Traveling Teachers Maximize Their Summer Off

Johnston Grier, South End News, Boston, MA

When kids return to Boston Public Schools (BPS) this fall they’ll share stories about what they did this summer. They won’t be the only ones at school with stories of visiting far away places, learning new and exciting things. This summer, 94 Boston Public School teachers – including several from South End schools – received grants from the Boston Plan for Excellence. Between them, they will visit 24 countries and 17 states, all in the name of professional development.

Established in 1984, the Boston Plan for Excellence is a nonprofit foundation working exclusively with BPS. This year it began a partnership with the National Fund For Teachers, founded by philanthropist Raymond Plank in 1998 to provide recognition and opportunities to educators. The fund’s new Fund For Teachers/Boston, has distributed nearly $250,000 in grant money for teachers to travel and study this summer. Teachers design their own trips; the fund provides between $1,200 and $7,500 to cover expenses such as airfare and lodging.

To apply for a grant, teachers must have been in the BPS system for at least three years, intend to continue teaching, and have spent at least 50 percent of their time in direct instruction.

Keri Purple and Amelia Greiner from Newmarket’s Mason Elementary School each received $7,500 from the fund to travel to Ghana this summer. Purple has been teaching at Mason for five years; Greiner has taught Mason first-graders for three years.

Purple and Greiner have been using a unit on Ghana from the Boston Children’s Museum to teach social studies. “It’s a really good kit,” said Greiner, but “some of it had started to get a little bit outdated.”

“When we first heard about the program, it was like, right away, hey, we should go to Ghana,” said Purple.

In their application, Purple and Greiner proposed to use their trip to combine the social studies unit they already teach with two additional units they teach separately. Explained Purple, “we tried to pull in two other units that we could teach through an interdisciplinary approach to the kids. So we’ll also be…comparing/contrasting our country to Ghana. That way they also learn about our own country and our own community. And we also have a large unit in science on living things. So we are hoping to go on a safari and see the animals that are there.”

Purple and Greiner see their grant as an opportunity to provide more substantive material to their students. “I’m looking forward to having those three units put into one so that not only are they condensed but they’re more meaningful,” said Greiner.

Besides going on a safari, Purple and Greiner are planning to explore Ghana’s capital city, Accra, and view monuments, castles and other historical sites to get a feel for life in this country of over 20 million people. And while they won’t be able to visit a Ghanaian school – kids there are on vacation, too – they will meet up with some local teachers.

Sandra Garzon is also taking a trip overseas this summer courtesy of the Fund For Teachers. Garzon has worked as a BPS speech therapist for 13 years, and has been at Blackstone Elementary School since 1994. She received approximately $2,800 from the fund to travel to Barcelona.

Garzon specializes in helping students who speak Spanish as a first language who have developed a stutter. Stuttering is not an uncommon problem among young children who have a great deal of language demands. Often they will repeat words as they struggle to express themselves. “What we try to do is protect the child, their environment, and make the child understand that he has all the time to express their feelings and thoughts,” said Garzon.

In Barcelona, Garzon is visiting the Spanish Stuttering Foundation, an organization founded in 2002 to promote awareness of stuttering and develop methods for helping the stutterers and their families cope. Garzon hopes to improve her own techniques.

When Garzon heard about the grants offered by Fund For Teachers she jumped at the opportunity to apply. “It was something that I was going to do anyway,” said Garzon of her trip to Barcelona, “but I found this, and I think it is a very genuine effort by Fund For Teachers to help people who are interested in expanding their knowledge.”

Garzon will use what she has learned during her visit to the Spanish Stuttering Foundation to develop a checklist and information packet to help Boston Public School teachers identify students who are developing a stutter. “Some of the teachers, they don’t know what to do when a child stutters, how to address the feelings of the child. So with that checklist and package of information for teachers it will help me to identify kids that are at risk,” she said.

In nearby Chinatown, four Quincy Elementary School teachers received grants: Dona Cavanaugh, Heidi Thomas, Ann Whaley-Tobin and Cindy Wilson. They are attending classes at the Teaching of Reading Institute at Columbia University in New York City.

Dottie Engler, the Fund For Teachers/Boston site coordinator, sees the grants as more than just a chance for professional development. “The time is so right to just show appreciation for teachers and to say, “Hey here’s a chance, take wing, $5,000, $7,500. What are you thinking? What is it you thing you need that you can bring back to the school?”

That is really the core idea behind the Fund For Teachers program. Providing teachers with the opportunity to improve kids’ classroom experience rewards teachers’ commitment, recognizes them as an integral part of the education process, and allows them to renew themselves’ as educators.

Fund For Teachers/Boston is a pilot program. The Boston Plan for Excellence will decide in the fall whether to continue the program next year. Already, Dottie Engler is seeing the program’s positive effects. “The real interesting thing about this program is that simply its existence elevates people.”