Trips abroad inspire new lessons

Teachers come back fired up after spending summer picking up ideas for classroom

Chicagotribune.com

Gloria Moyer rediscovered her passion for teaching this summer in a French village called Coupvray, fingering some of Louis Braille’s reading slate in the home where he invented his literacy code for the blind.

Lucy Klocksin was renewed on a New Zealand mountaintop, during a predawn “Matariki” ceremony shared with Maori schoolchildren blowing softly into conch shells.

Michelle Greenfield felt a rush during the deafening takeoff of the space shuttle Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, an experience narrated by a former astronaut who shared his firsthand knowledge.

For the first time, 51 Chicago Public School teachers won the opportunity to travel to six continents this summer-all-expenses-paid adventures designed to inspire classroom educators and their students.

These city teachers will return to their classrooms Tuesday refreshed and toting a trove of memorabilia-wood carvings, spacesuits, pen-pal letters, Johannesburg prison photos, Italian mosaics and chunks of meteorite.

“We were like little kids, watching the launch,” said Greenfield, a science teacher at Armstrong Elementary in Rogers Park, who won the summer fellowship in Florida with her husband Dan, who teaches math at Eberhart Elementary in Chicago Lawn. “To know you can share that excitement with kids, it makes you want to go back to work. It excites your passion.”

The summer professional development program was created by the non-profit Chicago Foundation for Education, which partnered with the Fund for Teachers to sponsor $200,000 worth of exotic travel.

The winners were chosen among 250 applicants and awarded grants ranging from $1,800 to $7,500 for 39 solo and team projects. The organization hopes to fund another 40 study proposals next summer.

“What we were looking for is ultimately how these grants were going to impact children and increase student learning,” said Kris Reichmann, executive director of the Chicago Foundation. “Teachers had to justify how this was going to improve their teaching practice, help students and the broader school community. If teachers were looking for funds for a summer vacation, that was automatically cast aside.”

The screening committee said no to a teacher looking to take a Mediterranean cruise with other educators.

Otherwise, no idea seemed too offbeat to qualify.

Yoga in Ecuador. Conservation in Botswana. Whale research in Brazil. Bicycling along the Tour de France course.

“I will have the opportunity to explore nearly all the regions of France, cheering on the racers as I stand shoulder to shoulder with actual French citizens, in real French villages, against authentic French backdrops,” Abby Imram, a French teacher at Walter Payton College Prep, wrote in her grant application. “While I will be seeking an authentic and intimate experience, every moment of every day will be a potential lesson to share with my students.”

A special education teacher for 31 years, Moyer brought back more concrete lessons to share with students and colleagues at Otis Elementary. Her pilgrimage to the birthplace of Louis Braille will enrich the lessons she creates for Braille Literacy Month. She will team-teach a unit on French culture in a 1st grade bilingual class.

Her class of 16 vision-impaired students will be encouraged to find pen pals from a stack of letters she brought home from South Wales, also a part of her travels. Her experience volunteering at a British adventure camp for the blind taught her new challenges she can share with her students.

“I have always wanted to visit schools in England to see the difference in how kids are taught in Braille,” she said. “I’ve always loved what I do, but to be able to develop something that was entirely my own idea… it’s just an incredible fantasy come true. I truly feel so energized.”

For Cynthia Townsend, a dream of studying apartheid in South Africa first took shape six years ago, when she and her classroom of 4th graders immersed themselves in a monthlong study of the country.

She was awed by the history she discovered and angered by the racism that still plagues Soweto and Capetown neighborhoods. They toured schools and museums, and interviewed residents about their lives.

“Socially, things were much better, but economically it was a mess,” said Townsend, a North Lawndale native who said she drew suspicious stares at restaurants and inns where the only black faces were those of the workers.

Yet this is not the lesson Townsend wants to impart to students about her adventure. “There’s nothing like being able to teach from experience, for the kids to be able to see that I talked to these people, I visited this orphanage. I want my students to realize this is possible, to know that Madison [Street] is not the limit of their world.”