Harlem trip’s aim is to aid ‘culturally relevant’ teaching

Susan Troller
The Capital Times

Dancing on the stage was the last thing on Madison school teacher Nancy Lanyon’s mind when she sat in the audience of the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem on amateur night. With her bad back and walking cane, the white-haired veteran teacher figured even getting out of her seat would be a stretch.

“When the MC picked me with four others from the audience, at first I didn’t even think I could do it,” Lanyon admits. But she threw down her cane and clambered up on the stage.

The audience went wild.

When it was all over and Lanyon had danced her allotted two minutes, it was clear she’d won over the hearts of the tough New York audience, say her fellow travelers and colleagues from Hawthorne Elementary. She also won her category of the amateur competition, and was mobbed with well-wishers as she left the theater.

“Even on the street, among the 16- and 17-year-old kids, she was like a celebrity. Everyone was saying, ‘Oh, I just love Nancy,’” fellow teacher Emily Grams reports.

Performing at the Apollo in front of a largely African-American audience was not just a capstone experience in a trip filled with remarkable experiences for Lanyon, who is white and in her 60s. “It was probably one of the best moments of my life,” she says with a smile.

Lanyon, Grams, and fellow Hawthorne teachers Julie Olsen and Abby Miller received a grant from the national nonprofit Fund for Teachers that allowed them to travel to Harlem to learn about the art, music, poetry, literary history and drama of this hub of African-American life. They all agree that they now have a new appreciation for the richness of black culture and its profound impact on American life and culture as a whole.

For these four, plus a dozen more local educators whose travel was covered by a couple of additional grants, the experience was part of a wider effort to help them better teach in what’s known as a culturally relevant way.

“Culturally relevant practice” is a relatively new movement in education that recognizes that learning, for all of us, is related to our cultural background and what we know from our daily living. Research shows that effectively bridging the gaps between a teacher’s background and student’s experience can improve academic performance.

Andreal Davis is one of two district administrators in charge of helping to create culturally relevant practices in local classrooms. A former elementary school teacher at Lincoln, Davis, who is black, now helps colleagues recognize that different groups of children bring their different backgrounds, expectations and even communication styles to the classroom.

She says teachers sometimes need help learning to translate different ways their students learn, or what kind of interactions make sense to different groups of children.

“Communication styles for all of us can vary a great deal. It can be like the difference between listening to conventional music, or listening to jazz, where the narrative doesn’t just go in a straight line,” she explains. “If that flow is what you’re used to, it’s what you know how to follow in a conversation, or in a class.”

Given Hawthorne’s demographics – 70 percent of the students are poor, with a diverse population that includes 18 percent Hispanic, 20 percent Asian, 32 percent black and 28 percent white – the school has respectable, rising test scores.

But the teachers there want to do even more to engage all students and help them excel. That’s what they’re hoping the trip to Harlem will help them do. “At our school, we do work really hard to try to reach all our students and I think it shows,” says Olsen. “But we can always get better.”

When the teachers return to school next fall, they will bring not just enthusiasm for Harlem’s rich culture and heritage to their racially diverse classrooms in Madison. They’ll also bring respect and new appreciation for the way that people and families communicate, interact and look out for each other, taught by example through their Harlem friends.

As teachers whose life is working with kids, they were especially impressed with the interactions they saw regularly between adults and small children in Harlem. “We saw an older gentleman walking down the street and when he passed a little boy he smiled and said, ‘Hey, little man, better tie your shoes,’” Olsen says. That kind of street conversation was common, they say, and so was routinely looking out for your neighbor.

They were also impressed with the friendliness and candor of 88-year-old Delores Leon, known throughout the community as “Doll,” whose beautiful hidden street-side garden they stumbled upon. She was eager to share stories of a lifetime spent in Harlem with her unexpected visitors.

“It was the spontaneous interactions that were so memorable,” says Grams, adding that the group felt a sense of belonging in the neighborhood, from their first day staying in a local hotel.

Lanyon tells of the time she was at a restaurant and noticed some women looking at her and whispering.

“I thought maybe they thought I wasn’t dressed up enough, and, as a white person with my sandals and my backpack on the table, I figured I did look out of place. So I got up to go and one of the women stopped me. ‘Honey, you don’t want to keep your bag on the table,’ she says. ‘Somebody will just snatch it right up,’ Here I was worried they were criticizing me and instead they were worrying about me!”

Joining the four Hawthorne colleagues who won the national grant for the trip were several other Hawthorne teachers; their principal, Beth Lehman; a teacher from Lowell Elementary teacher; as well as Davis and another district administrator. These individuals received grants from the Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools and the Evjue Foundation. The groups had overlapping time in Harlem, and shared many experiences.

“One of the things about travel is that you get off the plane, and the next day you wake up in someone else’s world,” Olsen says. “That’s a powerful thing.”

Both groups of teachers stayed in Harlem. Their list of scheduled activities included seeing August Wilson’s powerful play, “Fences,” starring recent Tony Award-winning actor and actress, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. They also visited the famed Cotton Club and toured several schools, including a public school with an arts focus and a successful charter school.

They also went to jazz clubs, churches, bookstores, public and private gardens and museums. They spent time at the New York City Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and toured Harlem on foot with Harlem historian extraordinaire, Neal Shoemaker. “Our tour was supposed to take two hours. It took three and a half, and every minute was worthwhile,” Lanyon says.

For Davis, a Milwaukee native, this first trip to Harlem was especially meaningful, both personally and professionally.

When she taught fifth-graders, she often used material about American history that described the flowering of the arts in Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s. “I loved teaching my students about the heritage of African-American culture and the Harlem Renaissance. But being here in person and seeing everything firsthand is better than I could have imagined.”

Now she can see first hand how enthusiastic teachers become when they learn something through their own experience.

“I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say this trip has changed my life,” says Lanyon.

Geometry in the world

Fund for Teachers sends YHS teacher on an international learning exploration

Candace Blomendahl

YORK – York High School geometry teacher Richard Saxer has returned from an international learning odyssey.

Saxer traveled to England and Ireland in order to bring back evidence of the relationship between geometry and prehistoric sites, architectural designs and art. His fellowship was made possible through a Fund for Teachers grant administered by Nebraska’s Malaika Foundation. The Fund for Teachers program provides Nebraska teachers with a means to take odysseys around the world that affect their own lives and careers as well as the education experience of their students. This summer, Fund for Teachers sent 23 Nebraska teachers from 18 different schools to other parts of the world to help transform their careers, lives and classrooms.

When YPS superintendent Mike Lucas sent out an email in late October with a link to the Fund for Teachers program, Saxer saw the opportunity but knew it would take some work. He had to complete a very detailed questionnaire about what he was interested in and what might affect students the most. Saxer also completed an extensive proposal describing his fellowship rationale and purpose, in which he gave a description of his project, how he will grow and learn as a teacher, how students will grow and learn from his experience, how it will benefit the school community and his plan for implementation of what he learned through his fellowship.

The overall goal of Saxer’s fellowship was to share with students how geometry can be related to something concrete. He said he has learned in his teaching career that it is always a good idea to attach something related to real life “rather than go through the book and imagine things.”

He chose England and Ireland as his destinations and researched places that he could visit that would be related to geometry. Saxer wanted to observe prehistoric sites in both countries, many of which still hold mysteries as to why they exist. He wanted to investigate how they are geometry-related.

By visiting these places, Saxer has made it possible for students to help solve some of these mysteries. He plans to look at these places with his students during the year and provide evidence of geometric principles that run deep at these sites. They will then make their own hypotheses about these sites and draw their own conclusions.

He traveled to the prehistoric sites of Newgrange, Knowth, Fourknocks, Stonehenge and Avebury. Each place amazed him.

At some of the sites, the placement of the stones were related to the summer and winter solstices, which Saxer found stunning. He was able to experience for himself the geometric theories that have encircled these prehistoric sites for centuries.

“It’s just fascinating,” Saxer said of how geometry relates to these places.

Saxer said he witnessed a lot of beautiful symmetric architecture in London. He studied the presence of tessellations and the constructions of arcs, circles and polygons at sites throughout his trip. He also visited art galleries and studied the geometric principles found in several works of art.

At a science museum in London, he visited a “History of Mathematics” exhibit that related brilliantly to his studies.

After having the chance to witness first hand just how deep the foundations of geometry run, Saxer said it has reinforced how important geometry has been in the history of civilization. His appreciation for art and architecture has grown. The trip brought theories and ideas to life.

“It was incredible,” he said.

Saxer found himself saying, “I can’t believe what I’m looking at,” all the time.

“Every day was like that,” he said.

Throughout the rest of his career, Saxer will share what he has experienced and learned with his students. They will be able to see the relevance of geometry to the world around them.

Saxer has been teaching for 19 years and this experience will not only engage student learning, but it will also continue to provide Saxer with even more inspiration.

“It’s renewed me,” he said. “It’s probably a once in a lifetime deal.”

Edmond Fellow Carrie Clark

EDMOND — Trusting that teachers know best how to engage and energize their students, Fund for Teachers recently awarded, through the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence and the Tulsa Community Foundation, 66 Oklahoma PreK-12th-grade teachers with fellowships for self-designed professional development totaling about $250,000.

Edmond Fellow Carrie Clark from Central Middle School will use LabQuest technology to collect soil and water samples in Yellowstone National Park to demonstrate how to maximize the use of technology in science exploration and methodology.

“We recognize that the teacher is the decisive factor in students’ learning,” said Karen Kovach Webb, executive director of Fund for Teachers. “We are deeply committed to the growth of teachers through strategic investments in their own areas of personal and professional interest.”

Clark said she is looking forward to using new technology that has been provided for the classrooms including LabQuest equipment and probes costing from $80 to $180 purchased through a bond issue.

“I will be able to use some LabQuest handsets that I have for the classroom,” Clark said. “Our school has a whole bunch of handsets with probes for motion detectors, light sensors and other things.”

Clark said she hopes to bring back knowledge of different ways to use the handsets so the classroom teachers will be able to use them more often.

“I am going to take of video of me using one at Yellowstone in some of the research I will be conducting,” Clark said.

She plans to bring the video back and use it in her own classroom to train students on how to use the equipment. She also plans on showing the other teachers practical applications they can apply in their own classrooms.

“We as grownups have a tendency to avoid technology, especially when we have to manage and trouble shoot for yourself much less for 30 students,” Clark said.

“Lots of problem-solving applications come with the program, and it is a terrific resource using electronic technology, what real scientists are using today. More and more scientists are using equipment like LabQuest.”

Each fellowship is as unique as the teacher who designed it; and regardless of the destination or discipline, these newly named Fellows will return to 37 Oklahoma schools inspired by the pursuit of ideas, terrains and cultures in 17 countries this summer.

“I felt that Yellowstone National Park is the complete package,” Clark said. “It contains something from every field that I teach: earth science, life science, chemistry and motion and forces.”

“In terms of being a perfect backdrop, I couldn’t think of a better location.”

The Fund for Teachers fellowship application becomes available online each October, with an application deadline in January. Awardees are notified in April and fellowships take place during the summer.

Clark and her Yellowstone experience may be followed by going to www.outsidewithus.com.

Newsletter – Volume 6, Summer 2010

In This Issue:
Brooklyn Dinosaurs
10TH Anniversary Celebration
Pi Society Fellows
Plank Award Winners

Read our recent newsletter, Odyssey.


Web Cam Brings India To Beggs Elementary School

Rick Wells
The News On 6

BEGGS, OK – A group of Beggs third graders talked to people on the other side of the world Wednesday morning. The teachers used something the kids love – computers – to teach them about and take them to a place they’ve never been.

“Why do the women wear red dots on their forehead, and what does that mean?” asked Payden Bradshaw.

Payden Bradshaw is a Beggs third grader. She’s participating in a video conference with some new friends in India. The kids have been studying the continents and had some questions they wanted answered.

They want to learn by doing and seeing, they don’t want to just read about it,” said Sherrie Guthrie, third-grade teacher.

Sherrie Guthrie is one of the third-grade teachers, and her brother is working in India right now. So they used the Internet and a webcam to hold a video conference to ask and get answers to their questions.

Emma asked about the weather.

“How is the weather today and can you tell us about monsoon season?” she asked.

Seventy-six degrees, they said, and monsoon season runs through the summer months. They could have read that, but how much more fun this way.

But in this time of shrinking budgets where’d they get a web cam?

Cindy Swearingen, the Beggs Public Schools Superintendent, told us the teachers are very active grant writers finding money outside the budget to support programs they think they need.

“How can I take these kids out to a place they’ve never been to expand their horizons,” said first-grade teacher Darla Six of her goals.

She helped write the grant that got the webcam and some training on how to use it – to go places like India to get questions answered like about those red dots on some Hindu women’s foreheads.

Payden Bradshaw now knows the answer.

“They wear it when they are married,” she said.

In Beggs you will find creative teachers using technology to help educate their students despite tight budgets.

Sherrie Guthrie’s brother Roy Kulp will be in Japan in a few weeks, so they plan another web cam hookup with him and some of his colleagues there, to learn more about that country.

Bringing European Art to the Classroom

Samira Rizvi
Ultimate Katy

Trekking through Western Europe nearly three years ago, Nancy Hess was busy thinking how she could bring the experience back to her students at Katy Independent School District’s Griffin Elementary School.

By all accounts, Hess went over and beyond the call to duty and has recently been presented with one of only eight Plank Fellowship Awards in the nation. The award was in recognition of the programs she developed after her European visit as part of her Fund for Teachers fellowship and was awarded by Carrie Pillsbury from the Fund for Teachers program on National Teacher’s Day this month.

“The program uses your own creativity to set up your experience,” Hess explained. “I called mine ‘Walking in the Footsteps of the Masters’.”

The Fund for Teachers provides $5,000 grants for individual teachers or $10,000 grants for teams of two or more teachers. Hess’ fine arts grant was for a trip to Western Europe to study and observe the homes and workplaces of such artists and musicians as Mozart, Handel, Monet and Michelangelo. Her 2½-week visit included sites in France, Italy, Germany, Austria and England. Traveling with her on the 2007 trip was her daughter Ashley, 22, and a student at the time, who paid her own way.

Based in Houston, the national foundation takes applications each year from October through January, with awards announced in April, according to national director Karen Kovach Webb. Now in its 10th year, the Fund for Teachers provides the funds for experiences anywhere in the world for “self-designed learning experiences,” Webb said.

The Plank Fellowship Award acknowledges the programs teachers design using the information they have from their travels and was established in honor of Raymond Plank, the founder of Apache Corp. in Houston as well as the Fund for Teachers, Webb said.

“Plank wanted to positively impact the learning experience of students,” Webb explained, “and decided giving the awards to teachers would affect more students than giving an award to one student.”

There is one national winner, who receives a $1,000 stipend and several regional winners, each of whom receives $500. Hess is the fellowship winner for the Houston region, Webb said.

“The fellowships are available for teachers in pre-K to 12th-grade classrooms, who spend at least 50 percent of their time in the classroom,” Webb said. “There were 465 awarded this year, and 4,000 awards in the past 10 years. The total amount awarded this year was $1.9 million, given to 55 teachers in 38 different schools.”

Hess, 52, has been a teacher for 27 years, spending 14 of those years in Katy ISD schools. She has been at Griffin Elementary School since it opened in 2006. A graduate of University of Houston and a native of Houston, Hess has a master’s degree in elementary education. She is married to Rusty and is the mother of Ashley, now 24 and a graduate of University of Houston, and Dusten, 21, a University of Houston student. She is the teacher for Griffin Elementary School’s gifted and talented program.

“The benefit of the Fund for Teachers program was that I wanted to learn more about each of the artists and musicians I teach. For most of the kids, this isn’t their art or their music, but I want to teach them a love and recognition for this style of art and music.

The programs she devised at the end of her journey are taught through Power Point slide shows and some video, as well as some hands-on materials she brought back from Europe.

“Walking into the back of Claude Monet’s house is like walking into Disneyland,” she smiled. “It gives you the feeling of walking through there when he was there. So many subjects tie together, like architecture and architectural terms. When you like something you’ve done you love to talk about it. Being able to portray that to my students made it much more exciting for them.”

Points of interest on her trip included the Vatican, the Forum and the Colosseum in Rome and the city of Venice.

“I learned that Venice is where all the Renaissance artists went to study,” she said, “and the Dome of Basilica is an example of Michelangelo’s architecture.

Hess, who had applied twice for the Fund for Teachers award, said she received a lot of support from school administrators.

“I have a lot of great teachers on campus,” said Griffin Elementary School principal Jacki Keithan, “and she is definitely one of the greats.

“She went to Europe and brought back a lot of first-hand information. I have other teachers who have applied, who are looking for experiences that they can grow with and present to their students, but she is the first one I have had win.

“She’s done some really good things with kids this year.”

Part of the unit Hess teaches includes a “Living Museum.”

“I have the students pick an artist or musician or dancer who worked sometime before 1920,” Hess explained. “The students must research their person and dress up as that person. They are seated next to a ‘buzzer’ and when it is pressed, they have to stand up and give a presentation about that person. It’s like the Hall of Presidents at Disneyland. We had adults and students lined up in the hallways. Some of these kids were so into their characters you’d almost believe they’re real.”

According to national director Webb, the Fund for Teachers will be bringing Plank Fellowship winners together in June in a small town in Wyoming.

“We want them to help us look at how we ask teachers what they’re going to do with all this information when they get back from their journey.”

“A lot of people think, ‘wow, a European vacation’,” Hess laughed. “But it was a very fast-paced trip. I really appreciated being able to travel like that. Without the Fund for Teachers we wouldn’t be able to do that. But to have it be a learning experience is different from a vacation. If I went back I sure wouldn’t take it at as fast-paced as I did.”

Face to Face With Karen Kovach Webb, Executive Director, Fund for Teachers

Christine Hall
Houston Business Journal

Karen Kovach Webb teamed with Apache Corp. founder Raymond Plank to bring his personal initiative of recognition and reward for school teachers to the public in 2001. The resulting foundation, Fund for Teachers, aims to enrich teachers’ lives by offering them the opportunity to self-design summer sabbatical experiences, returning to the classroom re-energized in ways that impact students on a daily basis. To date, Fund for Teachers has granted over $14 million to over 4,000 teachers working in 47 states. In addition to positions in the corporate arena and as a small business owner, Webb has worked in nonprofit management, strategic planning and development for over 25 years. She has served on various community school boards and concerned citizens and advocacy groups that seek to ensure adequate resources and opportunities for basic services and education. She was interviewed by Christine Hall.

How did the Fund for Teachers program get started?

During the early 1980s, Raymond Plank, having been the fortunate beneficiary of many good teachers in his life, chose to honor the influential role those teachers played in his success by establishing a modest fund at his Minneapolis high school. Fast-forward to 2001: It was serendipitous; I was ready for a new professional challenge when Raymond approached me with the idea of scaling up his pilot program. From idea to pilot program to today: Fund for Teachers has grown from inspiration to a Houston-based, national public nonprofit program that helps teachers from across the country pursue their own self-designed learning opportunities.

How do you think Houston is advancing beyond other cities or markets in terms of education?

It is hard to ignore the national debate about education reform and its impact on the economy, today and tomorrow. Houston, like cities across the country, is facing the challenge to determine and sustain effective school improvement that will equip students with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in the globally driven marketplace. A pause for reflection should be part of the deliberations as we all determine the best path forward.

What is the organization doing to supply the area with a quality base of employable people?

One in four Americans is in a school building every day. Research proves that teachers make schools successful. Fund for Teachers attributes its growth to the concerted effort to define our partnering relationships with corporate supporters and local education foundations with a commitment to shared purposes. To reach teachers across the country we affiliate with various locally based education reform groups. Fund for Teachers is somewhat unique in mission and program. We give money directly to teachers for the work that they know will most directly impact their efforts. We have been successful in bringing education reform groups from New York City, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and other places together in collaboration around our mission and granting program to foster teacher growth and learning and thereby student growth and learning. The definition and scope of “community” grows exponentially through the constructive exchanges around our “table” – teachers and students benefit immediately.

And how is the private sector, i.e. companies and corporations, reciprocating?

We use the same approach with our donors. The Houston corporate community, led by Apache, cradled FFT: Its continuing support has served as the model and inspiration for national funders. Employers have a stake in hiring future graduates who are high achievers. The purpose of business cannot separate from the purposes of education. As companies struggle to articulate and act on value propositions, Fund for Teachers provides them with a way to support teachers and education directly, with immediate impact. Our teachers’ stories are proof that doing the “right thing” is good for business. Corporations feed the pipeline to the future. Let me give you an example: Understanding that a mastery of math concepts is integral to competing on the global business front; Steve Farris, chairman and CEO of Apache, started the Fund for Teachers Pi Society. He challenged other CEOs to join him in pledging funding earmarked specifically for math-related fellowships hoping to inspire the current generation of math students through their teachers.

What’s next for the organization?

As I look to the next decade, I know that Fund for Teachers must remain focused on achieving our goals and vigilant measuring our progress. We are nowhere near the fulfillment of our aspirations for a full-scale national coverage program making self-designed learning opportunities available to all professional teachers charged with guiding our future. Our continued successful partnerships will allow us to recruit the donors and local education partners aligned around that purpose. I am confident that the Fund for Teachers’ community table will expand and grow in positive, inspiring ways. Without doubt, more students will benefit from teachers who have explored their own curiosity and deepened their own scholarship. This is my passion.

Teachers to Share Travel Experiences with Students

Cathy Spaulding, Phoenix Staff Writer

Six area teachers will be able to open new worlds and cultures to their students next school year after returning from study trips sponsored by the Fund for Teachers.

The teachers were among 66 Oklahoma teachers to receive the fellowship grants awarded by Fund for Teachers, through the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence and the Tulsa Community Foundation. Each year, Fund for Teachers awards grants to enable teachers to experience summer learning treks and bring their experiences to their students.

These area teachers received grants:

• Tony Goetz Elementary School resource specialist Cheri Fite will go to England and explore the world of literary hero Harry Potter in an effort to bring literature to life in her classroom.

• Tahlequah High School career-technology teacher Brenda McClain will visit World War II locations in Germany and collect video, photographs and global positioning coordinates.

• Paula Galbraith, Vanessa Gilley and Delicia White of Eufaula Elementary School will go to Costa Rica and learn how the indigenous Indian culture compares to Oklahoma’s Native American culture.

Fite said she wants her trip to show her students the differences not only between the United States and England, but also between fact and fiction. She said she will visit many of the places mentioned in the books or shown in the movies based on the books.

“I’m going to take pictures all over England,” she said. “I’m going to the train station at King’s Crossing, where Harry Potter left on Platform Nine and Three-Fourths. I’ll show there is a Platform 9 and a Platform 10, but Harry’s platform is fictional. I’ll show that the witchcraft and wizardry in the books are fictional.”

Fite said many of her students have reading disabilities.

“A lot of my kids struggle. So one of the things I’m going to show is how Harry Potter struggled with things such as learning to fly the broom,” she said. “I’ll show that he never gave up on what he wanted to accomplish.”

She said she’ll also use the trip to answer students’ questions such as, how do people in England get around or how do they buy things.

The Eufaula teachers said they will find all sorts of things during their 11-day trip to Costa Rica. For example, they will collect data on sea turtles that lay eggs on the beach and learn about reforestation programs. The three also will spend time with a family belonging to the Bribri tribe in Central America.

“We want to compare their life with the Native American culture we have here,” Galbraith said. “We could bring back artifacts to donate to the library with video records of sounds and games.”

The three also will do some in-service training for other teachers.

“A main purpose of our visit is conservation and the need to care for the environment,” Galbraith said.

The teachers said the grant is worth about $10,000.

“We’re very excited about it,” White said.

At Tahlequah, McClain will use global positioning systems, geographic information systems and podcasting to help her students learn technology and her fellow instructors teach history. McClain said she had lived in Germany for six and a half years.

She said the GPS will use longitude and latitude to find a location while the GIS will plat the location on a map. She said she also will take pictures and video, which students will be able to make into a podcast, which history and English teachers could use.

“I’m really excited, because this allows me the opportunity to use history and incorporate technology into it,” she said.

Reach Cathy Spaulding at 684-2928 or cspaulding@muskogeephoenix.com.