Jennings – Fund For Teachers Fellows
Teachers spend countless hours designing unique and amazing learning experiences for their students, but how often do they do so for themselves? Last summer 13 Ohio teachers were able to do just that. They comprise the inaugural cohort of Jennings Fund for Teachers Fellows. Their journeys were well thought out, personal, and in some cases the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Where did they go, what did they learn, and how have their experiences transferred to their classrooms?
(This column will provide a synopsis of their experiences over the next several weeks.)
Melissa Barth, Westlake High School
“This experience made me more adventurous, more independent, and a braver person than I thought I was. Sometimes life can take you down a winding path that you don’t have total control over. But you can enjoy that winding path and appreciate the outcome.”
Spending a week in Yellowstone National Park has impacted how Melissa Barth teaches her environmental science students in Westlake to observe what is happening in their own backyards.
“It has been a dream of mine to visit the majority of the national parks,” says Ms. Barth, who registered for a four-day field seminar at Yellowstone National Park after receiving a grant as a Jennings Fund for Teachers Fellow. Through the program, “citizen scientists” collected baseline data on plants and animals at different altitudes within the park that were sent to the Smithsonian Institution for further analysis.
Ms. Barth arrived at Yellowstone two days early and “wore herself out” familiarizing herself with the park environment. Without a specific plan in mind, she allowed herself to be open to unexpected discoveries. She navigated through the park’s upper and lower loops and investigated every aspect of the area’s natural, ecological, and political history. The highlight of those two days was watching the sun set over what she called the “Grand Canyon” of Yellowstone: “I literally just felt a wash of gratitude come over me as a I watched the sun set on these beautiful banded layers of rock. I thought, I am just so lucky to have this experience.”
Back at school, Ms. Barth is encouraging her students to become citizen scientists as well using the school’s newly-installed pollinator garden. She and students planted native perennials in the plot just outside their classroom windows last spring after installing two bee hives nearby the year before. Her environmental science students will study the relationship between pollinators and the naturally occurring life cycle of plants and investigate whether or not climate change is impacting that relationship.”If temperatures start to warm and plants bloom before insects become active, how does that effect the cycle of nature?” is the question she posed to her class. The garden is registered through the Phenology network so the data students collect will contribute to a broader base of knowledge.
“I am not trying to convince students of climate change, but I am trying to get them to see what’s happening in their own backyards,” explains Ms. Barth. “I want them to recognize cause and effect. If things are off cycle between plants and pollinators, it could have detrimental effects on such things as our food systems. And when students are able to monitor that themselves, it becomes more meaningful to them.”
Ms. Barth hopes that sharing her experience at Yellowstone will help her students recognize the broader opportunities they have to work as citizen scientists beyond their own community. She hopes it will motivate them to visit the national parks themselves one day. “I don’t want them to wait until they are 40 to have an experience like this,” she remarks. “These are our national treasures and I want them to be able to see them for themselves.”
Ms. Barth has some advice for teachers considering applying for a Jennings Fund for Teachers grant: “Truly look for a meaningful connection…make your experience something you are passionate about so you can really do something with it afterwards. Also be open-minded enough to go in a different direction if it takes you that way. I started out with a very specific idea and ended up being more open-minded about the possibilities as to how this could impact my students.”
Mike Sustin, West Geauga High School in Chesterland
“When you think of life sciences your mind travels towards Darwin and the Galapagos Islands and what a special place that is to inspire deep thought.”
Michael Sustin was trained as a chemistry teacher, yet his lifelong passion for the out-of-doors led him to create environmental science courses for students at West Geauga High School. To teach the content effectively, he continually looks for opportunities to gain experience in the field. Sometimes those adventures happen close to home, other times they take him as far away as Costa Rica, Alaska, or the Amazon River basin.
“Science is done in the field, and I want to make that idea as concrete as possible to my students,” says Mr. Sustin. “Sure there is a lot of bookwork that needs to be done, but in the field is where everything is put to the test. That’s where you learn the the real lessons. Through my own professional development, I try to live that example.”
The Galapagos Islands is a destination he terms a “pilgrimage” for science teachers. As a Jennings Fund for Teachers Fellow, he was able to explore their unique biodiversity for six days. He learned that scientists there face similar challenges as colleagues at home. Through conversations with island researchers he gained a better understanding of how environmental issues play out in a global context. “When we talk in class about invasive species in Lake Erie and how they got here, I am now equipped to tell students what the Galapagos National Park and the government of Ecuador are doing to keep invasive species out of this most beautiful and historic cradle of biological field study. And my students are very interested, because I have that personal, first hand experience.”
As for his advice to teachers applying for a Fund for Teachers grant: “Keep at the front of your mind that you are not planning a trip, you are planning an educational experience for yourself. Stay focused on how that is going to make you a better teacher and enrich what you do with your students in the classroom.”
Alyssa Miller and Kathleen Saxon, Judith A. Resnick Community Learning Center in Akron
“When you travel, you get a sense of awe and wonder about the world. It reminds you of things that are important for kids to learn about.”
– Alyssa Miller
Judith Resnik Community Learing Center in Akron is an international Baccalaureate candidate school. Working toward global mindedness, all students, K-5, take French language classes once a week. And teachers look for opportunities to embed that learning within other lessons as well.
For example, kindergartners in Alyssa Miller’s music class recently learned a traditional French children’s song that dates back to the 15th century. Sur le pont d’Avignon celebrates women and men dancing on a rickety bridge that originally spanned the Rhone River between two French villages. First, the children recited the lyrics in English but quickly moved on to singing in French. Ms. Miller introduced the lesson by showing students photos of herself standing on that very bridge this past summer. Half the bridge is missing leading to a dramatic drop off into the Rhone River, which elicited a lot of questions from the inquisitive 5-year-olds.
“We want our students to be curious about the whole world and to become internationally minded,” says Ms. Miller, who traveled for two weeks throughout France with phys ed teacher Kathleen Saxon as Fund for Teachers Fellows. Their itinerary included visits to several UNESCO World Heritage sites and stops in Paris, Rennes, Tours, and Avignon. Twice they had the opportunity to stay overnight with local families, experiencing the joie de vivre firsthand. They also visited an elementary school where they taught lessons in both English and French.
“This is a way for us to inspire our students and get them thinking globally starting with France because that’s the language they are learning,” Ms. Miler remarks.
Personally, the Fund for Teachers experience impressed upon her the “antiquity” of the world. “There is such a rich history over there and a lot of layers to everything. Many of our students don’t get to travel, so I think it’s important for teachers to bring that to them.”
Ms. Miller advises teachers applying for a fellowship to be open minded to any possibility. “Be willing to dream big and search for opportunities you may not have thought about before, because you can do it.”
Susan Tenon, Paul Conn, Gerald Hites, Russell Messer, Harding High School in Fairport Harbor
Susan Tenon’s first trip outside of the United States and Canada took place just last summer. Through the Fund for Teachers program, she and three colleagues from Harding High School in Fairport Harbor traveled to Finland. They visited churches, cemeteries, schools, and tourist sites in large cities and rural towns. An 18-year veteran English teacher, Ms. Tenon believes the experience was career changing. “It has given me a global perspective I didn’t have that is needed in education today,” she remarks.
The Fairport group (Ms. Tenon, Paul Conn, Gerald Hites, and Russell Messer) chose the Nordic destination because it was home to many of the original settlers of their small northeast Ohio village some 200 years ago. While the school’s population has diversified since then, the educators believed their ability to explore, firsthand, Finnish history and geography, its highly regarded educational system, and its cultural traditions would translate into meaningful lessons back home.
With guidance from experts at the town’s Finnish Heritage Museum the teachers planned a two-week trip. Top on their list was a visit to Baasa, the city where many old-time Fairport families originated. They also toured the country’s original and current capital cities, Tuku and Helsinki respectively.
“Part of what we learned about Finland is that its language is unique, its culture is unique, and the people work very hard at keeping that uniqueness,” explains Ms. Tenon. “They also do a lot of things really, really well — their educational practices, their immigration policies, and their development of technology. So while they have stayed true to their own values and culture, they are not behind the times.”
Ms. Tenon designed a yearlong narrative writing project for her high school English students that challenges them to examine Fairport Harbor in ways similar to the teachers’ exploration of Finland. They are studying three aspects of the town where they attend school: the place, the people, and the role they play as individuals in its overall fabric. Each topic requires the students to complete a different piece of writing, from fiction to biography to personal reflection.
With her experience in mind, Ms. Tenon advises teachers applying for a Fund for Teachers grant to “think about a community connection and have a really clear plan as to what you are going to do with your newfound experiences.”
Leila Kubesch, Norwood Middle School
“I was inspired to do something centered around mindfulness to help children dealing with trauma…And doing those things actually helped me. If your bucket is empty you have nothing to give. I learned that self care does not mean selfishness. It means: me too. So that is what i teach the kids also.”
Teaching in a high poverty area, Leila Kubesch finds it difficult to leave her students’ struggles behind. Many of her middle schoolers in urban Cincinnati come to school hungry. Some have full responsibility for younger siblings before and after school, and too many have lost parents to the opioid epidemic. She realizes that many “don’t know how to be children” and their academic performance is impacted by anxiety or depression due to circumstances beyond their control.
“Working with traumatized children you also become impacted emotionally; it affects you a lot,” she explains. “And I found that sometimes I struggle and think I’m not doing a good job.” She made it a goal to search for solutions to help them all better cope.
Through a Fund for Teachers Fellowship, she identified three areas of study she believed would lead her in a positive direction: nutrition, the craft of storytelling, and cognitive behavioral therapy. The first topic took her to London where she studied “Super Foods for Super Focus” with a well known nutritionist. At the Moth Institute in NYC, she was introduced to how personal stories connect people as humans and foster mutual understanding. She learned the benefits of making space for students to share what they have to tell. Finally, upon completing a 12-week online course in cognitive behavioral therapy, she feels more confident addressing her students’ emotional needs.
This year, Ms. Kubesh’s classroom feels a bit like a sanctuary. She has removed any clutter, draped the windows with soft curtains, even stocked the back cupboards with yoga mats that are used periodically for relaxation. Student artwork and photographs line the hallway outside her door. Her 8th grade Spanish I class is undertaking a service learning project that aims to provide a healthy breakfast in the classroom for every student in the school. The students researched how eating breakfast has proven to improve standardized test scores, reduce school absences, and lead to higher graduation rates and have been preparing to pitch the idea to their superintendent. And with her own confidence boost, she applied for and received a $3,000 grant to supply the school library with books her students can better relate to that have multicultural characters and themes.
Combined, these efforts have had a positive impact on the students’ stress levels, and her own as well. “When you handle trauma and work on healing, it has phenomenal results,” she remarks.
2018 Jennings – Fund For Teachers Fellows
Melissa Barth, Westlake High School, Science Teacher
Angela Carota, Woodford Paideia Academy, Music Teacher
Paul Conn, Harding High School, Mathematics Teacher
Ann Hasenohrl, Westlake High School, English Teacher
Gerald Hites, Harding High School, Intervention Specialist
Leila Kubesch, Norwood Middle School, ESL & Spanish Teacher
Russell Messer, Harding High School, Teacher
Alyssa Miler, Judith Resnik Community Learning Center, Music Teacher
Caitlin Rickus, Garfield Heights Learning Center, Science Teacher
Kathleen Saxon, Judith Resnik Community Learning Center, Physical Education Teacher
Michael Sustin, West Geauga High School, Environmental Science Teacher
Susan Tenon, Harding High School, English Teacher