Soggy Science: Paddling the Extra Mile for Education

Aaron is a Chicago Public School teacher, currently teaching biology and zoology at Kelly High School on the city’s south side. Prior to becoming a high school teacher, he served as a US Peace Corps volunteer for three years in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu where he worked as a classroom teacher, curriculum designer and manager of a cyclone relief fund. As a 2008 Fund for Teachers fellow, Aaron paddled a kayak more than 1000 miles down the lower Mississippi River to study nutrient pollution and design a river ecology unit for high school students. His writing and photographs have appeared in Sea Kayaker Magazine, Wavelength Paddling and on You can read a personal account of Aaron’s fellowship at his blog.

Ventura County schools celebrate Read Across America Day

Rachel McGrath
Ventura County Star

Adriane Levy brought her three Tennessee fainting goats to school Tuesday in Moorpark as real-life illustrations for the classic Norwegian children’s tale “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.”

Levy, an instructional aide for the Moorpark Unified School District, was taking part in Read Across America Day activities at Arroyo West School.

Read Across America is a nationwide program sponsored by the National Education Association that annually celebrates the March 2, 1904, birthday of the late Theodor Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss, and is designed to foster a love of books in young children. Schools across Ventura County held events Tuesday, and some are planning activities all week.

“This is a good project and allows everybody to focus on reading, and I really enjoy sharing my experience with the students,” Levy said.

After reading the book, Levy let the children interact with the goats.

“I like it because I’ve never seen a goat before,” said kindergartner Libby Peoples, 5.

“I liked the story and the goats feel real soft,” said Joseph Amezcua-Matthews, 6.

In another classroom, 16-year-old actor Brett Loehr, who has appeared in episodes of TV’s “Hannah Montana,” “Without A Trace” and “Medium,” was reading a book to fifth-graders.

“I love it,” said Loehr, who used to be a student at Arroyo West. “It’s great just coming back to the school and seeing all my old teachers again. I love spending time with kids, and reading is awesome, so it’s great reading stories and stuff to them.”

Arroyo West, with 350 students in grades K-5, has made the literary arts a focus. Thanks to grants from the Fund for Teachers, a national donor-supported organization that helps teachers with professional growth, six Arroyo West teachers attended the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Institute at Columbia University in New York last summer. Six more have applied for grants to participate this year.

“It’s a balanced literacy program, and the highlight is children reading at their independent reading level,” said Principal Susanne Smith-Stein.

Instead of a class reading the same text at the same time, children now choose their own books and read silently to themselves, said Smith-Stein.

“We see children making great gains in reading, because they’re reading something they like at their level and not reading something too easy or too hard,” she said.

Teacher Irene Garcia, who has attended the summer workshop in New York, said the change is reaping huge dividends.

“We know children who read at their learning level will learn faster, and last year our scores went up tremendously in reading and writing,” she said.

Moorpark sheriff’s Deputy Paul Higgason entertained the students Tuesday with a rendition of the children’s book “Walter the Farting Dog.”

“It’s basically a natural bodily function, and Walter saves the day by stopping criminals from committing crimes by farting,” Higgason said. “I love doing something positive with the kids.”

Click here to listen to the guest readers.

Oklahoma Fellow Gives Unique History Lesson

Darla Splike
The Oklahoman

PONCA CITY – When she was in the eighth grade, Maurisa Pruett asked a friend to join an invitation-only group at their school.

Other group members rejected the girl because of the color of her skin, Pruett said. It was 1978, and segregation was illegal. Pruett got no support from adults she consulted, so she ended up quitting the club.

But the situation changed her outlook.

Now a science teacher at East Middle School in Ponca City, Pruett uses that experience to teach her students about history and civil rights. “My hope is that they will be brave enough to take a stand if they’re ever in a situation that needs that to happen,” the Ponca City teacher said.

During a three- to four-week enrichment class called “Taking a Stand,” Pruett discusses historical movements and contemporary events where courageous individuals made a difference by standing up for what they believed in.

Pruett received a fellowship last summer to visit some of the places about which she teaches. She spent three weeks driving across part of the southern United States. She visited museums and historic sites along the way.

One of the most moving experiences on her trip was when she visited a slave museum and saw cramped quarters where slaves lived, Pruett said.

She said she was appalled by stories she heard about children whose job was to drink water from the rice paddies to make sure no salt was getting through when the paddies were flooded.

Visiting those sites and talking to people who had lived through the history has helped her to connect those experiences to her students in a more dynamic way, Pruett said.

“When you go there and you hear people’s stories, it starts to come to life,” Pruett said. “You feel how humid it was and how miserably hot in the summertime, and yet the people worked from sunup to sundown in terrible conditions.”

Those travel experiences fuel many of her class discussions.

On Friday, Pruett paused a civil rights documentary her eighth-grade students were watching to interject with a story from her summer travels.

She met a man in Birmingham, Ala., who lived there when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed, killing four girls in 1963. More than 45 years later, the man still got misty eyes as he recalled the chaos of that day, Pruett said.

Students said the class has been inspiring. “It’s really opened my eyes,” said eighth-grade student Lexi Smith. Smith said the stories make her want to visit some of those historic sites, too. Her classmate, Megan Alexander, agreed.

Alexander said many students at school forget that certain words or actions can be hurtful to others. Pruett’s class is a good reminder, Alexander said.

“I think more people should learn about this, and more people should be thinking about this,” Alexander said.

Newsletter – Volume 6, Spring 2010

In This Issue:
Record Gift Secures Fund for Teachers’ Future
New Board Members
Earth Day Celebration
Reading Revolution

Read our recent newsletter, Odyssey.


2009 Houston Fellow Debra Mabery

ABC 13 Houston

From India to Chicago, Children with Autism Benefit from Yoga

Kim Goldsmith
YOGA Chicago

As I entered the classroom of a special school in Bangalore, India, and found children with autism on carpets arranged in a circle following the directions of the yoga teacher, I knew my idea would work. Last December, I sat at my desk at Bogan High School on the South side of Chicago trying to figure out a way to help my students with autism calm their anxieties, improve their focus, and incorporate fitness into their daily lives. Including yoga as part of our daily routine in my self-contained special education classroom popped into my mind. I knew how much I have benefitted from yoga and believed it could improve the lives of my students as well.

After doing some research, I learned that yoga is an integral part of many Indian schools, and, furthermore, several schools included yoga for their students with autism. I thought that visiting these schools, talking with the teachers there, and seeing firsthand how to incorporate yoga into a school day would empower me to pursue similar efforts in Chicago. But first I had to get to India.

Left: Children with autism practice yoga at The Mother’s International School in Delhi. Right: Kim Goldsmith takes a yoga class in Rishikesh, the birthplace of yoga.

I discovered Fund for Teachers through the Chicago Foundation for Education, whose mission is to “[enrich] the personal and professional growth of teachers by recognizing and supporting them as they identify and pursue opportunities around the globe that will have the greatest impact on their practice, the academic lives of their students and on their school communities.” After proposing my idea and waiting several months, I was granted a $5,000 fellowship.

I landed in Delhi, India, on July 10. For the first two weeks I oriented myself by traveling to different spiritual centers: I went to Amritsar, where Sikhs make pilgrimages to the Golden Temple; Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama and a large Tibetan community; and Rishikesh, Allahbad, Haridwar, and Varanassi, which are holy Hindu cities along the Ganges River. In Rishikesh, the birthplace of yoga, I stayed at an ashram and took two yoga classes to prepare for the next three weeks of my fellowship.

At the Academy for Severe Handicaps and Autism (ASHA, ) in Bangalore in the state of Karnataka, I first witnessed a 40-minute yoga class taught to students with autism. The students I saw reminded me so much of my own. Some were quite independent and were able to follow right along with the instructor; others needed individual help from the teaching assistants with the postures and breathing exercises. Some of the students were verbal, others nonverbal. Still other students made repetitive motions, such as rocking their bodies and flapping their hands, and a few could stay still. Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that it affects everybody in different ways to different degrees, and these students, halfway across the world, mirrored the range of abilities of the students in my own class.

When answering my questions about the yoga class, the school’s director reported that it was only a six-month-old program in their school, but significant changes in students’ abilities were already evident, including increased balance, flexibility, ability to focus, and independence in following along. Regardless of their skill level, they all appeared calm. In my Chicago class, the presence of a visitor can cause my students to lose focus and, in some cases, become overly anxious or distressed. However, my presence at this yoga class didn’t seem to faze the ASHA students, indicating to me that they were feeling relaxed. It was truly impressive and very exciting.

The next school I visited was the Vega Devi Center, also in Bangalore. This was a school for students with autism and other disabilities involving communication difficulties. I spent about 20 minutes in a classroom with a group of students, some of whom were deaf and some who had cognitive disabilities. I asked the students and their teacher if they do yoga, and one student with Down syndrome eagerly rose out of her seat to demonstrate a balance pose. In fact, the students practice yoga on a weekly basis. From the students’ enthusiasm about yoga, I knew it was not only a beneficial, but also an enjoyable, part of their school day.

After flying back to Delhi, where my journey began, I had the opportunity to visit several more schools, some of which were specifically for students with autism and some that were not. After confirming my theory regarding the benefits of yoga for students with autism, I was ready to learn more specifics about teaching yoga. Although I did not complete a teacher training course while in India, I did have the opportunity to learn from the teachers at the The Mother’s International School, a private school in Delhi affiliated with the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. The school teaches pre-primary through high school students, all of whom take yoga.

The high school teacher helped refine my poses so I could better teach them to students and gave me some materials about yoga to share with my class and parents. The primary school yoga instructor invited me to participate in his class alongside his students and then let me take over. This was a great way to learn what to do when instructing my own students who are at the same beginning level as these primary students. He also gave me some book titles, such as A New Education With a Soul and Awareness of the Body , both based on the works of Sri Aurobindo.

In the final two weeks of my fellowship, I visited several more schools in the state of Rajasthan. In Jaipur I went to the Subodh Public School, where students practice yoga on a weekly basis, and the Vinay Balbharthi School, where students greeted me with an incredible performance of yoga. Teachers at another school explained that students spend five to seven minutes at the beginning of each class period in silent meditation. All of my school visits inspired so many great ideas to implement at Bogan High School.

School resumed for me on September 8, and only two short weeks later, my students knew to take off their shoes and lie down on their yoga mats when they enter my classroom. I start each day leading everybody, including a parent who drops off her son, through 10 to 15 minutes of meditation, pranayama, and asanas, and can already see the benefits. For example, one student with severe anxiety tensed up his body when he sensed another student was about to scream. Loud noises make him very nervous, and during the previous school year he routinely required one hour to calm down after such a moment of anxiety. This time, I reminded him to breathe deeply and suggested he recite “Om” several times. After doing this, it took him only about 10 minutes to relax his body. I am sure it will only be a matter of time for him to achieve his new goal: to remember to breathe without my cue. I am looking forward to seeing the continued progress that my students will make with daily yoga practice.

The opportunity that Fund for Teachers gave me to explore the use of yoga in schools in India, and particularly for students with autism, enabled me to learn how to incorporate yoga into my classroom. I hope that other teachers and schools in Chicago will also begin to teach yoga, as I’ve learned that it is incredibly beneficial for all!

Note: Fund for Teachers opened its 2010 grant cycle on October 1. Teachers are encouraged to apply online at

Kim Goldsmith teaches at Bogan High School on Chicago’s South Side.

Oklahoma Teacher to Share African Students Stories

Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY – Since 2006, 439 Oklahoma teachers have traveled the world through the Fund for Teachers program.

Some have crossed the Pyrenees on horseback from France to Spain to compare the two cultures. Others explored the ecosystems of the Gulf of Alaska or toured Romania to learn about its culture and geography.

Judith Blake, a television production teacher at Norman High School, traveled last summer for five weeks to Cape Town, South Africa, where she filmed public and private high school students at four schools.

The idea was spurred by a Nigerian student in her classroom who asked why the media only seemed to portray Africans sitting in huts or in the middle of violence. “We get a skewed view of life in Africa,” Blake said.

“I was quite surprised at the dignity and intelligence of the (African) kids,” she said. “They are quite sophisticated. We’re in la-la land (in America) if we think we don’t have to work very hard.”

Judith Blake, a television production teacher at Norman High School, spent five weeks in South Africa this summer.

Blake also took videos about life in Oklahoma to share with the schools and a community cable television station. She’s in the process of creating a documentary about the trip, which she hopes serves as an eye-opener for her own students, she said.

American students must realize their future competition is global, Blake said. “I hope my students will see how serious other students are in less advantaged circumstances,” she said.

Seeing how teachers and students are affected by their experiences is rewarding, said Dayna Rowe, program administrator at the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence. The group administers the grants alongside the Tulsa Community Foundation and the national Fund for Teachers organization.

“I meet all these teachers on the front end and they’re so excited about what they’re going to do,” Rowe said. “But it’s even better when they come back.”

Since the program began in Oklahoma, it has awarded $1.4 million, Rowe said.

Newsletter – Volume 5, Holiday 2009

In This Issue:
Water, Water Everywhere…
Rewriting the Future
Peace & Goodwill
Unmasking Humanity
Letters Home

Read our recent newsletter, Odyssey.