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.

Web Cam Brings India To Beggs Elementary School

Rick Wells
The News On 6

BEGGS, OK – A group of Beggs third graders talked to people on the other side of the world Wednesday morning. The teachers used something the kids love – computers – to teach them about and take them to a place they’ve never been.

“Why do the women wear red dots on their forehead, and what does that mean?” asked Payden Bradshaw.

Payden Bradshaw is a Beggs third grader. She’s participating in a video conference with some new friends in India. The kids have been studying the continents and had some questions they wanted answered.

They want to learn by doing and seeing, they don’t want to just read about it,” said Sherrie Guthrie, third-grade teacher.

Sherrie Guthrie is one of the third-grade teachers, and her brother is working in India right now. So they used the Internet and a webcam to hold a video conference to ask and get answers to their questions.

Emma asked about the weather.

“How is the weather today and can you tell us about monsoon season?” she asked.

Seventy-six degrees, they said, and monsoon season runs through the summer months. They could have read that, but how much more fun this way.

But in this time of shrinking budgets where’d they get a web cam?

Cindy Swearingen, the Beggs Public Schools Superintendent, told us the teachers are very active grant writers finding money outside the budget to support programs they think they need.

“How can I take these kids out to a place they’ve never been to expand their horizons,” said first-grade teacher Darla Six of her goals.

She helped write the grant that got the webcam and some training on how to use it – to go places like India to get questions answered like about those red dots on some Hindu women’s foreheads.

Payden Bradshaw now knows the answer.

“They wear it when they are married,” she said.

In Beggs you will find creative teachers using technology to help educate their students despite tight budgets.

Sherrie Guthrie’s brother Roy Kulp will be in Japan in a few weeks, so they plan another web cam hookup with him and some of his colleagues there, to learn more about that country.

Bringing European Art to the Classroom

Samira Rizvi
Ultimate Katy

Trekking through Western Europe nearly three years ago, Nancy Hess was busy thinking how she could bring the experience back to her students at Katy Independent School District’s Griffin Elementary School.

By all accounts, Hess went over and beyond the call to duty and has recently been presented with one of only eight Plank Fellowship Awards in the nation. The award was in recognition of the programs she developed after her European visit as part of her Fund for Teachers fellowship and was awarded by Carrie Pillsbury from the Fund for Teachers program on National Teacher’s Day this month.

“The program uses your own creativity to set up your experience,” Hess explained. “I called mine ‘Walking in the Footsteps of the Masters’.”

The Fund for Teachers provides $5,000 grants for individual teachers or $10,000 grants for teams of two or more teachers. Hess’ fine arts grant was for a trip to Western Europe to study and observe the homes and workplaces of such artists and musicians as Mozart, Handel, Monet and Michelangelo. Her 2½-week visit included sites in France, Italy, Germany, Austria and England. Traveling with her on the 2007 trip was her daughter Ashley, 22, and a student at the time, who paid her own way.

Based in Houston, the national foundation takes applications each year from October through January, with awards announced in April, according to national director Karen Kovach Webb. Now in its 10th year, the Fund for Teachers provides the funds for experiences anywhere in the world for “self-designed learning experiences,” Webb said.

The Plank Fellowship Award acknowledges the programs teachers design using the information they have from their travels and was established in honor of Raymond Plank, the founder of Apache Corp. in Houston as well as the Fund for Teachers, Webb said.

“Plank wanted to positively impact the learning experience of students,” Webb explained, “and decided giving the awards to teachers would affect more students than giving an award to one student.”

There is one national winner, who receives a $1,000 stipend and several regional winners, each of whom receives $500. Hess is the fellowship winner for the Houston region, Webb said.

“The fellowships are available for teachers in pre-K to 12th-grade classrooms, who spend at least 50 percent of their time in the classroom,” Webb said. “There were 465 awarded this year, and 4,000 awards in the past 10 years. The total amount awarded this year was $1.9 million, given to 55 teachers in 38 different schools.”

Hess, 52, has been a teacher for 27 years, spending 14 of those years in Katy ISD schools. She has been at Griffin Elementary School since it opened in 2006. A graduate of University of Houston and a native of Houston, Hess has a master’s degree in elementary education. She is married to Rusty and is the mother of Ashley, now 24 and a graduate of University of Houston, and Dusten, 21, a University of Houston student. She is the teacher for Griffin Elementary School’s gifted and talented program.

“The benefit of the Fund for Teachers program was that I wanted to learn more about each of the artists and musicians I teach. For most of the kids, this isn’t their art or their music, but I want to teach them a love and recognition for this style of art and music.

The programs she devised at the end of her journey are taught through Power Point slide shows and some video, as well as some hands-on materials she brought back from Europe.

“Walking into the back of Claude Monet’s house is like walking into Disneyland,” she smiled. “It gives you the feeling of walking through there when he was there. So many subjects tie together, like architecture and architectural terms. When you like something you’ve done you love to talk about it. Being able to portray that to my students made it much more exciting for them.”

Points of interest on her trip included the Vatican, the Forum and the Colosseum in Rome and the city of Venice.

“I learned that Venice is where all the Renaissance artists went to study,” she said, “and the Dome of Basilica is an example of Michelangelo’s architecture.

Hess, who had applied twice for the Fund for Teachers award, said she received a lot of support from school administrators.

“I have a lot of great teachers on campus,” said Griffin Elementary School principal Jacki Keithan, “and she is definitely one of the greats.

“She went to Europe and brought back a lot of first-hand information. I have other teachers who have applied, who are looking for experiences that they can grow with and present to their students, but she is the first one I have had win.

“She’s done some really good things with kids this year.”

Part of the unit Hess teaches includes a “Living Museum.”

“I have the students pick an artist or musician or dancer who worked sometime before 1920,” Hess explained. “The students must research their person and dress up as that person. They are seated next to a ‘buzzer’ and when it is pressed, they have to stand up and give a presentation about that person. It’s like the Hall of Presidents at Disneyland. We had adults and students lined up in the hallways. Some of these kids were so into their characters you’d almost believe they’re real.”

According to national director Webb, the Fund for Teachers will be bringing Plank Fellowship winners together in June in a small town in Wyoming.

“We want them to help us look at how we ask teachers what they’re going to do with all this information when they get back from their journey.”

“A lot of people think, ‘wow, a European vacation’,” Hess laughed. “But it was a very fast-paced trip. I really appreciated being able to travel like that. Without the Fund for Teachers we wouldn’t be able to do that. But to have it be a learning experience is different from a vacation. If I went back I sure wouldn’t take it at as fast-paced as I did.”

Soggy Science: Paddling the Extra Mile for Education

Aaron is a Chicago Public School teacher, currently teaching biology and zoology at Kelly High School on the city’s south side. Prior to becoming a high school teacher, he served as a US Peace Corps volunteer for three years in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu where he worked as a classroom teacher, curriculum designer and manager of a cyclone relief fund. As a 2008 Fund for Teachers fellow, Aaron paddled a kayak more than 1000 miles down the lower Mississippi River to study nutrient pollution and design a river ecology unit for high school students. His writing and photographs have appeared in Sea Kayaker Magazine, Wavelength Paddling and on GoNomad.com. You can read a personal account of Aaron’s fellowship at his blog.

Ventura County schools celebrate Read Across America Day

Rachel McGrath
Ventura County Star

Adriane Levy brought her three Tennessee fainting goats to school Tuesday in Moorpark as real-life illustrations for the classic Norwegian children’s tale “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.”

Levy, an instructional aide for the Moorpark Unified School District, was taking part in Read Across America Day activities at Arroyo West School.

Read Across America is a nationwide program sponsored by the National Education Association that annually celebrates the March 2, 1904, birthday of the late Theodor Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss, and is designed to foster a love of books in young children. Schools across Ventura County held events Tuesday, and some are planning activities all week.

“This is a good project and allows everybody to focus on reading, and I really enjoy sharing my experience with the students,” Levy said.

After reading the book, Levy let the children interact with the goats.

“I like it because I’ve never seen a goat before,” said kindergartner Libby Peoples, 5.

“I liked the story and the goats feel real soft,” said Joseph Amezcua-Matthews, 6.

In another classroom, 16-year-old actor Brett Loehr, who has appeared in episodes of TV’s “Hannah Montana,” “Without A Trace” and “Medium,” was reading a book to fifth-graders.

“I love it,” said Loehr, who used to be a student at Arroyo West. “It’s great just coming back to the school and seeing all my old teachers again. I love spending time with kids, and reading is awesome, so it’s great reading stories and stuff to them.”

Arroyo West, with 350 students in grades K-5, has made the literary arts a focus. Thanks to grants from the Fund for Teachers, a national donor-supported organization that helps teachers with professional growth, six Arroyo West teachers attended the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Institute at Columbia University in New York last summer. Six more have applied for grants to participate this year.

“It’s a balanced literacy program, and the highlight is children reading at their independent reading level,” said Principal Susanne Smith-Stein.

Instead of a class reading the same text at the same time, children now choose their own books and read silently to themselves, said Smith-Stein.

“We see children making great gains in reading, because they’re reading something they like at their level and not reading something too easy or too hard,” she said.

Teacher Irene Garcia, who has attended the summer workshop in New York, said the change is reaping huge dividends.

“We know children who read at their learning level will learn faster, and last year our scores went up tremendously in reading and writing,” she said.

Moorpark sheriff’s Deputy Paul Higgason entertained the students Tuesday with a rendition of the children’s book “Walter the Farting Dog.”

“It’s basically a natural bodily function, and Walter saves the day by stopping criminals from committing crimes by farting,” Higgason said. “I love doing something positive with the kids.”

Click here to listen to the guest readers.

Oklahoma Fellow Gives Unique History Lesson

Darla Splike
The Oklahoman

PONCA CITY – When she was in the eighth grade, Maurisa Pruett asked a friend to join an invitation-only group at their school.

Other group members rejected the girl because of the color of her skin, Pruett said. It was 1978, and segregation was illegal. Pruett got no support from adults she consulted, so she ended up quitting the club.

But the situation changed her outlook.

Now a science teacher at East Middle School in Ponca City, Pruett uses that experience to teach her students about history and civil rights. “My hope is that they will be brave enough to take a stand if they’re ever in a situation that needs that to happen,” the Ponca City teacher said.

During a three- to four-week enrichment class called “Taking a Stand,” Pruett discusses historical movements and contemporary events where courageous individuals made a difference by standing up for what they believed in.

Pruett received a fellowship last summer to visit some of the places about which she teaches. She spent three weeks driving across part of the southern United States. She visited museums and historic sites along the way.

One of the most moving experiences on her trip was when she visited a slave museum and saw cramped quarters where slaves lived, Pruett said.

She said she was appalled by stories she heard about children whose job was to drink water from the rice paddies to make sure no salt was getting through when the paddies were flooded.

Visiting those sites and talking to people who had lived through the history has helped her to connect those experiences to her students in a more dynamic way, Pruett said.

“When you go there and you hear people’s stories, it starts to come to life,” Pruett said. “You feel how humid it was and how miserably hot in the summertime, and yet the people worked from sunup to sundown in terrible conditions.”

Those travel experiences fuel many of her class discussions.

On Friday, Pruett paused a civil rights documentary her eighth-grade students were watching to interject with a story from her summer travels.

She met a man in Birmingham, Ala., who lived there when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed, killing four girls in 1963. More than 45 years later, the man still got misty eyes as he recalled the chaos of that day, Pruett said.

Students said the class has been inspiring. “It’s really opened my eyes,” said eighth-grade student Lexi Smith. Smith said the stories make her want to visit some of those historic sites, too. Her classmate, Megan Alexander, agreed.

Alexander said many students at school forget that certain words or actions can be hurtful to others. Pruett’s class is a good reminder, Alexander said.

“I think more people should learn about this, and more people should be thinking about this,” Alexander said.

2009 Houston Fellow Debra Mabery

ABC 13 Houston