Barr teachers going to Cameroon

Harold Reutter, The Grand Island Independent

Denise Pedersen, a Barr Middle School sixth-grade social studies instructor who teaches word geography, can remember how excited a Laotian student was after she had taken a trip to Cambodia and Thailand and it was time to teach the unit on Southeast Asia.

Pedersen, though, knew that she did not learn everything about Southeast Asia during her visit.

“I told the student, ‘You correct me if I make any mistakes,’” Pedersen said.

However, the student surprised Pedersen by saying she did not know that much about Laos. Evidently, the student was either very young when the family left Laos or perhaps the student was even born in the United States, after her family left Laos.

Barr Middle School teachers (from left) Kari Ekberg, Geri Pagel and Denise Pedersen are all traveling to Cameroon in July as part of the Fund for Teachers Program. (Independent/Barrett Stinson)

That same phenomenon can happen with young people at Barr who were born in Latin American countries such as Mexico and Honduras, or African countries, such as Sudan and Somalia.

“The kids from Latin America get really excited when you start teaching about Latin America and the kids from Sudan and Somalia get really excited when you start teaching about Africa,” Pedersen noted.

But just like the Laotian student, the level of personal knowledge Barr kids have about their home countries depends on how young they were when their families came to the United States.

Pedersen said sixth-graders’ knowledge about their ancestral country also will depend on how much their parents brought with them from their native land and how much they talk about their native land.

In any case, knowledge about other countries is a necessity for any young person in a world that many people now describe as a global village because of the relative ease of international air travel, almost instant connections made possible by communications satellites orbiting the earth, and of course, the Internet.

But there still is no substitute for firsthand experience.

That’s why Pedersen approached sixth-grade language arts teacher Geri Pagel and sixth-grade math teacher Kari Ekberg about joining with her in a grant application to the Malaika Foundation and Fund For Teachers to travel to Cameroon this summer.

The original idea was for Pedersen, Pagel and Ekberg to teach an interdisciplinary unit on Cameroon to sixth-graders during the 2011-12 school year. However, those plans have been disrupted because of the shortfall in state aid that is causing the school district to reduce its budget.

Budget reductions will mean that the district must operate with a leaner staff, which resulted in a number of teachers getting new assignments. Pagel will be teaching eighth grade this fall, while Ekberg will be teaching Top 20, a character education program.

However, folk tales are part of both sixth-grade and eighth-grade language arts, so Pagel should be able to work out some joint lessons that could be used by sixth-graders. And when it comes to Ekberg’s new teaching duties, the topic of culture can easily be included in character education lessons.

In addition, student lessons have already begun in the form of a weblog with a dozen entries on the Barr Middle School website.

The first entry begins with the news that the teachers’ grant proposal was accepted by the Malaika Foundation and Fund For Teachers. The weblog continues with the booking of the tickets; meeting with Ann Masters, executive director of the Malaika Foundation; getting vaccinations to protect against yellow fever, Hepatitis A and tetanus, as well as medications to protect against typhoid and malaria; filling out all the paperwork for passports; and meeting with their Cameroon host family, who are Americans who have worked in the country for nearly two decades.

Pedersen knows the parents in the host family, which is why she wanted Pagel and Ekberg to go to Cameroon. She said the husband is a veterinarian who works with the Fulani tribe on how to better raise cattle. Pedersen said the husband also operates a veterinary clinic, where the wife also works.

As part of the learning process for students on both sides of the Atlantic, the trio of teachers had all Barr sixth-graders fill out postcards so that students in Cameroon can learn about Nebraska. Barr students could tell a little bit about their own interests, describe their favorite foods, and also tell what their parents do for a living.

One student from each sixth-grade class also got to appear on a video where they had an opportunity to ask one question for young people in Cameroon.

“They asked some very good questions,” said Pagel, who noted that students had studied enough about Cameroon to know that it is an oil-producing nation.

“One student asked why Cameroon is a poor country if it produces oil,” Pagel said.

Ideally, the teachers’ weblog will continue uninterrupted while they are in Cameroon. That would allow Barr students to follow their adventures day by day. However, Cameroon is a Third World country, so the teachers are not sure if they will have an Internet connection. In fact, the teachers know they will be fortunate to have electricity. The host family’s home is the only one in the village of 1,000 people to have electricity.

The teachers will spend their mornings in the village teaching students how to speak English, a skill that is highly prized in Cameroon. Although English is a part of the regular school curriculum in Cameroon, that does not mean it is an easy language for young people to learn, especially if their teachers do not have complete mastery of the language.

“If people can speak English (in Cameroon), they can get better jobs,” said Pedersen, explaining why their guest teaching likely will be appreciated.

Afternoons will be spent visiting with villagers in their homes. The trio knows that the villagers will want to be good hosts, so they do not expect short visits. Because their host family has lived and worked in the village for 18 years, they are well accepted by all the residents in the small community. The teachers believe that acceptance will extend to them as well.

Pagel said that gives her hope she will really learn about the culture in Cameroon, not just experience it as a tourist. She noted that earlier in the summer, she will be traveling to Sweden with family members to attend a cousin’s wedding. Because of the short stay, her trip to Sweden will be a tourist visit. In Cameroon, she expects to be immersed in the culture.

“They told me to throw away my watch,” said Pagel, pointing to Pedersen and Ekberg, who have already given her one important cultural tip.

Americans tend to create a daily schedule that they religiously follow, almost down to the minute. Pedersen, on the other hand, said they have been told that people in Cameroon “hope” their morning English classes will start on time.

“Relationships are more important to people (in Cameroon) than time,” Pedersen explained. If a Cameroonian meets a friend on the way to a meeting with another friend, he or she may end up seeing the second friend far later than originally planned. But because relationships are valued more than time, that is not considered bad manners.

That is yet another reason that Pedersen, Pagel and Ekberg do not expect short stays when they are welcomed into a person’s home.

The teachers all plan to get fitted for a traditional Cameroonian dress, which uses yards of fabric. They definitely will wear those dresses in Cameroon, but they also have talked about wearing those dresses for their students at Barr.

The timing of the trip means the teachers will be leaving for Cameroon in late July, then returning home on Aug. 11, which is one day before the first teacher day in the Grand Island Public Schools.

Ekberg said she never considered that traveling to any African country would be among her life’s goals. However, she said the travel itinerary to Cameroon will coincidentally allow her to cross one item off her so-called “bucket list.”

“We have a 24-hour layover in Paris, so I’ll get to see the Eiffel Tower,” she said.

From Umbria to Ulaanbaatar

Many thanks to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) for featuring Fund for Teachers in their latest edition of Education Update. Read here about three Fellows who shared their “experiences of transformative personal and professional growth achieve through exciting, death-defying, and enlightening adventures” for the article.

City Teachers Travel the World, Bring Back New Lessons for Their Students

Students aren’t the only ones looking forward to summer adventures. Dozens of city teachers are heading abroad on travel grants, and hoping to bring their experiences back to the classroom in the fall.

Kate Philpott-Jensen is one of 48 New York City school teachers to receive travel grants from the donor-supported group Fund for Teachers. She was awarded $5,000 for her proposal to travel to American Indian reservations in the Northwestern United States.

Philpott-Jensen teaches U.S. history and government at East Side Community High School. She said her students come from diverse backgrounds. “Within U.S. history, they’re really interested in, and sort of find that issues of race and identity really gripping, really personally relevant,” she said. “I wanted to bring the narratives of Native American Indians into that.”

She’ll spend three weeks conducting interviews to explore issues of sovereignty and government – specifically, how government relates to the governed. She said she noticed that the history of American Indians post-1800s was lacking in the current curriculum, and will use her research this summer to gather primary sources and develop new lessons for her students.

Left: Kate Philpott-Jensen, who teaches U.S. history and government at East Side Community High School, is traveling to several American Indian reservations on a $5,000 grant. Right: Kendra Din

Philpott-Jensen wants the information to foster lively discussion and raise new questions in the classroom, and said she hopes to have her students work on developing and defending their own policy proposals based on their studies.

Other fellows of this year’s Fund for Teachers program expressed similar hopes. Kendra Din (photo top left) teaches math and physics at the Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem. She won a $7,500 grant from the group, to study relationships between mathematics, art and architecture in Turkey and Iran.

“When you travel, you learn so much more than just learning something straight out of a textbook, and that sounds so awkward for a teacher to say, but it’s absolutely true and that’s why I wanted my students to apply for their passports,” she said. She, too, teaches a diverse group of students, and said her school has a growing Muslim population. Part of her goal is to foster more tolerance and understanding of different cultures and religions.

For her project, Din intends to visiting mosques, buildings, bridges, and other sites to study Arabesque art and mathematics. She hopes her findings will make a particular unit of algebra a little bit more engaging for her students next year. “This particular art form is created with a lot of math, specifically the conic sections unit of Algebra II,” she said.

Din will bring pictures and videos back to school next fall, to give her students a first hand look so they’ll be better able to detect the art forms and the mathematics behind them. She would also like to have them create their own artwork using those principles.

Travel projects from this year’s New York City fellows vary greatly, from studies of local Peruvian music, formulated by Jessica Chase and Daniel Nohejl of the Bronx Guild, to observations of India’s caste system, as proposed by Katie O’Hara, of the Bronx Leadership Academy II.

Fund for Teachers has been awarding grants to teachers nationwide for nearly a decade. This year, the group says it granted $1.7 million dollars to a total of 430 teachers across America.

“Disability is not inability. Give me a chance to prove it.”

Fund for Teachers Fellows Danielle Merdin and Terri Wellner traveled to Kenya to establish a Virtual Information Project partnership with classes at Nairobi’s Kilimani Public School, an inclusive school for students with disabilities, similar to their school in Boston. Watch their touching documentary here.

Newsletter – Volume 7, Spring 2011

In This Issue:
TA Piece of Pi
Back in the Classroom
Fellows’ Spring Calendar
A Wisconsin Teacher’s POV
Where Are They Now?

Read our recent newsletter, Odyssey.


Teachers’ Exploration of Irish Potato Famine Informs Local Student Prejudice Issue

(March 17, 2011) Minturn, CO, a small town on the outskirts of Vail, relies on international visitors for its livelihood. Ironically, it’s also the increasingly immigrant work force that’s fostering prejudice at Minturn Middle School. With a racially-divided student population (52% Hispanic/47% Caucasian), cultural discrimination extends even to “established” and “new” Hispanic students. Seventh grade teachers Noel Falk and Stephanie Gallegos chose to address these schisms with history. Turning to an earlier era marked by ethnic turmoil, the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-50, this teacher team traveled to Ireland on a Fund for Teachers grant last June to better understand how that crisis led to Irish immigration, American stereotypes, and, ultimately, prejudice.

Noel and Stephanie stand by a soup pot once used to feed famine victims.

“With our $9,500 Fund for Teachers grant, we chose to use Ireland’s Potato Famine and resulting mass emigration to help students comprehend the enormity of leaving one’s home country with only a “dream” as a lifeline – much like our Hispanic families who emigrate from Mexico,” explained Falk. “By applying this first-hand research toward a two-trimester course on immigration, we hoped to show our students the cultural and economic roots of prejudice and how we can address it in our own culture.”

During their nine-day odyssey, Falk and Gallegos visited Skibbereen, the worst-affected area of the famine and home of the Skibbereen Heritage Center and its Great Famine Commemoration Exhibition, and the Abbeystrewery Cemetery, where nearly10,000 Potato Famine victims are buried; the Heritage Center in Cobh, an emigration port for 2.5 million Irish; a traditional farm in County Kerry that simulated an Irish farmer’s life 200 years ago; and the Famine Warhouse 1848 in County Tipperary, where the Young Irelanders Rebellion protested British rule and British reaction to the famine.

Noel and Stephanie tour Abbeystrewry Cemetery, a mass gravesite for famine victims.

Back at Minturn Middle School, the teachers’ experiences and primary sources sparked dialogue about immigration past and present. Students spent the fall digging into the Potato Famine and its impact on Irish/English relations. As students moved across the Atlantic with the Irish, they learned that the rough journey for the Irish immigrant didn’t end when they passed inspection at Ellis Island. Rather, the Irish spent decades climbing the American social and economic ladder while experiencing nativist perspectives and prejudice in the United States. As students now begin studying Mexican immigration, they realize how much the two cultures have in common. The curriculum created a safe forum for students to discuss the roots of prejudice and how groups can overcome social injustices with facts and dialogues. Consequently, Falk and Gallegos report that students’ own preconceived notions of others are changing.

“This Fund for Teachers fellowship provided us the contacts, connections and perspectives we lacked, but that now help us effectively address the central lesson for our students: Individuals can lessen prejudice by better understanding one another,” said Gallegos. “By bringing Ireland to our classroom and shrinking the world for our students, they begin to realize how similar our cultures are and that the Mexicans who immigrate to the United States in search of a better life are not that different than the Irish who preceded them.”

A national, donor-supported organization, Fund for Teachers makes an important contribution to America’s educational conversation by expanding the definition of teacher professional development. By investing $14.5 million in 4,000 educators over the past ten years, Fund for Teachers inspires teachers’ pursuit of meaningful, self-designed work that translates into skills and scholarship directly impacting student learning. For more information, visit or

For more information on Fellows who have traveled to Ireland, visit our Teacher Project Search, and search for “Ireland.”

A Piece of Pi

While math enthusiasts around the world celebrate Pi Day on 3.14 (or March 14), a select group of Fund for Teachers Fellows celebrate math year-round as our Pi Society Fellows. Founded by Apache Corporation Chairman and CEO Steve Farris, the Pi Society incentivizes teachers to design and pursue math-related fellowships that will directly impact students’ knowledge of concepts vital for corporate leadership. In its first two years, the Pi Society is already fueling meaningful work by its Fellows and their students.

Left: Merit sits at the entrance of Pythagoras’ cave classroom on his 2009 fellowship. Right: Bob with his guitar made under the instruction of master craftsman George Riszanyi.

Living in an isolated rural area, Merit Bean’s students at Mt. Abram High School in Salem Township, ME, are amazed when he begins the year’s math curriculum with a slideshow of his 2009 FFT fellowship to Greece. He introduces the Pythagorean Theory by showing students photos of his hike to Pythagoras’ cave classroom on the island of Samos. He teaches geometrical proportions using photos of Grecian buildings exhibiting the Gold Rectangle premise.

“Using my photographs-ranging from the Parthenon to a shepherd’s hut on the side of an isolated hillside on Tinos- my students calculate proportions in class and then disperse into the community to gather examples of the Golden Rectangle. In January, they returned to class with photos of the geometrical principal at work in libraries, court houses and homes. One of my favorites was a picture of an outhouse that was a perfect fit based on its proportions! The students came away with a deeper understanding of how our isolated, rural community was influenced by Ancient Greece and the ways our cultures are more connected than we realize.”

Bob Dunn’s students at North County Union High School in Newport, VT, experiment with physics under the guise of rock and roll. Last summer, Dunn enrolled in a workshop in Nova Scotia on his FFT fellowship and learned how to make musical instruments while employing mathematical concepts. Under the direction of craftsmen who have built guitars for Keith Richards and James Taylor, Dunn developed skills (and instruments) that served him in creating a math class, “Making Musical Instruments.” In designing and building their own instruments, students considered amplitude and sound wavelength, and selected woods based on their research. A colleague of Dunn’s also created a math unit which focused on calculating the placement of dulcimer frets based on string length. In February, before an audience of parents, faculty and peers, students shared their scientific findings and musical skills on their own hand-crafted dulcimers.

Bob’s student adds clamps to his hand-made dulcimer.

Additional Pi Society Fellows include: Mike Beebe, Littleton, NC, who visited renewable energy technology centers across America to observe, research, and develop a standards-aligned project-based Algebra II curriculum; Padma Rayalla, Atlanta, GA, who observed mathematical teaching and assessment strategies in Bangalore and Hyderbad, India, to implement with International Baccalaureate students; Rebecca Brink, Necedah, WI, who attended the conference History and Epistemology in Math Education in Vienna, Austria, followed by an exploration into the lives of early mathematicians in Athens, Greece, to incorporate the history of mathematics and culture into current curriculum; and Richard Saxer, York, NE, who observed geometry’s relevance and application in prehistoric sites, architectural designs and art displays throughout England and Ireland.

If you are interested in supporting teachers’ and students’ pursuit of inspired mathematical learning, please invest in a piece of the Pi Society by contacting us at

Students honor McAuliffe legacy with science fair

Sarah Thomas
The Boston Globe

FRAMINGHAM – A quarter century after high school teacher Christa McAuliffe died on the space shuttle Challenger, a new generation of students honored the teacher’s legacy Thursday evening with a science fair held at her alma mater, Framingham State University.

“More than anything else, Christa was about teaching,” said Mary Liscombe, executive director of the Christa McAuliffe Center for Education and Teaching Excellence, which is based on the campus. “Her story reinforces the message that anyone can live their dreams, and that message endures through teachers who inspire their students to learn.”

Training for the Challenger flight included some lighter moments for Framingham State grad Christa McAuliffe (left), chosen as the first teacher in space, and her backup, Barbara Morgan. (Nasa via Associated Press/File 1986)

The fair, which showcased the work of McAuliffe Regional Charter Public Middle School’s eighth-grade students, was the capstone of the center’s memorial for McAuliffe and the six other crew members who died on Jan. 28, 1986.

Hundreds of people crowded into the McCarthy Center Forum at Framingham State for the evening’s events, which included short speeches by Liscombe and state Senator Karen Spilka.

“This is a bittersweet celebration,” Spilka said. “Christa is an inspiration to us all, and it’s great to see such a packed room. My thanks to all the students that participated. You are our future.”

Grace Corrigan, McAuliffe’s mother, was scheduled to appear, but was unable to attend.

The fair was conceived by Dan Anderson, McAuliffe Regional’s eighth-grade science teacher. Despite his school being named after such a famous crew member of the Challenger, Anderson said that until last year, he didn’t know much about space.

“It wasn’t on our curriculum. We focused on cells and genetics, and that’s where my passion really was,” Anderson said. “I didn’t have as much genuine excitement for space science, and I think my students could tell that.”

Luckily, Anderson had a solution: space camp. With the help of McAuliffe Regional’s director, Kristin Harrison, Anderson applied for a grant from the Fund for Teachers to spend a week at the Space Academy for Educators in Huntsville, Ala.

“Part of the grant was bringing some part of my experience back, and this fair was the way we decided to do it,” Anderson said. “We have learned so much. The students at our school learn experientially, and they have interviewed space scientists from all over the world. I love space now!”

One student, Matthew Yaeger, wore a regulation NASA space suit to present his research on propulsion in space, and said he has wanted to be an astronaut since the second grade.

“It was a great project,” said Yaeger, who collaborated with his friend Jacob Komissar. “We went to Worcester Polytechnic and talked to a lot of scientists. It was kind of cool, because I had all these ideas of how propelling space ships could work, and then I found out NASA had been thinking of the same things.”

Another student, Caroline Boldt, said she didn’t have much of an interest in space before she started her project on Pluto with her friend Shannon Pruyn.

“My favorite subject is biology, but when I grow up I want to do something in the arts,” Boldt said. “Now I think I’ll have to do pictures of space in my art.”

The evening’s events also included archival displays from the Christa McAuliffe collections, and performances at the Challenger Learning Center planetarium.

The students who participated in the fair put themselves in contention for a grand prize trip to space camp in the summer by writing short essays about what the project taught them.

Sarah Thomas can be reached at

© Copyright 2011 Globe Newspaper Company.