Summer Travels Inspire Lessons

3 Zachary Elementary teachers win travel grants

James Minton
2theadvocate.com

ZACHARY – Three Zachary Elementary teachers won grants this year to fund working summer vacations they plan to turn into lessons for their students.

Breigh Rainey and Kristy Gilpin, who teach gifted second- and third-graders, won a $10,000 grant from Fund for Teachers to visit sites in Italy and France associated with the Renaissance. Spanish teacher Darketa Green won a trip to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, for a week of intensive language instruction.

The three were the only Louisiana teachers chosen this year for 25 fellowships offered by Fund for Teachers, a program to encourage teachers’ professional growth founded by former Apache Corp. board chairman Raymond Plank.

“As soon as we found out about this organization, and even before we talked about the idea of applying, we were immediately drawn to it because it was for teachers to design their own really authentic, professional learning experiences,” Rainey said.

Gilpin said she and Rainey are fascinated by one of Renaissance’s most notable figures, Leonardo da Vinci, and “the whole thing about our (application) was that we would go to Italy and follow in the footsteps of these great thinkers from the Renaissance.”

Breigh Rainey, left, and Kristy Gilpin are shown this summer at the Colosseum in Rome, one of several stops on an itinerary that allowed them to experience the culture and environment that inspired some of the great thinkers of the Renaissance. The Zachary Elementary School teachers received a $10,000 Fund for Teachers grant for the trip, which they plan to turn into a learning experience for their students.

The two went to Rome, spent a lot of time in Florence, then traveled to da Vinci’s hometown, Vinci, as well as Milan to see his “Last Supper” and Paris to see his “Mona Lisa.”

Green said a grant-writing workshop and an e-mail from Superintendent Warren Drake encouraging teachers to try for Fund for Teachers grants convinced her to apply.

“The fact that they were funding international travel made me think, ‘This would be a great experience if I could go,’ ” Green said.

Green already had looked into taking one of the courses offered by Spanish Abroad Inc., a company that offers classes in many Spanish-speaking countries.

In Playa del Carmen, she lived in a house near the school.

“I felt like I needed a refresher, and I felt I would get a more authentic taste of the language if I were actually there. They only spoke Spanish at the school, so I had no choice but to draw on what I knew and jump right in. I was nervous about it at first, but you kind of just have to do it,” Green said.

The grants could be written to include buying digital cameras or artifacts for later lessons in Zachary Elementary’s classrooms.

“When we were there, and we went to a museum and saw some books we wanted to bring back to our students, we actually had budgeted money to buy those things,” Gilpin said.

Rainey said she and Gilpin were inspired by the detailed notebooks da Vinci kept and the two of them emulated his style during the trip with their sketches, quotes, observations and ideas. They plan to encourage their students to develop similar “thinking books” during the coming year.

While on the trip, Rainey and Gilpin communicated with their students by blogging and once with a Saturday Internet teleconference with a group of students.

When not in class, Green visited local shops to buy items that will help her students associate with the countries where Spanish is the primary language. She also visited a private nature preserve and the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza.

The three want to write curricula built around their travels.

“Our focus was not on one particular topic like fossils or fiction literature, or any thing like that,” Rainey said. “It was really about those sparks and inspirational things every good teacher does to invigorate their students and get them excited about learning.”

Gilpin said the two wanted to learn what inspired the great thinkers of the Renaissance and hope to inspire their students “to be the next great thinkers, the next da Vinci or the next Einstein.”

“I’m actually going to have a whole (teaching) unit around my trip,” Green said.

“We’re going to spend three or four weeks on it, and one of the things we’re going to talk about is the Chichen Itza pyramids. I find that they’re very fascinated by that,” she said.

In addition to this year’s winners, Zachary Elementary teachers Brandie McNabb, Melanie Alexander, Leah Boulton and April Smith won Fund for Teacher grants last year to attend several workshops on cooperative learning at the Kagan Summer Academy in Orlando, Fla.