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.

How I Spent My Summer

Teachers Bike for Health: See how four teachers incorporated bicycling into their FFT fellowships in the latest issue of American Bicyclist. Read more.

Fund for Teachers: On the Contemporary Arts Scene

Corbin teachers take two-week trip to Egypt

Chris Parsons
The News Journal
Corbin, Kentucky

They may not have walked like Egyptians on their recent trip to the Middle East, but a pair of Corbin Middle School teachers walked with the Egyptians for two weeks.”

Thanks to the Fund for Teachers, a program that provides teachers with opportunities for summer sabbaticals, Melissa Evans and Michele Anderson were treated to a two-week trip to Egypt, but it didn’t come easy.”

The two had to submit a proposal detailing how they would use the information gained on their trip would make them better teachers and how their improved skills would be implemented classroom, benefiting their students, curricula a dn school. According to the Fund for Teachers website, teachers are awarded based on application quality and merit as judged by a committee.”

“We put a lot of time and effort into our proposal, so it wasn’t easy,” Evan said. “We had to detail how we would use what we learned while we were there and give examples of how we would put that in the form of a lesson plan.”

“We have to bring in all the different subject areas from art to history and science to math, and write multiple lessons” Evans added.”

For Anderson, who teaches math, she said that her lessons would focus more on the economical front. Explaining some vast differences in Egypt and the U.S.

“For me, since I teach math, I will do something pertaining to how much it will cost to plan a trip to Egypt,” Anderson said. “It will based a lot on money conversions dealing with the Egyptian pound to the U.S. dollar.”

“It will also show the difference in the quality of living between the two places and the money that can be earned, for example, working two jobs there, people make around $60 a month,” she added.”

During their stay, the two said they got the full experience of Egypt, traveling from one end of the country to the other.”

They first arrived in Cairo and on day two of their trip they visited pyramids in Giza and the Sphynx, as well as a trip to the el-Khalili bazaar, described as a shopper’s paradise. On day three, they traveled to Alexandria, the second largest city in Egypt which is known as “the pearl of the Mediterranean.” They also visited Pompey’s pillar and the catacombs before strolling around Bibliotheca Alexandria.”

On days four through six, they traveled to Egypt’s southern-most city, Aswan, which is set along the Nile River. While there, they visited the temples of Abu Simbel, built by Ramses II in the 13 century BC. Days seven through nine were spent on a Nile cruise en route to Luxor, the capital of Egypt.”

Day 10 took them to several ancient sites on the west bank, two mammoth statues of Amenophis II at the Colossi of Memnon, the Queen Hatshepsut Temple and the Tomb of Tutankhamun. On day 11they saw the Egyptian Museum, with its most significant showpiece, the magnificent Tutankhamun (King Tut) collection. Shop at the largest souk in the Middle East, legendary for copper, perfume, silver, gold and start.”

According to the group’s Website, The Fund for Teachers is the brainchild of Raymond Plank, founder and Chairman of the Board of Houston-based Apache Corp. Planks explains why he started the organization in a letter from the founder.”

“Growing up in the Midwest, the most important influence in my life other than my father was a man named Noah Foss,”

Plank stated. “He was a Latin teacher, a towering figure who inspired, challenged and motivated countless young men at the small country day school I attended in the 1930s. But for Foss, who gave me the focus and self-respect I needed, I wouldn’t have received an honors score on my college entrance exams. And, almost certainly, I never would have gone to Yale.”

“There are many Noah Fosses in this country; teachers who each day inspire, challenge and shape young lives in countless ways,” he added. “A decade ago I began a modest grant program in Minnesota to reward deserving grades K-12 teachers who wanted a chance to enhance their skills, stimulate their minds, and bring new-found excitement back into the classroom. A chance to study volcanoes in Hawaii. Architecture in Florence. Language in Chile.”

As a result of their trip, Evans and Anderson agreed that they would eventually like to collect donations in some form and possibly send money back to the area they visited in hopes of offering a helping hand to those in need, citing the differences in lifestyles as a main reason.”

“I can’t begin to describe the difference in the way people live over there as compared to here,” Anderson said. “Here, education is something I think we all take for granted, while over there, it is considered a privilege.”

“In our country, a lot of people succeed and have opportunities to do so because of the possibility of an education,” Evans said. “No matter where you come from in our country, you have the opportunity to get an education, but over there it is not that way. Success in anything is rare over there, so when given the chance to get an education they feel really lucky, so I think we really learned a lot about how lucky we all in America.”

A San Francisco elementary school teacher is spending her summer in Madagascar.

Patti Riesling
KCBS 740 AM

SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS) — A San Francisco elementary school teacher is spending her summer in Madagascar studying one of the most critically endangered primates in the world, hoping to bring her experience in the rain forest into the classroom this fall. Dierdre Fitzgerald is studying lemurs.

“There are 51 species of lemurs that live in this country, and all of them are facing a huge threat from slash and burn agriculture,” said Fitzgerald.

Thanks to a $5,000 grant from the nonprofit organization “Fund for Teachers,” Fitzgerald is in the midst of a scientific expedition looking specifically into the silky Sifaka lemurs’ eating habits.

Fitzgerald is taking photos and video while in Madagascar to show her third-grade students at Tenderloin Elementary in the hopes of vividly illustrating some pretty lofty themes.

“It’s very difficult to have 8-year-olds understand some of these concepts of bio-diversity and adaptation, and the kinds of situations that animals face in their ecosystems,” said Fitzgerald.

Listen to Patti Riesling’s interview of FFT Fellow, Dierdre Fitzgerald.

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A World of Knowledge

Fund helps teachers learn lessons about other cultures

Rich Fahey
The Atlanta Educator

The Atlanta Education Fund and a nationally-known non-profit group that supports teachers have joined forces to help 18 APS teachersí dreams come true… and students will benefit as well.

This summer, those 18 teachers who have received Fund for Teachers fellowships worth $77,114 will embark on adventures such as helping to conserve and expand the population of Giant Pandas in China or assisting teachers and students in Ghana in harvesting bio diesel fuel from household resources, while offering English instruction.

The Fund for Teachers is a non- profit group that helps teachers pursue self designed programs that promote summer learning and exploration. Teachers submit proposals detailing how their fellowship will make them better teachers and how their improved skills will be implemented in the classroom. Teachers are awarded grants based on merit.

To date, more than 4,000 teachers from across the United States have received more than $12 million in grants to study and travel in 110 countries on all seven continents. In 2008, the Atlanta Education Fund became the Fund for Teachers’ newest community partner. The AEF’s mission is to galvanize community support to accelerate and sustain student achievement in Atlanta Public Schools.

ìI am excited about this partnership between the Atlanta Education Fund and Fund for Teachers,” said Hosanna Johnson, AEF President. “In all oftheworkwedoto support the district, the quality of Atlanta’s schools is only as good as the quality of the teachers. We are happy to be part of a program that gives back to those who most deserve it.”

Last summer, Michell Carter of Sarah Smith Elementary School volunteered with the Earthwatch Institute,
assessing the endangered hawksbill turtles on a remote island off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. In the evenings she collected vast amounts of plastic products that washed up on the once pristine shoreline.

When she returned to Atlanta, Carter documented the amount of trash each student produced, and led the effort to reduce the amount of plastic waste by up to 60 percent in some classrooms.

Last summer, through the Atlanta Fund for Teachers, Gideons Elementary teacher Darlene Dobbs explored the discoveries of ancient Egyptians in the areas of science, math and linguistics.

Sarah Smith Elementary teacher Michell Carter assisted scientists in gathering data on the hawksbill turtles, an endangered species, in the Great Barrier Reef last summer.

Here are the 2009 Atlanta Fund for Teachers Fellows, their schools and what each will be doing this summer.

Sam Bean, Langston Longley
Stanton D. H. Elementary
Travel to Japan to observe and learn various techniques for teaching critical thinking math skills.

Terri Dunson
Rivers Elementary
Volunteer with the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu, China, focusing on wildlife conservation and scientific research.

Sabrina Harris
Bolton Academy
Live with a family in Playa Tamarindo, Costa Rica, taking daily Spanish classes through the Study Abroad, Inc., program.

Charon Kirkland, Woodson Elementary, and Lorrae Walker, Scott Elementary
Attend a tropical ecology and conservation workshop on the island Dominica through the Atlanta Botanical Gardens to identify better strategies for teaching ecology in the classroom.

Angela Nelson
Garden Hills Elementary
Observe teaching strategies and cultural differences in Jordan and Egypt as related to ESL students.

Xylecia Taylor
Williams Elementary
Assist teachers and students in Ghana to harvest biodiesel fuel from house- hold resources while offering English instruction.

Traci West
Bolton Academy
Study Hispanic culture through the Equinox Spanish School in Ecuador to develop and enhance teaching and learning skills.

Reosha Bush and Tiedra Hutchings
Crim Open Campus High School
Study the English perspective of American colonist James Oglethorpe by exploring early colonial England, and research information on the founding of Georgia.

Sydney Butler
Crim Open Campus High School
Attend an international special education conference in Spain to acquire knowledge about the practic of special education in other countries.

Reginald Colbert, North Atlanta High School, and Nat Colbert, Sutton Middle School
Participate in the Verbier Festival Academy in Verbier, Switzerland, to observe and research strategies used in master classes and chamber music coaching.

Amy Leonard
Grady High School
Explore life, death and entertainment in ancient Rome through a tour of archaeological sites in southern Italy.

Neville McFarlane
Jackson High School
Attend a photovoltaic design & installation workshop at Solar Energy International in Colorado, to promote renewable energy in schools.

Beverly Easterling
Kennedy Middle School
Study racial reconciliation and restorative justice in South Africa to develop a more positive climate in the school setting and community.

Breverly Littles
Young Middle School
Benefit from an immersion program in Spain to enhance language skills, improve knowledge of the country and research African influences on Spanish culture.

My Summer Vacation

A nonprofit organization allows teachers to bring the world back to their classrooms.

Roy Deering
Oklahoma Magazine

Mary Kathryn Moeller is an Oklahoman who considers London her “spiritual home.” After visiting the city full of history years ago, she vowed to someday return. This summer, thanks to the Fund for Teachers program and the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, she’ll have her chance.

Moeller is one of dozens of Oklahoma teachers taking exotic Fund for Teachers trips this summer, spending four weeks in London attending the Sotheby’s Institute of Art. For Moeller, it’s a chance to revisit her favorite city in the world.

“I am thrilled to be going back,” says the AP art history teacher at Jenks High School.

Fund for Teachers is a nonprofit group that funds summer sabbaticals for thousands of teachers across the country every year. The program is set up to enrich the personal and professional growth of teachers by recogniz- ing and supporting them as they identify and pursue opportunities around the globe that will have the greatest impact on their prac- tice, the academic lives of their students and on their school communities.

Jenks art history teacher Mary Kathryn Moeller will visit London this summer thanks to the nonprofit group Fund for Teachers.

“I never realized my inner passion for art and art history until I started teaching the class three years ago,” Moeller says. “Now, I have this burning desire to learn more, to experi- ence it and to teach it to the best of my ability. This trip gives me the chance to do all of that.”

During her month-long stay at the Sothe- by’s Institute, Moeller will study contempo- rary art at one of the premier facilities in the world. Taking part in the Sotheby’s Institute will provide her with knowledge that cannot be learned anywhere else in the world, allow- ing her to better pass along this knowledge and passion to her students back in Jenks.

Audrey Nelson, French and Spanish teacher at Shawnee High School, is also liv- ing her dream through the Fund for Teachers program. Nelson, along with good friend and fellow teacher Kim Earle of Ada, will travel on horseback across the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain during their two- week excursion.

“I’m still pinching myself because it doesn’t seem possible,” Nelson says. “It’s like a fantasy that I’ve dreamed about and it’s really hard to believe it’s actually going to take place.”

Nelson and Earle will arrive in France in early June, spend two days in Paris and take a train to Bayonne where they will begin their week-long journey through the mountains. Riding five to seven hours per day, their tour group will cover hundreds of miles through some of the most incredible scenery on earth, following a pilgrimage route that has been used for thousands of years.

“This is the route that so many people throughout history have taken,” Nelson says. “This trip will not only allow us to see and experience the landscapes of this incredible region, but will help us to become engulfed in the culture and the language and allow us to be much more capable of teaching these cultures to our students when we return to Oklahoma.”