What Africa taught a teacher

Kerrin Flanagan went to Ghana and came back with a wealth of ideas for her K-1 class.

Stacy Teicher Khadaroo
Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Her students won’t step into the classroom for another four weeks, but Kerrin Flanagan is here on a humid afternoon, padding around in flip-flops and contemplating how to make every corner welcoming. One moment she’s on the floor filling bins with giant Legos; the next she’s pawing through a box, thrilled to discover the small set of wind chimes she uses to get the children’s attention.

Now in her ninth year as a teacher at the Patrick Lyndon School in Boston, Ms. Flanagan “loops” with her students – following them from kindergarten to first grade. This year she’s starting with a new batch of 22 kindergartners.

“I like everything to be organized when the children come in … and because I want the classroom to be their classroom, we will decorate it together,” she says in a soft voice that matches her petite frame. The students will create alphabet art and self-portraits for the walls, giving her a chance to get to know each one along the way.

“Children need to feel safe and cared for and heard before they can start learning anything academic. We start out at the very beginning with learning how to be a group,… how to listen to each other,… how to wait our turn, how to use crayons…. I don’t give them the rules when they come in. They figure out what they hope to learn during the school year, what they hope to do. In kindergarten it’s usually very simple – it might be I want to make a friend or I hope to paint…. And from that we figure out what our classroom needs to be like in order to achieve those hopes and dreams.”

Top: While Flanagan says that she saves the classroom decorating for when the students arrive, basics like “the word wall” are prepared before their arrival. Left: Boston K-1 teacher Kerrin Flanagan displays the kente cloth she brought home from her grant-subsidized trip to Ghana. Her first-graders study Ghana and Japan. Right: Bins that have been in storage for a year are pulled out to be used for different types of blocks and toys.

The types of rules that evolve are simple, too: “We care about each other; we take care of the things in our class; we respect one another; we do our best work…. And then we practice them for a very long time,” she says with a laugh.

Like many teachers, Flanagan didn’t have much time for vacation this summer – but she did something even better: She traveled to Ghana through a grant from the Fund for Teachers, an education foundation in Houston. For three weeks, she volunteered with a Global Solutions group in the town of Hohoe.

Both Ghana and Japan are part of Boston’s first-grade curriculum, as a way to teach children how to compare and contrast. But it’s always been easier for teachers to find materials related to Japan, Flanagan says. Now she spreads out the treasure trove of objects from Ghana that she’ll incorporate into a curriculum kit for her students and fellow K-1 teachers: wood carvings, musical instruments, colorful strips of kente cloth.

“We’ve had pictures of people weaving kente cloth … but having the actual kente cloth itself is really important,” she says. She tried weaving it when she was there.

In June, when her first-grade class knew she would be visiting Africa, they were “so much more excited about learning about Ghana than children had ever been in the past. They were drawing on everything else we had learned about, [saying,] ‘Oh, Ghana’s near the equator, you’re going to need to bring lots of sunscreen!’ ”

She also brought back her experience of teaching mentally challenged students in a school in Ghana with hardly any resources. “I had to be really flexible. I was able to draw on a lot of strengths as a teacher that I didn’t necessarily know I had…. It makes me feel very different about coming back to school,” she says, gazing around at the shelves she’s stocking with books and toys. “I realize how much I have here in this classroom.”

Educator returns from Costa Rica with life lessons

David Riley, Daily News staff

Boston Day and Evening Academy math teacher Janet Platt of Ashland spent five weeks in Costa Rica.

Ashland, Mass. – On a five-week trip to Costa Rica this summer, a math teacher from Ashland found countless lessons to bring back to her students.

At a banana farm, Janet Platt discovered ways to teach high school teens about the economics and science behind their food.

In cooperatives run by Costa Rica’s indigenous people, she found ways to talk to students about what it means to live a sustainable lifestyle.

Platt, who teaches at a public charter school in Roxbury called Boston Day and Evening Academy, made the trip with a grant from the Fund for Teachers. The nonprofit Boston Plan for Excellence awarded the grant in the spring.

“I’m really grateful to have had this opportunity,” Platt said yesterday, four days after returning to her Rodman Road home. “I wouldn’t have been able to afford this on my own.”

During the trip, she spent weeks in an intensive program to learn Spanish, toured indigenous farming communities, and saw such sights as a volcano and a mountain cloud forest.

Platt traveled to the coastal Central American country with a science teacher from her school, Alison Hramiec. Last winter, they worked together to complete an elaborate application for the grant.

The Fund for Teachers offers grants for teachers to pursue special interests that can play a role in their classrooms.

Platt said she and Hramiec picked Costa Rica in part because the nation has a good record of sustainability – limiting humanity’s impact on the environment and society. Both teachers wanted to bring that concept to their classes.

“We also teach in Boston, so about 50 percent of our students come from Spanish-speaking families,” Platt said. Though many speak English, knowing Spanish can help in talking to their families, she said.

The teachers also wanted to learn through community service, something they urge their students to do.

Platt left July 14, two weeks after school ended for the year. She began the trip by attending Centro PanAmericano de Idiomas, a language school in Monteverde where she took Spanish classes for four hours every morning.

Platt then toured organic and fair trade farms and cooperatives in indigenous towns and villages, where she said people are trying to hold onto their culture as they do business in the wider world.

“They’re trying to stick to their old farming practices, but they also realize they can’t live apart from the rest of Costa Rica,” Platt said.

She also learned about the Central American Free Trade Agreement, a new set of trade rules countries in the region are struggling to understand.

That leg of the trip was organized by Global Exchange, a human rights group that supports the communities it tours, she said. She said she was impressed with the organization and stayed with families or in Costa Rican establishments only, traveling with local guides.

Before the trip, Platt said she mainly thought of living sustainably in environmental terms, but came back seeing it differently.

“I went down thinking it was about the environment and recycling and being green,” she said. “But in Costa Rica, it’s also about preserving their culture while making sure people have jobs.”

In her down time, Platt said she toured Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast, where she saw turtles lay eggs en masse; the volcano Arenal, where she saw lava flowing down its side; and a cloud forest where she saw sloths and toucans.

“Their beaks really are like Toucan Sam,” she said.

Platt, who spent three years in the Peace Corps more than a decade ago, said she hopes to talk to her students about sustainability by relating it to their own neighborhoods and cultures.

She and Hramiec also are working together on teaching about the economics of trade and food, and the science of growing crops organically.

Even puzzling over an ATM to figure out how many Costa Rican colons add up to an American dollar, she thought of a lesson on currency exchange rates.

But one of the biggest lessons was a personal one, which Platt found while staying with a Costa Rican family.

“People in general don’t have so much stuff. We really have a lot of stuff here that we think we need,” she said. “People there might not have everything we have, but they may still have everything they need.”

(David Riley can be reached at 508-626-3919 or driley@cnc.com.)

Teacher brings sights of Europe to school

Carla Rabalais

THIRTY-three museums in 31 days. Six countries and 7,500 miles and all for under $5,000.

That’s the feat that Cavan Leerkamp, art teacher at Queens Intermediate School in Pasadena, proposed to accomplish. And last spring, representatives of the Fund For Teachers said “Go for it.”

Leerkamp, 29, spent a month last summer touring Europe’s most famous art museums. He sketched and wrote in his journal as he observed Michelangelo’s David, Picasso’s She Goat, and the barbed wire of Dachau concentration camp.

Shares trip with pupils

He photographed cathedrals and countrysides and compiled them all into a sketchbook-travel journal that is now digitized to share with pupils and teachers. His goal was to develop a simpler approach to art – even by the Masters – that students can grasp.

“I started showing my students the photographs, and we spent the rest of that day and the next looking at all of them,” Leerkamp said. “They were eyes wide open. They wanted to hear every detail.”

Fund For Teachers, a nonprofit organization, has sponsored more than 400 teachers in the Houston area since Raymond Plank, founder of Apache Corp., created the public foundation. It offers grants of up to $5,000 to teachers for self-designed professional development experiences. Houstonians will gather near the Galleria at Post Oak Boulevard on Saturday for Fund For Teacher’s second annual Fund Run. Last year, the Fund Run raised more than $150,000 as part of the $3 million raised area-wide all for local educators.

“You could give money to one child, and that could make a difference,” said Karen Kovach-Webb, executive director of Fund For Teachers, “but one teacher can impact as many as 3,000 students.”

As a Fund For Teachers fellow, Leerkamp now brings the breath of Europe to hundreds of seventh and eighth graders in southeast Houston. He saw the scope of impact his grant could have last fall when he brought five students to participate in a street art festival in Houston.

“Some of them had never even been downtown, not even into Houston,” Leerkamp said. “This trip to Europe was a much grander scale – it’s like me going to the moon and coming back and talking about it.”

To qualify for a grant, teachers must have at least three years experience, provide a detailed budget for the learning experience and show how the opportunity will help them to impact the community. Most of the grants involve cultural immersion, whether that culture is in the U.S. or abroad, but all have a common goal of better teaching.

Making kids more global

“With today’s global economy, we need a populace that’s more informed about how the rest of the world thinks,” said Kovach-Webb. “We need to expose our teachers so they can expose kids, and encourage children to dream. The world is much bigger than Pasadena or Harris County.”

For Leerkamp, the experience has brought more than interesting stories and photos to inspire students.

“I think the biggest thing I took away is confidence,” Leerkamp said. “Now when we go through the textbook and I see a painting, I’ll tell kids, ‘Whoa, I just saw that!’ They really listen when they know you’ve been there.”

To view Leerkamp’s art, visit www.cavanarts.com.

Bringing the world to class

Teacher hopes her trip to frigid Antarctica fires up students’ interest in traveling, learning

Sarah Viren
Houston Chronicle

The students in Daphne Rawlinson’s elementary school science classes don’t quite get it when she says: I am going to Antarctica.

Sure, she’s showed them on the globe, but that looks like a few inches away, not more than 13,000 miles. And when she talks about cold, many can only compare that to last week in Houston, when temperatures dipped into the 30s.

“Most of our students, or a lot of our students, haven’t even been out of the state of Texas,” Rawlinson said. “So to get them to visualize that you are going to the other side of the world… They don’t have a lot of understanding.”

That’s one reason the teacher and science specialist at Houston’s J. Will Jones Elementary School proposed the trip, and why Fund for Teachers agreed pick up the tab, which Rawlinson estimates in the thousands.

Protected continent
The Houston-based organization awards travel grants each year to teachers nationwide. It has sponsored art and cultural studies in Egypt and research on humpback whales off the coast of Brazil.

Rawlinson is the first of its fellows traveling all the way south, to the land of penguins, seals and mammoth glaciers.

The Houston native said she has always wanted to go where the ice is. But Antarctica is attractive for other reasons.

“What has been the most fascinating thing to me is to see how the entire world has come together to protect this one spot,” she said. “It is protected by the Antarctica Treaty, and it is maintained for scientific research.”

No one country governs Antarctica; instead, governments work together to allow researchers from different areas to study its habitat. Tourism is limited and military activities banned.

Rawlinson is going through a graduate study-abroad program with the University of Georgia. On Dec. 26, she and a group of students will fly to South America, where they will board a boat for a day-and-a-half trip to the ice continent.

Once there, she will spend her nights sleeping on the boat (there are no hotels or gift shops in Antarctica, Rawlinson likes to remind those asking about her accommodations) and her days researching the icy habitat, keeping a journal and taking pictures and video.

A tool to ace TAKS
Rawlinson’s plan is to return home Jan. 9 with enough material to form a life-science unit on the continent for her students.

deally her lesson plan will inspire students to travel when they grow up but also help improve their science-test passing rates on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests, which three years ago were in the teens.

The scores picked up last year but still need work, said Brian Flores, principal of the school, which has a high population of economically disadvantaged students.

“The whole key for children learning is making those real-life connections,” he said.

“These kids don’t have the opportunity to go to museums all the time. They don’t have the opportunity to travel out of the country or state, so when we have the opportunity to really teach something like this from real-life experience we jump on board.”

To prepare her for her trip, the Georgia program sent Rawlinson a four-page packing list. “In 10-point font,” she emphasized.

She bought a down parka, insulated ski pants and gloves lined with fleece, which she is supposed to cover with insulated mittens. She’ll also have a journal and her digital camera, which takes video.

She hopes to get footage of her boat trip through the notoriously rough Drake Passage and shots of her alongside penguins, anything that would inspire her students.

“Kids are like little sponges,” she said. “They are so interested. If you get them talking about something, they just keep going and going.”

An investment in teachers is an investment in our children

FOX 26 News Houston

Teachers followed the Tour; now students reap benefits

Doug Belden
Pioneer Press

If you watched CBS coverage of the Tour de France this summer, you might have seen a short interview with two St. Paul teachers stopped on their bikes as they made their way up a road in the French Alps.

The clip shows DeWayne and Renee Combs, tired but smiling in sunglasses and biking clothes, telling the camera crew they’re following the Tour to learn all they can and bring it back to their students.

The couple, with help from a $6,000 grant, spent 2Ĩ weeks in France and went to five stages of the Tour.

This fall, they’re drawing on that experience to enhance the physical education and health curriculum at Battle Creek Middle School.

The school received 35 mountain bikes and helmets this fall from Medtronic, and DeWayne Combs has made cycling the centerpiece of a new class he’s offering called “Fit for Life.”

The elective also will expose students to golf, bowling, lacrosse and exercise machines. “That’s our goal. Lifelong sports,” DeWayne Combs said.

Renee Combs has put up newspaper clippings, posters, hats and other Tour mementos on the wall of her health class.

She draws on the race to help her teach \ talking about seven-time winner Lance Armstrong in a lesson about cancer, for example. The kids now come in on Mondays and tell her about their biking adventures during the weekend, she said. “They’re into it.”

The couple are both mountain bike racers, and they commute to school by bike, 14 miles each way from their home in Stillwater. One day last week, DeWayne Combs used his mud-splattered bike to teach students about riding in ugly conditions.

“Mountain biking can be done in bad weather,” he told them. To prove it, he took them outside to ride on a 45-degree, drizzly morning. “It’s a little cold now. But you will get warm,” he said.

The kids were supposed to practice keeping their butts off the seat on the downhill portions of a three-quarter-mile course DeWayne Combs set up on the huge fields at the school, next to Battle Creek Regional Park on the city’s eastern edge.

Seventh-grader Nick Bethel took a spill on one of the descents. “I was riding a little too fast,” he said.

Before taking the class, Nick had only been on a bike with a foot brake. Combs said about eight of the 70 kids in his classes had never been on any kind of bicycle before signing up.

Seventh-grader Samantha Olson has her own mountain bike at home, but she said she’s picking up tips from the class that even her older sister, who usually doesn’t listen to her, is paying attention to.

The Combses received a grant for the trip through the Fund for Teachers, which distributes about $50,000 annually in private and foundation money to help St. Paul teachers enhance their skills during the summer.

The experience is supposed to be used to benefit students, and one tangible benefit from the Combs’ trip is a duffel bag full of T-shirts, hats, pins and other Tour trinkets they lugged home for the kids.

DeWayne Combs said the prizes will be given out the same way colored jerseys are awarded at the Tour de France: “We’re going to start some racing.”

Doug Belden can be reached at dbelden@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-5136.

The Combses

Teachers: DeWayne Combs, 42, and Renee Combs, 44

Occupations: DeWayne teaches physical education, and Renee teaches health at Battle Creek Middle School in St. Paul

Family: Five children ranging in age from 13 to 26

Home: Stillwater

Accomplishments: Traveled to the Tour de France this summer and are incorporating lessons from the bike race into fitness instruction for students

Trips abroad inspire new lessons

Teachers come back fired up after spending summer picking up ideas for classroom


Gloria Moyer rediscovered her passion for teaching this summer in a French village called Coupvray, fingering some of Louis Braille’s reading slate in the home where he invented his literacy code for the blind.

Lucy Klocksin was renewed on a New Zealand mountaintop, during a predawn “Matariki” ceremony shared with Maori schoolchildren blowing softly into conch shells.

Michelle Greenfield felt a rush during the deafening takeoff of the space shuttle Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, an experience narrated by a former astronaut who shared his firsthand knowledge.

For the first time, 51 Chicago Public School teachers won the opportunity to travel to six continents this summer-all-expenses-paid adventures designed to inspire classroom educators and their students.

These city teachers will return to their classrooms Tuesday refreshed and toting a trove of memorabilia-wood carvings, spacesuits, pen-pal letters, Johannesburg prison photos, Italian mosaics and chunks of meteorite.

“We were like little kids, watching the launch,” said Greenfield, a science teacher at Armstrong Elementary in Rogers Park, who won the summer fellowship in Florida with her husband Dan, who teaches math at Eberhart Elementary in Chicago Lawn. “To know you can share that excitement with kids, it makes you want to go back to work. It excites your passion.”

The summer professional development program was created by the non-profit Chicago Foundation for Education, which partnered with the Fund for Teachers to sponsor $200,000 worth of exotic travel.

The winners were chosen among 250 applicants and awarded grants ranging from $1,800 to $7,500 for 39 solo and team projects. The organization hopes to fund another 40 study proposals next summer.

“What we were looking for is ultimately how these grants were going to impact children and increase student learning,” said Kris Reichmann, executive director of the Chicago Foundation. “Teachers had to justify how this was going to improve their teaching practice, help students and the broader school community. If teachers were looking for funds for a summer vacation, that was automatically cast aside.”

The screening committee said no to a teacher looking to take a Mediterranean cruise with other educators.

Otherwise, no idea seemed too offbeat to qualify.

Yoga in Ecuador. Conservation in Botswana. Whale research in Brazil. Bicycling along the Tour de France course.

“I will have the opportunity to explore nearly all the regions of France, cheering on the racers as I stand shoulder to shoulder with actual French citizens, in real French villages, against authentic French backdrops,” Abby Imram, a French teacher at Walter Payton College Prep, wrote in her grant application. “While I will be seeking an authentic and intimate experience, every moment of every day will be a potential lesson to share with my students.”

A special education teacher for 31 years, Moyer brought back more concrete lessons to share with students and colleagues at Otis Elementary. Her pilgrimage to the birthplace of Louis Braille will enrich the lessons she creates for Braille Literacy Month. She will team-teach a unit on French culture in a 1st grade bilingual class.

Her class of 16 vision-impaired students will be encouraged to find pen pals from a stack of letters she brought home from South Wales, also a part of her travels. Her experience volunteering at a British adventure camp for the blind taught her new challenges she can share with her students.

“I have always wanted to visit schools in England to see the difference in how kids are taught in Braille,” she said. “I’ve always loved what I do, but to be able to develop something that was entirely my own idea… it’s just an incredible fantasy come true. I truly feel so energized.”

For Cynthia Townsend, a dream of studying apartheid in South Africa first took shape six years ago, when she and her classroom of 4th graders immersed themselves in a monthlong study of the country.

She was awed by the history she discovered and angered by the racism that still plagues Soweto and Capetown neighborhoods. They toured schools and museums, and interviewed residents about their lives.

“Socially, things were much better, but economically it was a mess,” said Townsend, a North Lawndale native who said she drew suspicious stares at restaurants and inns where the only black faces were those of the workers.

Yet this is not the lesson Townsend wants to impart to students about her adventure. “There’s nothing like being able to teach from experience, for the kids to be able to see that I talked to these people, I visited this orphanage. I want my students to realize this is possible, to know that Madison [Street] is not the limit of their world.”

Teacher’s brainstorm brings Louvre to Katy school

Bear Creek pupils, parents treated to virtual tour

Betty L. Martin
Houston Chronicle

It might have be Mona Lisa’s indecipherable smile or the white-marbled beauty of the armless sculpture of Aphrodite.

And it might have been that Bear Creek Elementary School parents and pupils only had to make a short trip from home to experience these and other masterpieces of the Louvre.

But parent Stacey Vincent is giving rave reviews for a recent virtual tour of the Paris museum by more than 300 adults and children, mostly pupils in art classes taught by the tour’s host, Bear Creek teacher Lisa Sitz.

“Come Away with Me to the Louvre,” an evening featuring Sitz’s filmed trip through the museum plus a sampling of French cuisine and a few artsy activities, premiered Feb. 16 at the school, 4815 Hickory Downs.

The event was the result of a project that began last year when Sitz received a $4,500 grant through the Fund For Teachers foundation to record her actual trip to the Paris museum and create a program for her students.

“When everybody came in, we got little passports and boarding passes. (Sitz) made it like we were going on the trip with her,” said Vincent, whose 10-year-old daughter Savannah is in Sitz’s fifth-grade art class. “We started off with the food — croissants with ham and cheese, crepes with strawberries — then she welcomed us to Paris.”

Through video footage, Sitz took the “tourists” down the Louvre’s hallways, stopping at various art works. When it was complete, young assistants passed out candy that children in the audience used to form portraits.

Children also made wearable pens and magnets out of square-inch porcelain pieces Sitz stamped with the image of Paris’s famed Eiffel Tower.

“Savannah had a lot of fun with that. She thought it was great, especially making the little faces, and she got to eat the candy afterward,” Vincent said.

Sitz has what nearly amounts to a fan club among her students and their parents, Vincent said.

For Sitz, who began teaching in 1980 when she helped to open Cimarron Elementary School in Katy, the love of art is secondary to the joy of sharing it with her students.

“I took a break when my daughter was born and stayed home with her for 12 years, when I had a the Blue Bonnet Pottery Studio in Katy,” said Sitz, 50. “But besides making and selling pottery, I was usually teaching while I was there, so six years ago I came back to the classroom at Bear Creek Elementary.”

Sitz still keeps two pottery wheels at the school and uses them to help her students make sculpture art.

“I love art history and I have a history-based curriculum,” said Sitz, a former commercial artist for Houston’s Sakowitz store.

She had toured major museums in Paris and London before her 2005 trip, one reason she undertook the lengthy application process for the Fund For Teachers grant to create a project that would capture the Louvre on film and in more than 1,000 digital images.

“I came up with the project idea to do a virtual tour with hand-held cameras, where the kids are (mentally) walking with me through the museum — ‘OK, kids, let’s gather around and look closely at this Rembrandt,’ ” Sitz said.

Sitz, who has a 1977 art degree with an emphasis on sculpture from Trinity University in San Antonio, made the project interactive, with students keeping art journals and sketching the pictures or making notes about what they saw along the way.

“It was educational and it was a lot of fun for all ages,” Vincent said.