Teacher of Islamic Studies Dispels Biases

Carl Glassman

At Millennium High School, the Lower Manhattan school founded in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Corey Pickering is determined to do her part to end Muslim stereotyping.

Last month, she received national recognition for her efforts.

Pickering, 31, teaches one of the few Islamic studies courses in the city’s public schools. She designed the course following her travels last summer in Turkey. The trip, paid for by a Fund for Teachers grant, changed her own prejudices about the religion, she said.

“The imagery that has been pounded into our brains has had an effect and it had an effect on me, too,” she said.

Out of the more than 500 teachers around the country who traveled on the grant, Pickering won the National Plank Fellowship Award based on an essay she wrote on the impact of the Turkish experience on her teaching, and on herself.

A Kentucky native with an infectious exuberance for her subject and her students (“They’re so funny. They make me laugh all day”), Pickering has taught global studies at Millennium for four years. She introduced Islam to the school two years ago with an elective for juniors and seniors that first dealt only with art and architecture.

It was a safe way, as she put it, “to approach Islam from the side.”

“But when I came back from [Turkey] I decided, no, the class works much better when we tie the conversation into foreign policy and modern conflicts and current events.”

At the risk of upsetting some students and parents, Pickering wanted to explore all aspects of the Muslim world. Many of her students, now juniors and seniors, were 4th and 5th graders in Downtown schools who were personally affected by the attacks. But for them, in particular, she said, the course is important.

“Part of the founding of this school was based on 9/11 recovery,” she said, “and it was just so relevant locally, and for this student population.” The school’s connection to the renewal of Lower Manhattan after Sept. 11 also opened the course to controversy and criticism. Pickering credits the school’s principal, Robert Rhodes, with the courage to support her.

“The fact that my principal trusts me at a public school to teach this kind of content, and would stand up and back me if anybody challenged it, I think that’s very brave on his part.”

Rhodes said he received half a dozen calls from parents who were concerned about the course.

“I invited them to look at the curriculum and talk to me but no one has taken me up on it,” he said.

Pickering said she does not shy away from discussing the violent and oppressive strains of Islam, but tries to separate the politics from the religion and what is-and is not-true to Muslim tradition.

“I don’t want to demonize anybody,” she said, “but I also don’t want to devilify anybody either.”

In interviews, many of Pickering’s students said the class, and especially a trip to a mosque on 96th Street that included a meeting with an imam, transformed their image of Muslims.

“This class changed my whole entire view,” said senior Lena Hong. “When I got to learn about their religion, how they prayed and why they believed in stuff it opened me up—it has opened my mind.”

Another student, Robert Corrales, said it is not just what Pickering teaches, but how she teaches it, that makes her stand out.

“It’s obvious how much she cares about her students and how much she cares about being a good teacher,” Corrales said. “It’s really the career she wants.”

Oakland teacher brings African experience back to classroom

Elizabeth Skow
Oakland Tribune Correspondent

When she awoke each day in Mali, Oakland teacher Kathryn Parman took a bucket to the neighborhood spigot to fetch water for her shower. Then she sat with the community women and helped prepare food, an all-day affair in Mali.

Evenings, Parman, 31, tagged along with her host family’s son as he performed his duties as a Griot, a traditional Malian musician and oral historian, at celebrations and parties.

Parman, who teaches Humanities to seventh- and eighth-graders at Oakland’s Lighthouse Community Charter School, traveled to Mali and Ghana on a 2008 fellowship from Fund for Teachers, a nonprofit that sends teachers on self-designed summer sabbaticals around the globe.

“It was interesting to be in Africa,” Parman said. “I was surprised at how comfortable I was there. I felt at home right away.”

In March, Parman’s students will study Africa, focusing in particular on the history of West African music and its influence on American music. They will study traditional African music through spirituals, blues, jazz and hip-hop, and learn how it came from Africa to Oakland.

Parman has been interested in African-American history since she was a college student at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and always dreamed of traveling to Africa. She heard about the FFT fellowship from Lighthouse science and math teachers Megan Jensen and Robert Feldstein, who won a fellowship in 2007. They traveled to the Galapagos Islands to study science and urged Parman to apply last year.

Parman knew Africa was her destination.

She had a friend from Mali and his family invited her to visit with them in Bamako. The family has passed down traditional Griot music and storytelling skills for many generations. Parman said living with them gave her a firsthand look at traditional Malian life.

“There is a real sense of community and it’s organic and it’s natural and it’s necessary,” Parman said. “It’s really inspiring to see a different way of structuring your society that values community.”

She noted that “coming from a very individualistic society and going to a place like Mali where people are 100 percent dependent on one another (one notices) they have very tight-knit communities and everybody knows everybody.”

Creating a safe, tight-knit community is also a focus at Lighthouse Community Charter School, where about 80 percent of the students come from families that have severe financial challenges and 73 percent are English language learners.

In addition to academics, the students participate in an advisory “crew,” a group of 12 to 14 students plus an adviser, to practice community- and character-building skills and work on their guiding principles.

“Nothing will happen until we look at what makes people successful in groups. These kids are coming from Oakland, and that has its challenges. Some kids lack a stable, safe environment. So we need to create that safe environment here before we can do academic work,” Parman said.

Along with the broader study of Africa, Parman’s students also will study the African slave trade and look at people’s historic resistance to slavery.

Fund for Teachers enables teachers like Parman to enhance their teaching skills through the sabbatical program.

“Most good teachers become administrators eventually,” said Karen Kovach, executive director of FFT. “Our goal is to help good teachers stay inspired. We want to keep these teachers in the classroom.” She said FFT is trying to bridge the disconnect between the people with the money and those who need it, and going local is the only way to make that happen.

FFT fellows are chosen with help from local partners, in this case Oakland’s Marcus A. Foster Education Institute.

Leo Lamanna of MAFEI said that one-third of the selection panel is made up of former fellows, with the remainder being school administrators, community members and MAFEI donors. He said Fund for Teachers awarded 18 fellowships to Oakland teachers in 2008.

“Teaching can be a pretty thankless thing,” Parman said, “and if someone wants to give money to teachers, I am willing to take that money. If I go and have this experience and bring it to my students, that’s pretty powerful.”

The hardest thing about her job, said Parman, is keeping her life balanced. She helps create the curriculum for her classes as well as teaching, often putting in 60 to 70 hour weeks. She knows she can’t keep it up forever, so she hopes to create a system that is easier to follow when she’s no longer there.

To Parman, the most rewarding thing about being a teacher is “those ‘aha!’ moments, where they get something they didn’t get before. It’s great to see them gain confidence and buy into the possibilities that they have in life.”

Los Angeles Teacher Confronts South Africa’s History of Apartheid Rule

LOS ANGELES, CA – Almost 20 years ago, Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster Prison and effectively marked the end to Apartheid rule in South Africa. With an education grant from Fund for Teachers, Ariel Neaderthal immersed herself in this culture to take a closer look at the emerging democracy.

This period of racial segregation still strikes a chord with many, particularly during February’s Black History Month, and the teacher grant Ariel designed allowed her to travel to Cape Town to research the history and legacy of Apartheid rule and the challenges still facing the populations of both races. As part of her summer travel, she volunteered with a women’s rights NGO and as an aide in a mixed-race nursing home. This extraordinary experience provided a broad view of the country’s complicated and troubled history, as well as a realistic view of its uncertain yet hopeful future.

Neaderthal commented: “My experience as both tourist-outsider and volunteer-insider allowed me not only to see South Africa as she wished to be seen, but also to uncover what she wished to hide.”

Ariel’s first-hand experience compelled her to augment her school curriculum on discrimination, while also imparted a fresh appreciation of and enthusiasm for the education system in the United States.

Fund for Teachers Executive Director Karen Kovach Webb said: “We empower teachers to decide what they need most, personally or professionally, and then we make those dreams a reality. We believe in the power of teachers to transform learning for themselves, their students and their communities.”

Similar opportunities are available to teachers through the donor-supported Fund for Teachers. Over the last eight years, Fund for Teachers has given $209,241 in teacher grants to 59 teachers in the Los Angeles area and more than $10 million in grants nationwide. In April 2009, the organization will announce its new Fellows who will travel this summer.

Do you know a great teacher who should take advantage of this opportunity? See examples of what other teachers have done with their grants by visiting Fund for Teachers education grants: www.fundforteachers.org.

Houston Teacher Prepares to Study Bahamian Coral Reefs

Doug Delony

HOUSTON – A teacher from Houston is preparing to embark on a scientific adventure, and she’ll be taking her students along for the ride in a unique way.

Daphine Rawlinson stopped by FOX 26 Morning News to discuss the trip.

As a science instructor at J. Will Jones Elementary School, she’ll leave Friday to study the coral reefs in the Bahamas.

She says the study is part of a mission by a group called Earthwatch.

Rawlinson was part of a similar mission two year ago during a trip to Antarctica.

A Geologic Trek through the Grand Canyon

Good Day Tulsa

Fellow Digs Deep into History

KPRC Local 2 – Houston

Tulsa teachers’ Boston trip has Thanksgiving focus


TULSA — For many children today, Thanksgiving means a day off school, a morning to sleep in and football on television. They may be unaware of the holiday’s real focus: the hardships the Pilgrims experienced when moving to an unknown environment and the struggles they experienced as they tried to find common ground with another culture in a new land.

But four Tulsa Union teachers who wanted their students to learn the true meaning of Thanksgiving recently went on a journey to bring home more understanding to share with their students. In July, Moore Elementary teachers Tracy Weese, Julie Godfrey, Wendi Rutz and Jane Vanfossen traveled to Boston for a pilgrimage that immersed them in the history that created our nation’s Thanksgiving traditions.

A visit to the Mayflower II, a replica of the ship used by Pilgrims, allowed four Tulsa teachers to better understand what American colonists experienced on their voyage to a new land.

A $10,000 grant from Fund for Teachers and its local community partners, the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence and the Tulsa Community Foundation, funded the teachers’ journey.

In July, the voyage started with a workshop on the beliefs and backgrounds of the colonists and Wampanoag Indians, the Mayflower Compact, the 1621 harvest celebration and King Philip’s War. Next, they explored the Mayflower II, a replica of the original ship. To conclude their training, the team attended a seminar at Plymouth Plantation, visiting a 1627 English village, the Wampanoag homesite and the Pilgrim Hall Museum, America’s treasure chest of Pilgrims’ possessions.

Back home in Tulsa, the teachers have capitalized on their trip by teaching Thanksgiving in a new, more meaningful manner. Storybooks, slide shows, pictures and replicas of documents obtained in Plymouth have rounded out their teaching about the colonists’ first harvest.

A tale that needs telling

Jerome Solomon
Houston Chronicle

People like Jack Chevigny helped make America America.

His is a stirring tale about a war hero and a football player.

In a week in which we celebrate our most meaningful holiday – Veterans Day – his story is even more powerful.

It involves a host of gripping elements – historic athletic achievement, bravery, mystery, sacrifice and death – that make it exciting and unique among American tales.

It is a book waiting to be written.

Thankfully, Jeff Walker is writing it.

Walker, the head football coach at Bellaire, isn’t after glory or acclaim. He is just following a calling that touched on a longtime interest.

“It has grabbed me,” Walker said. “I’ve always been interested in WWII history, and you add an old football coach to it, and I was really drawn to this.”

Left: Jeff Walker, a Bellaire High School football coach and teacher, talks to a crowd at the apache Corporation about a recent trip to Iwo Jima on Wednesday. Walker is writing a book about the life of Jack Chevigny, who he is pointing to, a little-know Depression-era sport star who served in WWII and died at Iwo Jima.

Right: Paul Merriman, 81, a WWII veteran who fought during the Battle of Iwo Jima, listens as Jeff Walker.

Hopefully by next spring, Walker will finish something that we already can’t wait to read.

He wants to tell us more about the amazing life of the Notre Dame Football legend, former University of Texas head coach and brave American who paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country on Iwo Jima.

With that in mind, Walker visited the Japanese island earlier this year, thanks to Fund for Teachers, a program started by Apache Corp. founder Raymond Plank in 2001.

Walker was an excellent candidate for such a program, and Chevigny’s a perfect story. The moving trip added some emotion to this five-year writing project.

Jack Chevigny was in uniform at Yankee Stadium when Knute Rockne said, “Win one for the Gipper.”

So inspired, he came out of that halftime speech and scored the game-tying touchdown for the Fighting Irish in what turned into a 12-6 victory over heavily favored Army.

When he crossed the goal line, Chevigny yelled, “There’s one for the Gipper!”

That’s true.

He was the football coach at Texas before Dana X.. Bible came to Austin. Run out of town after his third season on the job, Chevigny did beat Oklahoma three times and was 2-1 vs. Texas A&M, but his teams never beat Rice.

That’s true.

His squad’s victory over Notre Dame in his first season at Texas (1934) – a win that compelled boosters to buy him a new LaSalle coupe, – should have led to a great legacy in Longhorns football history.

But when he left the 40 Acres, Chevigny was the only coach in school history to depart with a losing record (13-14-2). More than 70 years later, he still holds that dubious distinction.

That’s true, too.

“As a coach, I felt a debt to him that he is not remembered as the only losing coach at Texas and only that,” Walker said.

Chevigny’s UT stint is what caught Walker’s eye. A WWII buff, Walker was somewhat stunned to see that a former college football coach was among the fighting forces at Iwo Jima.

Chevigny was 39 when he died, not the typical young draftee.

“How did that happen?” Walker wondered. “Why was he there? I had to find out.”

Walker researched and found that Chevigny was so bothered by seeing so many young troops sent off to war that he applied for combat duty.

“He didn’t have to be there – he didn’t have to go to war – and that says a lot about what his generation was about,” Walker said. “Those are the people that are the backbone of our country.”

Lore has it that Chevigny was given a pen (not a car) commemorating the victory over Notre Dame. The pen was said to have been engraved with the phrase: “To an old Notre Damer who beat Notre Dame.”

The story has Chevigny taking the pen with him into battle. He was killed on the first day our troops invaded Iwo Jima. On Sept. 2, 1945, the most often told story goes, the pen was discovered in the hands of a Japanese envoy on the U.S.S. Missouri, there to sign the surrender agreement ending the battle.

Taken from the enemy, the pen was a given a new inscription that read, “To Jack Chevigny, a Notre Dame boy who gave his life for his country in the spirit of old Notre Dame,” and presented to Chevigny’s sister as a tribute.

According to Walker, the pen didn’t exist.

After thousands of hours of research, Walker is close to sharing a grand story. He says he is about halfway through the writing and 95 percent done with research.

“Everything I’ve touched in relation to this man has turned to gold,” Walker said. “His is a great American story.”

A great American story we can’t wait to read.