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This summer, several of our teachers were awarded fellowships by Fund For Teachers (FFT), an organization that awards grants for self-designed summer professional development for teachers to help them grow in and out of the classroom. FFT awards are made possible through our partnership with EL Education.

Cultural Immersion in the Dominican Republic

Rachelle with one of the artists she met in the Dominican Republic

Rachelle Street, one of this year’s FFT Fellows teaches art to students K – 7 at WHEELS. Most of her students speak Spanish at home–specifically, a dialect spoken widely in the Dominican Republic, from which many of her students’ families hail–so she’s always been conscientious about including Latino themes in her lessons and tries to communicate with families in Spanish, rather than English.

Despite her best efforts, she knew she had room for improvement. So, when she was awarded a grant from FFT to design her own fellowship project, she knew just what to do. 

For her fellowship, Rachelle embarked on a three-week language and cultural immersion in the Dominican Republic to strengthen her Caribbean-Spanish-speaking skills and learn more about Dominican art and culture. 

While in DR, Rachelle met with several local artists, including Manuel Bolos and Weligton Santana, two artists who also run galleries that feature local artisans and artists. 

“I was surprised by the rich variety of artwork I saw being produced in the Dominican Republic: from street-art graffiti to cubist-inspired oil paintings to folk tradition wooden carvings.” said Rachelle. She’s already planning on inviting some of the artists she met to come and speak with her class this year.

An understanding of a people’s culture, history, and language is essential for teachers who work with student populations that come from backgrounds different than their own. I cannot wait to get back to school in September and fill my classroom and hallways with Dominican artists.”

Finding Authentic Artifacts

Hallie participating in a local festival in Mexico

Hallie Wannamaker is another teacher at WHEELS who was also awarded an FFT fellowship.  Like Rachelle, Hallie wanted to improve her Spanish skills so she can better connect with her 3rd and 4th graders. For her fellowship, she decided to do a three-week language immersion program in Oaxaca, Mexico.  

In addition to traditional language instruction, Hallie also arranged conversational experiences with some local Mexicans, including Oaxacan ebonista, or wood artist, Emmanuel Rodriguez, who introduced her to the art of Alebrije, brightly colored Mexican folk art sculptures depicting fantastical creatures. 

Hallie is thrilled to return to her classroom with improved Spanish skills and a better understanding of Mexican culture, which she knows will help her connect with her students. 

Students . . . directly and concretely benefit by a teacher’s refined language skills; my improvement in Spanish will be passed on to them,” says Hallie, who is already planning next fall’s lessons. “Students benefit when a teacher is able to share authentic artifacts which give them rich, hands-on experiences such as I will be able to provide with the Oaxacan Alebrije.”

Making the Silk Road Relevant

Travis and Ellyn Lankford both teach at West End Secondary, in Manhattan. Ellyn teaches 6th-grade history and Travis teaches 9th-grade Earth Science. For their joint fellowship, they decided to visit Turkey to study the Silk Road, a famous trading route that crosses Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, Africa, and Europe. In Turkey, Travis and Ellen were able to “walk on the land where civilizations began, sail down the waters that supplied the first farms, and look across valleys that ancient people hiked along to be able to trade with others.”

Ellyn and Travis exploring the Silk Road in Turkey Ellyn and Travis exploring the Silk Road in Turkey

West End Secondary 6th graders already study the Silk Road from the perspective of ancient civilizations and the goods they traded. Travis and Ellyn are hoping to take what they learned in Turkey and create an interdisciplinary case study that will span both Social Studies and Science for 9th graders, as well. 

But how to make it engaging and relevant to the 9th graders? “I find myself challenged to find the appropriate tone and rigor bar for my high school students…The ninth-grade curriculum needs to dive deeper into the global trade and interactions of the Silk Road as well as the emergence and expansion of political states as a result of the Silk Road.”

After their summer in Turkey, meeting with experts in the Silk Road, but also spending time with Turkish residents who are still grappling with the effects–positive and negative–of the mingling of different cultures centuries ago, Travis and Ellyn are feeling inspired, optimistic, and driven to create an effective and engaging case study for their high school students. “Students will study the different civilizations that traded on the Silk Road, the impact of the physical geography, and how their trade converged in what is now Turkey.” And, just as importantly, their 9th graders will also be confronting the lasting effects trade between civilizations has had on today’s cultures and religions. 

Huge thanks to Fund for Teachers for granting our teachers these incredible opportunities, and our partners at EL Education for facilitating our teachers’ participation!

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