Teachers are heading abroad to learn

David Ertischek
GateHouse News Service

WEST ROXBURY – It’s a lot easier to teach students about a place if you’ve been there. Take first-grade teacher Kerrin Flanagan, for example.

The Lyndon School educator’s curriculum dictates that she teaches her students about Ghana. But the Jamaica Plain resident has never been to Ghana. That’s all about to change, thanks to the Fund for Teachers initiative with the Boston Public Schools.

This summer, 34 BPS teachers are receiving $127,500 in grants to visit 17 foreign countries and three states.

Flanagan was awarded $4,961 out of a maximum grant of $5,000. It will help pay for her program fee, volunteer work and airfare to Ghana. Flanagan is set for her July 13 departure, and her students may be just as eager about her trip as she is.

“We’re actually talking about [Ghana] right now. My students are very excited about that I’m going,” said Flanagan.

Flanagan found out she was going in March, but decided to tell her students later on so they would be more interested in learning about Ghana, which is in western Africa.

Her students also got very into giving her advice for her long journey.

“It’s made them draw a lot of connections that wouldn’t ordinarily be drawn from a country this far away,” said Flanagan. “One of my students said that I will need to bring a lot of shorts and sunscreen. They started giving me packing advice and how I would need to drink a lot of water. They already want to come with me and send them postcards. They are very eager to learn more about Ghana, even though they will be in second grade. But I have promised them that I will come to their classroom next year and tell them about my trip.”

Flanagan will actually be teaching kindergarten next year. She stays with a class for two grade levels and then repeats the process. And she’s hoping her next class will benefit from some of her purchases.

“One of the things all of the first-grade teachers at this school [talk about] is that we notice that we don’t have as many resources as we would like [to teach about Ghana]. We have books, but not as many materials as we would like. I’m hoping to bring back as many hands-on resources as possible,” she said.

“I’m not entirely sure what I will find. Ghana is famous for kente – a kind of cloth that is woven in Ghana. I’m bringing back fabric to share with students. They’ve seen pictures of it, but to have it to touch it. It will make the curriculum that much more rich.”

Flanagan is also going to take a lot of photos to share with her friends, family, colleagues and students.

She’s also planning on visiting nature preserves, historical places and wants to get to know as many Ghanaian communities as possible. Flanagan will be doing volunteer work as well teaching in a local school in Ghana.

“My plans for when I return… I will use all my learning that I get from this trip, all my resources, tangible and intangible, the artifacts I bring back will be [put] into the curriculum so every teacher can use them to teach Ghana in the future. That is one way I will be using the grant money. It’s not just a great opportunity for me but for other students at the Lyndon School.”

Top: Gardner Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Suzanne Mason works with a student during class on Monday in Allston-Brighton. She is one of five teachers from her school who will be traveling to the Dominican Republic this summer on a grant. Bottom left: Kerrin Flanagan, a first grade teacher at the Lyndon School, will travel to Ghana this summer. Ghana is one of the countries included the in school’s social studies curriculum.

“We have so many new arrivals that come to our school. We are considered a school where some students come with very limited English-speaking skills, and we find it hard to assimilate them to our culture.”

Mason said she is interested in seeing the Dominican’s schools so she can have a better understanding of her students.

“I have one student this year who is 11 years old who has never been to school before,” said Mason. “The same thing happened last year with a boy from El Salvador.”

She added that the boy this year is also from El Salvador.

“You think of 11-year-olds who have never been to school before. The classroom routines and rules to adjust to, it is the main thing. They do it so well. It’s shocking, the way they pick up the language. They are just amazing. It is unbelievable to work with them.”

Mason said her parent conferences are often conducted with an ESL teacher, who also helps with students on a regular basis.

She added she took some classes two years ago to better her skills to make the curriculum more accessible for kids who don’t fully understand English.

“No matter what you do, they are so grateful and appreciative because so many of them come from so little. They are thankful they are in your classroom and they let you know this. The letters they write, the hugs they give. Many of their parents came here for a better life and they realize that.”

As for any expectations for the trip, “I can say there is one thing – I’m just excited about the language classes to acquire more Spanish. Just to be there and experience the culture, it’s almost changing places with some of my students. It’s going to make me a little more sensitive to what they go through every day.”

First stop – Beijing

Like Mason and Flanagan, Michael Aymie is eager to become a student this summer during his trip to China and Japan.

The West Roxbury resident, who teaches at Madison Park High, has been teaching English as a Second Language for the last seven years at the school.

He will be going to Asia by himself. This will be his second trip to China. He went back in 1996 when he was 33 and studied and taught there for a year and a half. But this trip will be different.

“I want to do some research on how minority groups retain their culture. Basically China has 56 ethnic groups. The largest is the Han. There are a lot of smaller ethnic groups that you don’t think about. Everyone knows about Tibet, but there are a lot of others,” said Aymie. “I want to see how they retain their culture and language, the problems they face, socio-economic opportunities. Do they use Mandarin, the national language? Do they have choices of schools that they can go to? What percentage of people use Mandarin? Do they use it at home or at school? If they don’t use it, does it prevent them from advancing?”

As an ESL teacher, Aymie teaches a lot of younger students who have come from different countries and need to learn English. He said despite speaking different languages, they often face the same emotional and cultural challenges.

He added that a lot of his students face a sense of loss for their culture and language.

“It causes a lot of anxiety and angst from people who come to this country,” he noted.

He said he hopes to gain some insight in the same vein in China.

“They have a lot of cultural celebrations. I want to see how they do that and have some insight to understand my students,” he said.

Aymie’s first stop will be in Beijing. He’s also headed to Tibet and Xinjiang, which is in the northwest of China. Aymie is looking forward to going north to Mongolia.

He will also be able to bone up on his Mandarin, which he spoke “fairly well” when he was traveling on his own 10 years ago. Over the last year, he’s been reviewing books and tapes to improve his atrophied Mandarin skills.

“Basically I want to see China. I want to see all the changes [that have occurred] in the last 10 years. I have friends who have traveled there and say I won’t recognize it. I want to see cultures that I’ve read about. But I never thought I’d have the chance to go to Tibet. I think it’s going to be very interesting.”

Ghana

  • Ghana gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1957.
  • Its capital is Accra.
  • Its official language is English.
  • Gold, timber and cocoa production are Ghana’s major sources of foreign exchange.
  • There are two modern political entities that govern China:
  • The People’s Republic of China governs mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau.
  • The Republic of China governs Taiwan, the Pescadores, the Matsu Islands and Kinmen.
  • Historians believe the Chinese invented gunpowder, paper, the compass and printing.
  • The Dominican Republic is two-thirds of the Caribbean Island Hispaniola, which the other third of the island is occupied by Haiti.
  • There are more than 9 million living in D.R.
  • D.R.’s greatest environmental danger is deforestation.