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
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.
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.