Colorado teachers research tiny island’s role in American Revolutionary War, create documentary to encourage students’ engagement with history and similar student-created films. Teachers represent first of more than 500 preK-12 teachers departing on Fund for Teachers fellowships this summer, seeking new knowledge in 124 countries, every continent, to inspire connected learning.
This week, three teachers waved goodbye to students at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora, CO, and boarded a plane to become students themselves. The educators are now in the Dutch municipality of St. Eustatia, researching and filming a documentary about the tiny island’s significance to the American Revolutionary War. The teachers hope to increase students’ curiosity in history and inspire similar student-created documentaries using 21st-century skills.
The teachers’ research is funded by a $10,000 grant from Fund for Teachers.
“When thinking about engaging our students with the Revolutionary War, traditional teaching practices and history books limited us in scope and depth,” explained Scott Alverson, team lead. “We’d taught the subject for years and our curriculum needed inspiration.”
That inspiration came in the form of a paragraph buried in a magazine article: “A tiny island in the Caribbean Sea, St. Eustatia, supplied most of the gunpowder to George Washington’s Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. This obscure island was also the first place on Earth to recognize the independence of the United States of America.” Alverson enlisted the participation of colleagues Kelly Nickell and Kayla Shea to pursue the Fund for Teachers grant last fall.
With the goal of modeling for students how to “think like historians,” the teachers are busy conducting interviews with experts, examining the significance of merchant support that enabled the rebel colonies to win independence, and investigating facts associated with the Andrew Doria sailing vessel. The team concludes their fellowship in Philadelphia, researching at Independance Hall historical ties between America and St. Eustatius. As they go, Alverson and his team are creating a documentary providing concrete visual support of their inquiry, research and discovery. This video will be used as an example for students’ own interactive documentaries when school resumes in August.
“The knowledge and experience we expect to gain on our Fund for Teachers fellowship will be used to demonstrate to students that everyone is a life-long learner, and that education goes far beyond the classroom walls. Our students will better understand what inquiry, craftsmanship, perseverance, and collaboration look like in practice, based on teacher models of research and inquiry-based learning,” said Alverson.
This fellowship enhances teachers’ current American Revolutionary War curriculum that includes creation of a two-voice poem, an interactive timeline created on iPads, and a historical letter. “As we continue implementing 21st century skills with our curriculum, we will incorporate more interactive communications (such as interviewing via Skype), more global awareness, and more in-depth collaborative learning,” explained Alverson. “Students’ documentaries will apply creativity, technology and critical thinking skills, leading to more self-directed learning.”
An article in Education Week’s “Teacher” magazine defined 21st-century skills as certain core competencies such as collaboration, digital literacy, critical thinking, and problem-solving that advocates believe schools need to teach to help students thrive in today’s world. In that article, Center for Teaching Quality’s Founder and CEO Barnett Berry elaborated: “Twenty-first-century learning means that students master content while producing, synthesizing, and evaluating information from a wide variety of subjects and sources with an understanding of and respect for diverse cultures. Students demonstrate the three Rs, but also the three Cs: creativity, communication, and collaboration.”
The Tollgate Elementary School community is following their teachers’ fellowship via a Facebook page they created called The Statia Project.
Alverson, Nickell and Shea join 529 additional teachers awarded more than $2 million to pursue self-designed fellowships this summer. For more information on Fund for Teachers, visit fundforteachers.org.
(Scott and Kayla with guide at St. Eustatia’s Lynch Plantation.)
Hurricane Sandy provided an unfortunate case study for Jacki Bruce-Yamin’s unit on geo-engineering. For the past year, her fifth grade students at Washington DC’s Thomson Elementary explored strategies for protecting land from storm surges and reclaiming it for agriculture and expanding populations. Without a curriculum to teach the topic, Jacki created her own based on experiential learning in Amsterdam and Venice last summer.
“Last spring, one of my students wanted to learn about geo-engineering and I began to see the creativity that form of science entails. This led me to consider climate change and how the world was facing the challenge. I decided my students needed to be introduced to geo-engineering in order to make informed decisions about how to prepare for rising seas. But my lack of knowledge and text books on the subject was a major hurdle,” explained Jacki.
Together, the class conducted research for Jacki’s Fund for Teachers grant proposal on the topic and anticipated an acceptance letter. In the meantime, they analyzed how windmills worked and marveled at technology developed to protect The Netherlands and Venice from extreme storms. Teacher and students discovered how geo-engineers collaborate globally and share ideas to solve problems associated with climate change.
In June, Jacki’s fellowship extended the class’ scientific inquiry. In Europe, she interviewed the director of Waternet (Amsterdam’s regional water authority), toured windmills used to drain lakes and more modern steam-powered pumping stations, and walked on levees blocking brackish inlets to form fresh water lakes. Venice’s city planning agency and archives provided technical information about modern materials used to combat the destructive effect of water on buildings’ foundations. Conversations with Venetians yielded strong opinions on a costly new project designed to protect the lagoon from storm surge. Each night, Jacki recapped her progress in emails to students and their families.
This spring, a new class of fifth graders study Jacki’s “Rising Seas” unit in preparation for capstone research papers and presentations. Representatives from the Royal Netherlands Embassy spoke to the class about Amsterdam’s water management protocols, and parents participated in an “at home” project by taking students to a city location altered by geo-engineering.
“Science is like a mystery that develops deductive reasoning and encourages the development of higher level thinking skills,” said Jacki. “My fellowship continually challenges students to think beyond a simple six-week unit to explore the topic of water management regionally and globally, from the past, in the present, and into the future.”
English art critic Sir Henry Read believed that “art is pattern informed by sensibility.” For Jennifer Wu, teacher at Capital City Charter School in Washington, DC, that sensibility is math.
“Math and art are taught in modern schools as separate subjects; during classical times they were considered complementary,” explained Jennifer. “Numeracy is often overlooked or used to support other learning disciplines, but I strongly believe that math should have its own identity. I sought in my fellowship opportunities to make connections between numbers and patterns in art.”
Last July on her FFT fellowship, Jennifer explored artwork by Piet Mondrian and M. C. Escher in Dutch museums and public spaces to raise key questions about the roles that symmetry and proportions play in art and math. With her learning and related artifacts, she’s now teaching middle school students a new curriculum on the beauty of art through a mathematical lens. Her goal is to make math more accessible and enjoyable by looking at everyday its applications students haven’t explored.
For one project, students designed Mondrian-inspired artwork and then modeled the area of the multiple rectangles using expanded and factored forms of the distributive property. Students read background information on the artist’s biography and aesthetic style, and mastered vocabulary related to fine arts, geometry and algebra. In the spring, students will explore the tessellation artwork of M.C. Escher in the unit on geometric transformations and symmetry.
“With the advent of the Common Core standards, we are compelled to delve deeper into our mathematic rigor through authentic learning experiences and projects,” said Jennifer. “My fellowship is helping students develop the mathematical skills required by these standards by inspiring an appreciation of math in a deeper and connected way.”