasion of Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945.

“I wanted to find a historical person who people didn’t know much about,” Walker said. “That’s when I stumbled upon Jack Chevigny. He played for (legendary coach) Knute Rockne at Notre Dame in the famous ‘Win One for the Gipper’ game against Army (in 1928).”

Chevigny, who also coached briefly at Notre Dame in 1931, after Rockne died in a plane crash, and with the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals in 1932, is best known in Texas as the only coach at the University of Texas to have a losing record during his three-year stint from 1934-36.

But Walker believed there was more to Chevigny than his record with the Longhorns. In 2001, he began intensive research, which initially did not yield much information.

“I became fascinated by Jack and had to know more,” Walker said.

Walker eventually learned that Chevigny died on the beach at Iwo Jima at 38 years old – well past the age of service. But Chevigny, who was coaching football at the Camp Lejeune military base in North Carolina, stood up for “his boys” and refused to let them go to war without him.

“In my research, I wanted to accomplish several things, one of which was to prove the truth of Jack’s life was even more spectacular than the fabrications,” Walker said.

He made a breakthrough after interviewing Sonny Franck, a College Football Hall of Famer at the University of Minnesota and former NFL great who was considered at the time the fastest man in the league.

Franck met Chevigny while serving in the Marines and had fond memories of him, noting that Chevigny often talked about football strategy and demonstrated blocking techniques.

Walker also spoke to Chevigny’s nephew, Jack, an attorney in Hammond, Ind., who gave Walker the family’s scrapbook in 2005.

“I would have hit the wall without the scrapbook,” Walker said. “It included dozens of photos and letters that helped me understand who Jack was.”

In his final letter, Chevigny mentions his respect for Col. Thomas A Wornham and his awe at serving in the Marine Corps.

The letter was postmarked from Saipan just before forces moved on to Iwo Jima. Walker spoke to numerous Marines from the era, confirming that Chevigny had become a celebrity figure.

But why was Chevigny on Iwo Jima in the first place? Walker discovered that Chevigny served in the 5th Marine Division, 27th Regiment as a liaison officer, a newly created position with an open-ended job description.

Chevigny’s role was to facilitate communication between the 27th and 28th regiment commands during the actual landing.

“Jack was a true-life hero,” Walker said. “As a football coach, I felt it was my mission to tell Jack’s story.”

Walker is writing Chevigny’s biography and is seeking a publisher.

First, he is looking forward to his trip to Guam and Iwo Jima. A history buff, he considers Iwo Jima a “Holy Grail of American History.”

The main reason, though, is to explore the island that set the stage for Chevigny’s final day.

Walker will take with him his son, McMeans Middle School seventh-grader Gabe.

“It’s an important journey for me and I want to share it with Gabe,” Walker said. Fund for Teachers felt the same way, which is why the organization approved Walker’s grant.

“About one out of 24 applicants gets a grant, but we felt Jeff’s project was unique,” said Karen Webb, executive director of Fund for Teachers. “The story he wanted to tell was truly fascinating. We felt it would translate well to his students.”

Walker plans to incorporate Chevigny’s story into his history classes and in his pep talks with his team.

He believes Chevigny’s life is inspirational.

“Jack Chevigny was a remarkable person,” Walker said. “I hope everyone will agree, whether they are a football fan or not.”

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6 Pattison Elementary teachers visit Jamestown

Betty L. Martin
Houston Chronicle

Six Pattison Elementary social studies teachers backtracked in time to what’s known as “America’s Historic Triangle” of English settlement on U.S. shores – Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown, Va.

They essentially went on a shopping trip for artifact replicas they will share in their classrooms – and, ultimately, with the Katy Independent School District’s social studies teachers – to enliven lessons about the culture and daily lives of early Anglo residents.

Traveling Teachers: Social studies teachers from Pattison Elementary visited Jamestown this month. From left are Jill Hortness, 45; Laura Sanders, 37; Whitney LaRocca, 29; Regina Thompson, 42; and Pennylane Lara, 35.

The tab for their airfare, lodging and other expenses was picked up by Fund For Teachers, a Houston-based nonprofit group that provides grants to help enrich the curriculum of teachers throughout the United States.

That the “Team Jamestown” group’s trip came as the Jamestown Settlement is celebrating its 400th anniversary was a bonus for Katy teachers whose job is to impart that period’s events to Pattison’s fifth-graders: Beth Emerson, Jill Hortness, Pennylane Lara, Whitney LaRocca, Laura Sanders and Regina Thompson.

“The history of Jamestown as an early American settlement is an important part of the curriculum, and it builds a foundation of history throughout the students’ life,” said Lara, 35, who has taught social studies for seven years at Pattison.

Lara, who has been a teacher for 12 years, said she and other teachers applied for the $7,500 in total grants from the Fund for Teachers, which awarded the grants to only 10 percent of applicants, or about 110 grants in Houston alone.

Sanders said the idea is to create a “learning kit” where pupils will have a more hands-on experience with history.

“We want to purchase the toys and clothing from that era,” said Sanders, 37, a four-year teacher of social studies, math and science at Pattison, who has 14 years’ teaching experience. While the grant covered airfare, hotel, food, transportation and tickets for the Jamestown Settlement, Colonial Williamsburg and historic Yorktown, it didn’t pay for the replicas the teachers want to put into their shared history trunks.

LaRocca said the group was especially lucky that they were in Jamestown during an archaeological dig near the settlement’s learning center, and even luckier that the Katy community also donated funds to help buy the replicas they need for the trunk kits.

“We’ll have three kits, total, and each kit will have the same artifacts – irons, coins, jewelry, pipes, water jugs, clothing, tools and money from that period,” said LaRocca, 29, who has taught social studies and language arts at Pattison for all of her eight-year career.

In addition, the teachers attended events commemorating the 400th anniversary of Jamestown’s founding in 1607.

Jill Hortness, 45, who has spent the last three years at Pattison teaching social studies and language arts out of her 20-year career, said that each kit – with an estimated value of $500 – will include computer-programmed photos and videos as well as artifact replicas.

“We’ll incorporate photos we’ll take to make the students feel as if they’re there,” Hortness said. “We’ll make them feel like history comes alive while they actually touch the artifacts and put on the clothing of days when they didn’t have electronics.”

LaRocca said that without visuals, it’s not easy – even for adults – to comprehend how life was like without the technologies people depend upon today.

“I hope it will be imprinted on them how many advantages they have today,” LaRocca said.

Ideas the teachers plan to use in their lesson plans include asking pupils to write a letter from Jamestown as if they were residents of that settlement, explaining aspects of their daily lives, or identifying unseen artifacts inside a bag by touch and describing how each one is used.

“I think that will help them experience what it was like in those days,” Lara said. “We’re hoping this will spark an interest when they go on to study American history in general.”

Another central goal, Lara said, is to eventually be able to make the kits available to other social studies teachers, complete with lesson plans and photos using the school district’s automated computer network for shared lesson plans.

For information about Fund for Teachers, visit the group’s Web site at:, or call 713-296-6127.