OAKLAND, Calif. Oct. Oct. 10, 2007 (KGO) – Dozens of Bay Area teachers are sharing fresh ideas and new experiences with a unique global perspective with their students. It’s all made by possible by a special grant that emphasizes learning by experiencing.
International travel on a teacher’s salary can be challenging and that is why Funds for Teachers steps in and offers grants. They are going to be looking for its next group of fellows starting today at a church in Oakland. They are hoping they are going to get a lot of new applicants who want to get out of the classroom and get out to the world.
Oakland teenagers at Skyline High School didn’t really think they had anything in common with French teenagers – until they could actually hear from them and see what they look like and how they dress.
“They were really similar to Americans. It was really interesting because I always thought France was as all about high fashion, showy and flashy but it’s really not,” said Aimee Fields, French student.
French teacher Celeste Dubois went to Paris this summer and videotaped teenagers talking about issues. She brought back 11 hours of footage to show her French students.
“I wanted to know what are the problems young people face in France, what they want help with from adults and they were very serious and cooperative,” said Celeste Dubois, French teacher.
She started showing the tapes to her classes yesterday. Students heard the French kids talk about college entrance exams and question whether obesity really is a major issue for American kids. The Oakland teenagers enjoyed the videos so much – some of them plan to e-mail the Paris kids.
“This was definitely different – they were, I think, more attentive than they were at the very beginning when we were just going to go over homework,” said Celeste Dubois.
Dubois was able to go to Paris because of a $5,000 dollar grant given to her by a group called Fund for Teachers. The non-profit agency has sent teachers around the world looking for new perspectives to bring back to the classroom.
“We all read the applications and want to go with the teachers. Many teachers have been to South Africa, the Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica,” said Sofi Jiroh, Funds For Teacher Administrative Partner.
Sofi Jiroh helped select the 18 Oakland teachers who received grants this year. She says while a summer trip to Paris does sound fabulous – the teachers usually can’t wait to get home and share what they’ve learned.
“They’re more excited about that than they are the trip because the end result of the trip is really to get back in the classroom,” said Sofi Jiroh.
All teachers are welcome to apply. They have sent a language teacher, a math teacher, a science teacher – they sent 18 from Oakland this year, they sent 15 from San Francisco and they are ready to start looking for next years group.
Interested applicants can attend a meeting today at 4:00 in Oakland at First Unitarian Church located at 685 14th Street.
Kerrin Flanagan went to Ghana and came back with a wealth of ideas for her K-1 class.
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.”
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.”
Two fourth-grade teachers from Woodrow Wilson Elementary School recently enjoyed a whale of an experience north of the border.
Taking part in Whale Camp – which spanned from July 27-Aug. 4 in New Brunswisk, Canada – Shelly White and Vanessa Wallace got a firsthand view of some scenes from nature that few get to witness.
Most of the camp took place on Grand Manan Island, which is located about nine miles from the eastern-most point of Maine. The largest island in the Bay of Fundy, Grand Manan, has a population of more than 2,500 people and measures approximately 53 square miles.
“The island has the highest and lowest tides in the world,” notes White, “And that brings in a lot of plankton, and in turn, a lot of whales.”
White and Wallace got to listen to lectures about subjects relating to marine life, such as plankton, moon phases and food chains. They got to head out into the water for some whale watching tours as well, aboard a tourist boat and a lobster vessel.
“At one point, we were literally surrounded by whales,” says Wallace. “We saw humpbacks, menkes, and finbacks.”
Finbacks are the second-largest whale species in the world, ranking behind only blue whales. Some North Atlantic Right Whales, which are nearing extinction, were due into the area a few days after White and Wallace left.
The Wilson teachers appreciate the insight they were able to garner from the camp. They teach about different regions of the United States at their school, and the trip to Grand Manan offered them first-hand accounts of some subjects about which they had taught but never witnessed.
White and Wallace were able to attend the Whale Camp thanks to a 2007 Fund For Teachers grant. White and Wallace initially put in for a grant to attend a work-shop in Hawaii, but weren’t accepted. Undeterred, they found out about Whales Camp and applied toward the beginning of the year to attend. In March, Wallace was driving to a technology meeting when she received a phone call from her husband. White and Wallace had been accepted to Whale Camp.
“I was so excited,” recalls Wallace, “I could hardly stand it.”
White was no less enthused, and once the trip was underway, it immediately offered some notable sights. The teachers flew into Bangor, Maine, where they saw a 31-foot tall statue of Paul Bunyan. The teachers took a picture of themselves in front of the statue as one of the subjects they cover for their fourth-graders is tall tales. According to his symbolic birth certificate, Paul Bunyan, a mythical lumberjack, was born in Bangor.
After a short stay in Maine, the pair took a ferry to Grand Manan to being their whale adventure. On the island, they saw unique wildlife such as Puffins and Razorbills as well as some lighthouses which are common in the area. They got to Kayak and take a trip to the nearby Machias Seal Island, also.
In order to help preserve the fragile ecosystem of Grand Manan Island, the Machias Seal Island and the rest of the area, virtually everything used was recyclable and disposed of accordingly, including plates, cups and eating utensils.
Whale Camp is held annually for much of the summer. But due to the guidelines of Fund For Teachers, White and Wallace won’t be able to apply for another FFT grant
for five years. But when they become eligible to apply again, they plan to try to attend another Whale Camp.
“It’s one thing to see nature in books and on television,” says Wallace, “But it’s another to see it with your own eyes and to live it.”
“I think the No. 1 focus of Whale Camp is to expose people to that life so that they understand it and care about it.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)