Grant Program Funds Teachers to Travel the World and Develop New Lessons

This article originally appeared online in the T.H.E. Journal.

Operating in 36 states, Fund For Teachers has given more than $17.8 million in grant money since 2001, sending educators around the world to develop lessons on technology, STEM, and other topics.

By Kim Fortson
07/23/12

In 2010, something unusual happened at the Boston Community Leadership Academy. Students, claiming to take a restroom break, began skipping class. Rather than footing it to the typical high school hooky locales–the parking lot or the nearby convenience store–BCLA students steered their way toward Megan Baird’s ninth-grade Algebra I classroom.

Word had gotten out that Baird was starting up her “rhythm wheel” lessons and students crowded the doorway to see what all the fuss was about. Inside, Baird’s students clapped their hands and tapped out salsa rhythms on their desks, even danced, all the while internalizing knowledge of measure counts they would later use to solve problems involving the lowest common multiples. They were doing math and, perhaps more importantly, they were having fun.

Baird’s lesson plan stemmed from a two-week cultural tour of Cuba she took in the summer of 2010 with English teacher Elizabeth Lambert, with whom she has shared a classroom for five years. The trip to Cuba—and the lesson plan—was the result of receiving a fellowship from the national nonprofit Fund For Teachers (FFT).

“When you learn something in a vacuum, you haven’t really learned it,” Baird said over Skype from Ecuador, where she has spent the last year teaching English to adults. “You need to learn in relation to the world. Math is the [subject] where kids always ask, ‘Where am I ever going to use this?’ Any time you can say, ‘Look, even when salsa dancing you can recognize an eight-beat rhythm,’ it’s a good thing.”

It’s this type of thinking FFT seeks to reward. Since it was founded in 2001, FFT has given approximately 5,000 teachers more than $17.8 million in grant money–$5,000 for individual fellowships and $10,000 for teams–sending instructors around the world to further their educations in hopes they will impart what they’ve learned once back in the classroom.

“If a teacher is excited about their own learning and their own subject, that translates,” said FFT Executive Director Karen Kovach-Webb.

In 2011, the organization sent more than 400 teachers from 36 states on projects that involved everything from studying the Ottoman Empire and Islamic architecture in Turkey to kayaking down the Mississippi River collecting water samples and observing the role rivers play in shaping community culture.

“There’s always some [projects] where I think, ‘Oh my gosh, who would have thought of that?” Kovach-Webb said.

Teaching Teachers the Technology
Over the course of a decade, Kovach-Webb has observed that proposals often follow current events. After Sept. 11, many teachers asked for fellowships tailored toward analyzing life and religion in the Middle East; more recent requests involve environmental concerns like water scarcity and energy efficiency. Technology is also at the forefront of today’s grant topics.

Last year, Mary Patterson and Doreen Jarvis, two middle school science curriculum specialists for Texas’s Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, attended the World Congress in Intelligent Control and Automation in Taipei, Taiwan, followed by Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Academy, to bolster their knowledge of the field. Prior to their trip, Patterson and Jarvis spearheaded after-school robotics programs for their district, using them as a way to encourage their sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders to pursue STEM careers.

“It’s just amazing to see how their personalities change,” Jarvis said of her students active in the program. “Their confidence [increases]. Sometimes they’re just different students in a different setting and excel in that kind of environment.”

Patterson and Jarvis utilize the program as training for the All-Earth Ecobot Challenge, a competition in which students utilize math, physics, and computer science skills to program NXT robots to perform everyday environmental tasks, such as placing items in a recycling bin.

The teachers initially pitched a visit to a family-operated robotics factory in Japan but, 10 days prior to their anticipated grant approval, the Tohoku earthquake, and resulting tsunami, struck the country and Patterson and Jarvis had to quickly re-write their proposal. The conference in Taiwan offered a glimpse into other countries’ involvement in robotics; the Carnegie Mellon program acted as a boot camp to bring the two up to speed on the intricacies of programming.

“Normally in an after-school program kids never let us touch a robot, they don’t let us near it–they do everything,” Patterson laughed. “[Carnegie Mellon] gave us a crash course in a lot of programming we taught at our summer camp.”

Both teachers have used the experience as a launch pad to more solidly academic pursuits. Jarvis enrolled in STEM course workshops this summer while Patterson recently received the NASA Summer of Inspiration Grant, which will allow her to start a monthly girls-only robotics camp during the school year, as well as provide an in-service teacher to help out.

Support Systems
Kovach-Webb said one of her greatest disappointments with FFT is the money earmarked–but not used–for regions that teachers do not apply for.

“I have more money to give out,” she said. “Apply!”

FFT offers extensive support for applicants, including a webinar series and a program in which they pair past recipients with applicants in areas of the same subject matter. If a teacher isn’t awarded a grant the first year he or she applies, FFT provides feedback on the application and encourages them to try again.

Baird, Jarvis, and Patterson agree that, while the process is intense, it’s worth it.

“In a culture now where blaming teachers for what is going wrong is more important than honoring teachers for what is going on in the classroom, I recommend [FFT] for everyone. We need a little support sometimes,” Baird said. She advises future applicants to set out a schedule and blocks of time in order to complete the application, noting that they don’t have to fill out the sections in order.

Kovach-Webb stresses that if a good enough case is made, teachers’ proposals will be funded.

“Dream it and tell us,” she said. “We’ll send you.”

About the Author

Kim Fortson is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

Baird studied Cuban salsa dancing to develop the rhythm wheels lesson while Lambert researched the politically charged verse common in Cuban poetry and musical lyrics. The experience re-energized the way the two connected with their students and organized lessons in the classroom.

Teachers Celebrate America with FFT Fellowships

“Next in importance to freedom and justice is popular education, without which neither freedom nor justice can be permanently maintained.” –James A. Garfield, 20th president of US 1881

When given the chance to pursue summer learning opportunities of their dreams, the majority of Fund for Teachers Fellows choose far-flung destinations, soaking in different languages and cultures. But, for many, staying stateside holds the most promise.

Dozens of Fund for Teachers Fellows are exploring American themes this summer: Colonial living, the Civil War, lives of US Presidents and patriotic landmarks. In honor of our nation’s Independence Day, meet the Fellows who will make the spirit and history of America come alive in their classrooms this fall:

  • Patricia S. (Louisiana) will participate in Colonial Williamsburg’s Teacher Institute, learning from mentor teachers, museum staff, and character interpreters, to enhance teaching skills and develop an interdisciplinary approach to creatively teaching this era in American history;
  • Lori M. (Oklahoma) will explore patriotic landmarks in Washington DC and New York City to develop a curriculum that offers an overview of our government, appreciation for our traditions, and hands-on learning opportunities related to our country’s symbols;
  • Ray K. (Chicago) will embark on a driving tour of the geographical areas that shaped the lives of Franklin, Jefferson, Revere, and Washington to increase personal knowledge of the pre-revolutionary colonial era and facilitate students’ inquiry into citizens’ responsibility to confront challenges within their communities;
  • Rebecca F. (Boston) will explore the history of immigration by conducting research at Ellis Island and the Tenement Museum on New York’s Lower East Side to help students gain an appreciation for family members who immigrated to America and to create an interdisciplinary unit that engenders awareness and pride in family histories;
  • Team Underground Railroad (Houston) will visit Underground Railroad and national landmarks in New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC to broaden knowledge of the Black American experience and more seamlessly incorporate African-American history with general social studies;
  • Michael G. (Expeditionary Learning, North Carolina) will tour Civil War landmarks in South Carolina before attending the Civil Rights Institute for educators in Little Rock, AR, to reinforce the connection between key events, people and places comprising the historical struggle for civil liberties; and
  • Lou Ann J. (Oklahoma) will research her personal connection to the Civil War on a 15-day journey through the South before attending the Civil War Trust National Teacher Institute in Charleston, SC, to learn strategies for empowering students to undertake a similar research project using research and technology.

Immigration Issue Focus of Fellows’ Research

The Supreme Court ruled this week on Arizona’s 2010 immigration law; but the summer before that law went into effect, a team of three Taos, New Mexico teachers navigated the controversial border issue – literally. The teaching team of Ned Dougherty, Toni Wright and Josán Perales, teachers at Vista Grande High School, designed their Fund for Teachers grant to research the visible and invisible divisions established by personal and international borders. They focused their attention on the U.S.-Mexico border from the Sonoran region to El Paso, TX and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Interviews included representatives from The Minuteman Project, Humane Borders, and the Border Patrol.

We share their timely research with you here in the form of their post-fellowship report detailing their adventure and a newsletter article previously published. Ned applied for and was awarded a 2012 FFT grant to continue the borders research begun in 2009, this time conducting an ethnographic study chronicling the tenuous peace between Catholics and Protestants of Belfast, Ireland, to facilitate students’ perception of prejudice and violence as invisible, yet powerful, borders. You can follow his fellowship at teachpoet.com.

PBS Spotlights Louisiana Fellows

PBS’ South Eastern Education Desk produced a piece about two Louisiana Fellows’ upcoming fellowship to Canada. Danyé Pelichet and Demetria Scott will traverse Acadian communities in Canada to help students make connections with the settlers who migrated to Louisiana centuries ago and imprinted their culture and customs permanently within the state’s collective story. The “French Connection” team are two of our first class of Fellows since going statewide in the Gulf Coast states of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

Special thanks to PBS’ Southern Education Desk and producer Sue Lincoln for this piece.

FFT Fellow to Carry Olympic Torch

Sean Brooks’ 2010 Fund for Teachers fellowship was to enhance his school’s new dual-language program by traveling to Dominica and enrolling in Spanish language courses and visiting local schools.

Boston teacher will carry the Olympic Flame in
London 2012 Summer Olympic Torch Relay
Dorchester educator selected to represent the United States

BOSTON – A Boston Public Schools teacher will represent the United States in the prestigious Olympic Torch Relay before the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London. Sean Brooks, a resident of Dorchester, is English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at the Dever-McCormack K-8 School in Dorchester. He will carry the Olympic Flame for 300 meters in Dalkeith, Scotland, on June 14.

Sean is one of five outstanding teachers from the United States pre-selected to be a torchbearer through a program sponsored by Samsung Electronics America. “I am honored and thrilled to represent my country, my school, and my fellow teachers as an Olympic Torchbearer,” he said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I will remember forever.”

The 2012 Summer Olympics Torch Relay will begin on May 19, when the torch arrives from Greece, and continue for 70 days along an 8,000-mile route throughout the United Kingdom (plus a stop in Dublin, Ireland), ending in London on July 26.

Sean is designing a unit to teach his students about the Olympics, using the international event to help students learn about geography, history, sports, and more. Many of Sean’s students were born outside of the United States, including children born in Guatemala and the Dominican Republic.

Sean was nominated for the honor by Maria Fenwick, Executive Director of organization Teach Plus Boston, a non-profit organization focused on teacher leadership. Sean is an alumnus of the Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellows program, in which he advocated with other public school teachers for policy changes to elevate the teaching profession.

Sean has been teaching for 10 years, including the past six years at the Dever-McCormack. In addition to his teaching responsibilities at the school, Sean has pursued grants for classroom materials, designed after-school English classes for parents, and planned multi-sensory lessons to engage his English Language Learner students, including a non-fiction reading unit that culminated with students planting a vegetable garden. Sean also serves as a teachers’ union building representative and as a mentor for the Boston Teacher Residency program.

“Sean is an outstanding teacher leader in an urban ‘turnaround school’ that has been underperforming for several years,” wrote Ms. Fenwick. “Despite numerous changes in school leadership and frequent staff turnover, Sean has stayed through the turmoil to provide consistent leadership for students and peer teachers alike. He has an unwaveringly positive attitude and goes above and beyond to help his school succeed.”

Teach Plus is a national non-profit based in Boston whose mission is to improve outcomes for urban children by ensuring that a greater proportion of students have access to effective, experienced teachers. Teach Plus runs three programs designed to place teacher leaders at the center of reform: Teaching Policy Fellows, the T+ Network, and T3: Turnaround Teacher Teams. The programs focus on demonstrably effective teachers who want to continue classroom teaching while also expanding their impact as leaders in their schools and in national, state, and district policy. Teach Plus began with 16 founding teachers from urban district and charter schools in Greater Boston. Since its inception as a non-profit in August 2009, Teach Plus has grown to a network of more than 7,000 solutions-oriented teachers in six major cities across the country. www.teachplus.org

To view the full release, click here.

NYT: A Spotlight on Teaching, Not Teachers

Fund for Teachers Board of Directors member, Robert Hughes, is a contributor to these letters to the editor, responding to Joe Nocera’s article, Gates Puts the Focus on Teaching. Tell us what you would like to say to those making education policy at facebook.com/fundforteachers.

CPS Board Honors Outstanding Teachers

On the eve of National Teacher Day, the Cincinnati Board of Education recently…showcased seven other CPS teachers recently named as 2012 Fund for Teachers Fellows for summer travel and research, designed to develop engaging, thought-provoking classroom lessons for their students. More than $30,000 was awarded to Cincinnati educators through the program, locally sponsored by the Strive Partnership.

Read the article in it’s entirety, here.

2012 Fellowships Announced

May 7, 2012
Fund for Teachers Awards $1.8M in Grants to Teachers Across the Country; Teachers Become Students Again This Summer