This article originally appeared in the winter 2015 Harker Quarterly.
For some time the Raju and Bala Vegesna Foundation has generously supported various professional development activities for Harker faculty members, including the summer technology grant program, faculty retreat, Harker Teacher Institute and guest lectures from top experts in the field of education.
More recently, the grant has supported a unique opportunity called the Teacher Excellence Program, which will build on Harker’s already robust learning programs for faculty members.
The innovative program began this past summer and fall, marking a special time of enhanced learning and professional development for 14 faculty members. And, although their experiences differed, the teachers all shared a desire to bring back to their classrooms invaluable knowledge gleaned from their undertakings.
Individual grant recipients were upper school teachers Ruth Meyer (humanities/history), who served as a panel facilitator at a Yale University Conference; Susan Nace (performing arts), who attended a 10-day conducting symposium at Oxford University; and Roxana Pianko (humanities/history), who studied the Holocaust and traveled throughout Europe visiting related historical sites.
Group grants recipients were seven English teachers in grades 2-8, who participated in an internship program at Nancie Atwell’s Center for Teaching and Learning in Maine: Mary Holaday, grade 2; Heather Russell, grade 3; Kate Molin, grade 4; Kate Shanahan, grade 5; Ann Smitherman, grade 5; Patricia Lai Burrows, grade 6; and Stacie Wallace, grade 8. In addition, four primary math teachers participated in a Greg Tang Math workshop and conference in Missouri: Holaday; Grace Wallace, grade 2; Colleen Lindsay, grade 3; and Sejal Mehta, grade 2.
“The Raju and Bala Vegesna Foundation seeks to partner with best-in-breed enterprises and The Harker School certainly fits that description,” said Richard McCoy, director of the foundation. “One of Harker’s strengths is its world-class faculty, and we are pleased to be able to help support those great teachers through the Teacher Excellence Program that we have established.”
The gift from the Vegesnas (parents of Ramanand and Srivani, both grade 8) enabled Harker to support various new opportunities, explained Joe Rosenthal, executive director of advancement. “The mission of the teacher program is to enhance and further teachers’ abilities in a manner that has a direct and demonstrable impact on student learning,” he said.
“Harker firmly believes that an inspiring and informed teacher is the most important school-related factor influencing student achievement,” added Rosenthal. “Ongoing professional development is crucial in that it keeps teachers up-to-date on new research on how children learn, emerging technology tools for the classroom, new curriculum resources, and much more.”
What follows is a more in-depth look at the educational opportunities made possible by the Teacher Excellence Program.
Presenting at Yale University
Meyer presented and served as a panel facilitator at Yale University’s annual “Psyche, Spirit, and Science: Negotiating Contemporary, Social, and Cultural Concerns” conference. She presented her curriculum, ideas and pedagogical techniques to like-minded scholars and got feedback from them during the gathering, held July 9-12.
“The Vegesna grant enabled me to visit an international conference of Jungian analysts and scholars,” said Meyer. “I presented a paper on ‘Memes, Teens, Dreams and Mandalas’ that showcased my work with the senior elective class I teach at Harker (Western Political Thought). I made a short lm with my students talking about their special connections to dreams and philosophy. We filmed just outside my classroom and students talked about the memes that they had created as part of a research project into individual philosophers. We called the project The Meme Wall,” recalled Meyer.
Jungian scholars and analysts mostly work on an individual basis with adults so there was a lot of interest in seeing teens talking about imagination and dreams, she noted. “I was also asked to chair two panels (Education and Democracy, and Female Iconography),” said Meyer. “This was a first for me and a very important experience. It meant that I was responsible for introducing three professional speakers on each panel and then guiding a 20-minute discussion afterward. Another big plus was being asked to write a book about education and Jungian scholarship. I’m working on it now and plan to dedicate it to the Harker community!” said Meyer.
Honing Conducting Skills at Oxford University
Nace attended a 10-day symposium in July at the Choral Conducting Institute at St. Stephen’s House, a college of Oxford University. The institute gave conductors the opportunity to hone their skills, working with James Jordan and the Westminster Williamson Voices, and James Whitbourn, a fellow of St. Stephen’s. The intensive daily program included master classes, seminars by eminent scholars, private tutoring, rehearsals and singing Compline at the end of the day. The institute ended with a concert conducted by attendees.
Highlights of the institute included lectures by esteemed conductors Edward Higginbottom and Stephen Darlington; singing at Sunday Mass at Christ Church Cathedral; observing rehearsals of the Christ Church Cathedral choir; inspecting centuries-old manuscripts at the Bodleian Library; and conducting music under the tutelage of the composer.
“As music teachers, we often do not get the opportunity for intensive study with deep internal reflection on and engagement with the music we conduct,” Nace said. “Working closely with professional singers on choral masterworks … afforded us an opportunity to focus solely on our conducting technique to become better communicators with those we do conduct.”
Nace, who directs Cantilena, Camerata and Acoustics, added that “to receive affirmation from scholars, mentors and peers is a rejuvenating and heartening experience that teachers need but often do not receive. This experience has not only given me new perspectives on conducting but also encouragement that I am a very capable conductor and teacher as well as a mentor to other musicians.”
Learning Lessons from Holocaust Exploration
Last June, Pianko traveled to Los Angeles to attend an in-depth, weeklong class on the Holocaust, run by a nonpro t organization called Facing History and Ourselves. The international educational and professional development organization’s mission is to examine prejudice and anti-Semitism in order to promote the development of a more humane and informed citizenry.
By studying the historical development of the Holocaust and other examples of genocide, students make the essential connection between history and the moral choices they confront in their own lives, explained Pianko.
After the class she took a solo trip throughout Europe visiting various sites related to the Holocaust and interacting with those affected by it. Pianko enriched her experience with travel to Krakow, Auschwitz, Lublin, Warsaw and Berlin to study, visit camps and museums, and interview survivors. Pianko said she plans to use the Holocaust to discuss diversity and empathy and expand various lessons she teaches in World History.
“The class I took was Holocaust and Human Behavior,” said Pianko. “We looked at how history is shaped by hatred, indifference and denial, as well as by caring, compassion and responsibility. Together we examined the range of choices that led to the failure of democracy in Germany and ultimately to the persecution of millions of Jews and other targeted groups. We investigated the complexities of human behavior, judgment and memory, and explored how we as individuals and members of groups can make a difference in the world today,” she added.
After returning to Harker, Pianko implemented Holocaust units in all of her classes. She is also working on planning two trips. “One will be to Manzanar, a Japanese internment camp here in California, and another will be a two-week Holocaust study tour to Europe that will be introduced in the summer of 2017,” she said. “Additionally I am working with the History Club on a project for April for Holocaust Remembrance Day that we are hoping will reach not only our wonderful Harker community, but will draw in the surrounding community as well.
“We cannot wait to bring these things to our young any longer, because the world is changing and we have to make sure it changes for the better now,” said Pianko.
Group Internship with Renowned Educator Inspires Harker English Teachers
The Center for Teaching & Learning (CTL) is a K-8 independent demonstration school in Maine created for the purpose of developing and disseminating effective classroom practices. The school was founded in 1990 by renowned educator Nancie Atwell who, in 2015, was awarded the rst Global Teacher Prize, a $1 million award presented by the Varkey Foundation, which is associated with the Clinton Global Initiative.
The school is known nationally for its award-winning teaching, research-based methods, relationships of trust between faculty and parents, respect for children, and programs that engage students and prepare them for life beyond CTL.
Seven English teachers from grades 2-8 attended CTL, where they interned from Oct. 5-9. While there they worked directly with Atwell, learning perspectives on the art of teaching, as well as how to write and read critically. The internship program is structured to give visiting teachers the skills to make substantive changes in their classrooms.
Of her experience at CTL with her colleagues, Heather Russell said, “We have continued our collaboration and have made changes and improvements to student learning since we returned.
I’ve been to professional development opportunities before that enriched my teaching but the kind of collaborative energy and shared experience [at CTL] that has carried forward in our classrooms was powerful.”
“I have learned so much by going to the Center for Teaching & Learning!” said Mary Holaday. “I have come back with a wealth of information to apply in my second grade classroom. We have begun to have morning meetings as soon as the students arrive into Language Arts. We share some important information with each other, read a poem together and sing a song. I have begun writing poetry with the students on a weekly basis and doing mini-lessons that discuss different forms of poetry or different strategies used. We have book talks and roundtable discussions about what they have read, focusing on the comprehension skill discussed in class,” she added.
Lower School Teachers Attend Lauded Math Conference
Several Harker teachers participated in a Greg Tang Math conference, held in Kansas City, Mo., from July 21-23. More than 650 math educators were in attendance.
Tang is the author of “Grapes of Math” and “Math for All Seasons,” a series of books that help children gain the range of skills needed for higher math. His books challenge and encourage students to use creativity and common sense to solve problems, rather than merely formulas and memorization.
“I believe that by attending this conference, we have been able to develop more effective lessons by offering opportunities for students to explore, structure and document how a problem is completed,” said Mary Holaday, the only teacher to attend both this and the CTL conference. She noted that throughout the math workshop there was an emphasis on the importance of students sharing their methods to get to the answer.
“The conference far exceeded my expectations!” said Colleen Lindsey. “It will forever change the way in which I teach math. Greg advises that students must see that math makes sense. If it does not make sense, it is essential to rethink the methods and modalities we are using,” she added.
According to Grace Wallace, there were many highlights from the conference. Among her top takeaways was that math is a progression – moving from the concrete, to the pictorial, to the abstract. Also, that breakthrough comes from confusion and struggle, and that error is a natural part of the learning process.
Grant Recipients Share Gained Knowledge with Colleagues
“All of the current recipients determined ways in which they could meaningfully share their experiences with their colleagues,” said Jennifer Gargano, assistant head of school for academic affairs. “Some have organized workshops for teachers in their disciplines or divisions. This allows a greater range of teachers to benefit from their experience.”
Nace and Pianko have shared their experiences during all-faculty meetings. Nace also organized a workshop for fellow vocal teachers, and Pianko and Meyer recently presented what they learned to their departments and have been doing guest lectures in their colleagues’ classes.
In October the group that attended the math conference led a workshop for all of the K-5 math teachers, and the contingent that attended CTL presented their findings to the K-8 English teachers on Dec. 2. There will be a formal reception in February where all recipients will give a brief presentation discussing what they did and how they shared their knowledge with both their students and colleagues.
“These grants are for special or rare opportunities,” said Gargano. “Harker supports many professional development efforts; however, this grant is for something particularly special that we would normally not be able to fund.”
Gargano reported that applications for the next round of grants are now being accepted and are due in early January. “Through the generosity of the Raju and Bala Vegesna Foundation, we have been given a wonderful opportunity to support unique and transformational professional development opportunities for faculty members each year,” she said.