Teaching by Example

This holiday season, Fund for Teachers celebrates our shared humanity as represented by three 2009 Fellow experiences. We move into the new decade with great aspirations for our nation’s future – one that’s built upon everyday efforts, like teaching, that produce profound outcomes. Season’s Greetings and Happy New Year.

Confronting the Past to Re‐Write the Future

Helping students connect with their authentic selves through writing motivates Nella Wortman. As the child of a Holocaust survivor, the weight of the past often became overwhelming and stifled transparency in her own life and writing. To inspire students’ deeper reflection and cathartic prose, as well as her own, Nella confronted her family’s defining moments by visiting the sites of historical and personal significance in Europe and drafted a corresponding Memoir Writing Unit for her students at Houston’s Pin Oak Middle School.

Left: Nella with Suor Luigia, who cared for Nella’s father and aunt as “Hidden Children” during World War II.

Right: Nella’s students create similar journals in Houston to inspire their own writing.

During the month of July, Nella explored her family’s history rooted in the landscapes of World War II. Her pilgrimage included residences of great‐grandparents and aunts, the Jewish Ghetto in Rome, the convent that hid her father and aunt during the war, The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, and Hitler’s bunker. Finally, like her grandmother and great‐grandmother before her, Nella entered Auschwitz but, hours later, left – the only one in her family to do so alive and free. Along the way, she created a notebook of impressions and ideas to share with students as a model for their own notebooks that incorporate their lives as the inspiration.

“I’ve learned to not hold anything back, to put it all on paper,” said student Kayla Bell. “And you won’t believe it, but once you write, you feel much better.” Fellow student Ethan Blair agrees, “Ms. Wortman taught me to express my feelings and life stories in my writing. This changed me because the more I write, the better I get at writing. And the more I want to write. Instead of just holding onto ideas, I put it on paper.”

“Every moment of my fellowship was beyond imagining and I continue to write in my notebook because I feel invigorated as a writer,” shared Nella. “My trip was an effort to integrate my writing and teaching so I could inspire students to become more engaged writers themselves. I am now contributing to the lives of my students in a more meaningful way. I guess you could say that I’m my own work in progress and I continue to grow in each of the valuable roles that affect my students: Teacher, writer, and human being.”

Water, Water Everywhere…

Biology teacher and former hydrologist Kara MacDevitt’s curiosity and professional training led her to Southeast Asia for six weeks this summer to examine the worst water quality in the world. As she crossed Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam testing water, every sample revealed contamination. Kara encountered people whose entire cultures revolved around their rivers and water systems, some of whom failed to realize the magnitude of the problem and others felt powerless to act.

Left: Testing water outside a temple at the Angkor Complex in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Right: Gathering a sample of the Nam Khan River in Luang Prabang, Laos.

“I traveled through rural lands, passing rice paddies irrigated with the very water polluted by the factory next door,” said Kara. “People who dumped trash into the river also drew the same water out for household use. I kept thinking, ‘Something can be done’ and knew education was key, but corrupt governments and ctizens’ resignation to the problem relegated these people to continued illness and low life expectancy rates.”

Observing a sample from the Mekong River in Luang Prabang, Laos, with the help of a young girl
interested in the process who helped complete the tests.

Returning to her science class at Brooklyn’s International High School at Lafayette, the relevance of her fellowship crystallized for her students when a city‐wide debate flared around drilling for natural gas in the Catskills and the implication on New York City’s sole water supply. Because one hundred percent of Kara’s students arrived in America less than four years ago, recent struggles with non‐potable water in their native countries informed the water quality discussion, as did their school’s closure last year due to toxic levels of lead in the pipes. Consequently, one teacher’s hands‐on international experiences, combined with engaged immigrant students and a local public policy debate, evolved into a grassroots campaign to protect the city’s water.

“I wanted to teach them that even as high school students relatively new to America, their opinions count and their voices matter.” So Kara and her students mounted a letter writing campaign and plan to state their case before the city government.

“I was astonished that New York City, the capital of the world, can generate this kind of atrocious problem,” said student Morshed Alam. “In my country, Bangladesh, people are poor and ignorant about the impact of factory waste or farming fertilizers. But here, they want to drill knowing the risks. I am urging the government to take action and stop this malevolent problem.”

Benjamin Franklin prophesied, “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.” Two centuries later, for teenagers in New York City, the well delivering their water isn’t dry, but potentially polluted. By joining the debate, Kara’s students now
confront water quality issues and seek positive outcomes not accessible in their native countries – an effort worthy of any patriot.

Unmasking Humanity Behind The Polity

While the war in Afghanistan and Iraq consumes our country’s greater conscience, the largest military build up on American soil since The Civil War continues to expand along the US/Mexico border ‐‐ constituting a raging battle encompassing issues of homeland security, economic impact and the moral issue of humanity. Determined to document the multiple issues and perspectives surrounding the debate, three Expeditionary Learning School teachers from Taos, New Mexico, spent their Fund for Teachers’ fellowship living and researching the migrant workers’ experiences crossing the border.

Ned re‐fills water tanks in the desert with Humane Borders.

Comprising the Humanities Department at Vista Grande High School, the team included: Josán Perales, a bilingual Spanish instructor who facilitated interviews with Mexican individuals and organizations to understand the international perspective of border issues; Toni Wright, a history instructor who examined the conflicts unique to the U.S.‐Mexico border in the context of root causes and present issues; and Ned Dougherty, a Language Arts instructor who met with activists and organizations in order to understand the varying perspectives.

“Borders manifest themselves in many ways. People always have obstacles to overcome, a wall to climb or daunting odds to prove wrong. Opportunity often lies on the other side of the border. The U.S.‐Mexico border is a volatile example of a border with many faces.” – JosÁn Perales, 2009 ELS Fellow

Attempting to avoid political arguments, the team interviewed representatives from humanitarian organizations such as No More Deaths and Humane Borders, law enforcement representatives from the Minutemen Project and Border Patrol, and those in the middle making the often lethal sojourn across the Sonoron Desert. Their end game was to create a learning experience that provides primary resources for a year‐long, multi‐disciplinary and school‐wide curriculum entitled “Borders.” Exploring the shared humanity of migrants and Minutemen alike provided the team a compelling study in contrasts and
an often haunting view of the people on both sides of debate. By gaining first‐hand experiences relating to the many facets of the border control issue, the team could relay facts that can empower students’ deeper understanding of the issue and development of their own opinions.

A mural of crosses on the border wall in Nogales, Mexico, each with a name of a deceased migrant who died in the desert.

“The three of us traveled to this scorching area of our country to investigate an incredibly misunderstood, complex and divisive issue shared by two countries, many cultures and a frightening reality,” said Ned. “We had no idea how profound and life changing our immersion into this issue would prove to be. A group of new teachers emerged, humbled and inspired to expose the ugliest and most precious truths of this issue for our students in New Mexico.”

“Through our own voices and that of many experts involved, like the migrants themselves, Border Patrol and
humanitarian activists, the students are beginning to understand how incredible it may be to attempt to cross, inhibit the passage or aid this tidal wave of humanity crossing into our country daily,” said Toni. “Whereas the heat was enough to challenge us physically, the people we met during our trip have forever reshaped our view of what it means to be human. Let us remember that, beneath everything, we are one.”