Each year, a number of Harker teachers apply for and are awarded grants to further their teaching skills thanks to the Raju and Bala Vegesna Foundation’s Teacher Excellence Program at Harker. The program, launched in 2015, has sent a score of educators to seminars, study abroad programs and other educational opportunities. Grants are awarded to individuals and to groups, and are used for entry fees and travel expenses.
“The generosity of Raju and Bala Vegesna in allowing our teachers to pursue an opportunity they are passionate about and then share it with their students in the classroom creates an opportunity to impact student learning in a transformational way,” said Kim Lobe, director of advancement. “We are incredibly grateful to Raju and Bala for their commitment to teaching excellence at The Harker School.”
“The Raju and Bala Vegesna Foundation Teacher Excellence Program allows our faculty to ‘dream big’ and take their ideas about how the academic experience for the students can be further enhanced, and make those ideas a reality,” said Jennifer Gargano, assistant head of school for academic affairs.
“The foundation reflects, for me, many of the best elements of Harker,” she continued. “It allows our teachers to continue to grow and stretch, modeling the lifelong learning that is such an important part of our mission. It also reflects how much our faculty truly care about our students as people; teachers take their summers and much of their personal time to enhance the learning experiences because they feel an immense responsibility to leverage the students’ impact through intellectual pursuits and experiences, which is facilitated by this program.”
Gargano added that Harker prides itself in having teachers who are experts in their subjects, noting as an example, teacher Charles Shuttleworth’s project on the Beat Generation. “He took the grant seriously and sought out to be and accomplished the task of being a true Kerouac scholar and someone who is seen, from the wider community, as a Kerouac expert.”
Rebecca Williams, middle school English teacher, attended the Mariposa Foundation Volunteer Institute in the Dominican Republic to educate and empower girls to create sustainable solutions to end generational poverty. She traveled to Cabarate in the Dominican Republic to teach a course on the Holocaust at the Mariposa Foundation, and supported Princeton Fellows there, as the organization used the curriculum she created.
“I spent my time working with girls, volunteering at the center and meeting with the founder,” said Williams. “I wanted to work with the Mariposa Foundation because I knew they were doing great work empowering young women despite some of the community norms and values. In the Dominican Republic, most women have children by the age of 18, and they are often objectified. Strong, smart, powerful women certainly is not the norm, yet at this center, they were creating exactly that.
“I wanted to learn how this center is able to empower the girls with a message that was different than what they received at home. I believe that at Harker, we often are messaging our students with a perspective that is not always shared with the family. We message balance and well-roundedness when, often, the families’ top priority is academic achievement.”
Williams was heartened by the advances in building empowerment that she saw in her group. “The message was everywhere: what they read, what they were taught and in the art around the building,” said Williams. “They even had a #iamnotyourmamacita campaign. There was purpose and commitment to teaching these girls that they were in charge of themselves.”
Aside from the payoff for women in the program, Williams has brought that empowerment to her classroom. “At the middle school, we have launched the #beyondmygrades campaign,” she said. “We are planning activities in advisory, we are hosting a LID day to showcase student work done beyond the classroom, we are hosting a talent show. Most important, as a school we are branding this hashtag and actively working to create programing around it. We have formed a committee of seven people: an administrator, two counselors and four teachers.
“Students are … excited to celebrate,” Williams added. “They recognize that the message from school is different than home. It is our goal to loop parents in on this process as well. Working with the Princeton Fellows was a wonderful reminder of the power of young, educated people. I am inspired to continue working with Harker students as I know that they are the future.”
The Character Group
Kate Shanahan, Heather Russell, Andi Bo and Mike Delfino, all lower school teachers, along with Mary Holaday, lower school dean of students, used Vegesna grants to attend the 2018 National Forum on Character in Washington, D.C.
They attended various seminars and classes and were inspired to introduce a number of initiatives to the lower school community.
Knowing strong character has been at the core of Harker’s history and mission, “the team was reminded how influential and effective teachers can be when living out and purposefully communicating character,” noted Russell. “After attending a pivotal session at the conference, the team guided the lower school staff in the ‘I Stand’ staff experience where they worked to identify qualities faculty members each bring to the community and the importance of teachers leading students by example.”
Following various team-building exercises, Shanahan, Russell, Bo and Holaday introduced Character Connections. Weekly emails sent to staff reinforce a character focus, highlighting and celebrating positive character examples inside and outside of Harker, and offer discussion questions to engage the whole campus in a shared focus for the week. “The weekly reminders give the lower school community a sense of unity in purpose, a common language for focusing on character, and build enthusiasm by honoring the many efforts students and teachers are doing to show character in action” Russell noted.
Also, the group joined The Great Kindness Challenge, a weeklong nationwide effort to promote kinder communities. Efforts on the lower school campus included compliment cards, daily challenges to show respect and kindness, and activities prepared and shared with staff to use in classrooms.
“The regular focus on and application of Harker’s tenets have brought a sense of community and positivity at the lower school,” said Russell. “Several staff members commented, noting Harker does not only preach it, but we emphasize it and teach it throughout the day in all subjects and grade levels.” Another told her, “I would like to thank the character education team for all that you have been doing for this program. It’s been very helpful to me not only as a teacher but also on a personal level. I feel the entire Harker community can only continue to benefit from this program as it develops.”
Future efforts from this grant may include applying as a National School of Character. Following guidelines and principles recommended, the team surveyed staff regarding the effectiveness and improvement of the character program. “A Character Committee composed of caring teachers and staff was formed, and the committee will help define Harker’s lower school character curriculum scope and sequence, as well as implement new ideas to encourage positive character,” said Russell. “Currently, efforts are focused on the lower school program by introducing initiatives, sending out the weekly character connections, and refining the character curriculum. Future efforts may involve collaboration across campuses to reinforce the importance of the character education continuum. By giving character center stage, it has communicated a powerful message of how critical social-emotional skills are for a Harker students’ early years and beyond.”
Ann Smitherman, lower school English teacher, attended the Teachers’ College Reading and Writing Institute (TCRWP) in New York for two weeks.
Smitherman noted the impetus that drove her to apply for the grant. “I teach P1 (‘core’) students in grades four and five,” she said. “These are our students whose academic development most closely matches their physical development. I’m interested in meeting these students exactly where they are intellectually, while also accelerating their learning in reading and writing – knowing that growth in these two areas will help them grow in all academic areas.
“I’ve been on a quest the last few years to find an approach that will help me help my students to develop these core strengths. I found out about the TCRWP while at a conference with one of their staff development experts. It sounded like exactly what I was looking for: research-tested lessons that were presented in a sequence proven to enhance long-term adoption of skills. But the cost of the summer classes and two weeks in New York City were going to exhaust my professional development budget for years to come. Thank goodness for the generosity of the Vegesna Foundation!
“My time at TCRWP reinforced my belief that research matters when designing an approach for student learning. It also reminded me that reading and writing are not mysterious gifts that you’re either born with or not. Reading and writing are acquirable skills, and all students can become deep, reflective and insightful readers of complicated texts and creators of thoughtful, meaningful, readable writing.”
Smitherman brought her new skills right into the classroom. “This fall I used the TCRWP approach in a narrative writing unit with my fourth and fifth grade students,” she said. “They were enthusiastic and responsive to the approach, writing more than they ever had before, and creating interesting personal narratives and complex realistic fiction pieces. Just as important as the work they created, students began to recognize the techniques we were using in class were also used by ‘real’ writers in the texts we were reading. They really could write like Natalie Babbitt and Katherine Paterson! I’ve also honed my conferencing skills, making my one-on-one coaching of students more effective and efficient.”
The ultimate result? “Students fell in love with writing, checking the daily agenda on the board and cheering when ‘writing workshop’ appeared,” Smitherman noted. “They also continue to use skills taught in the fall, both in reading and in writing. Perhaps the most important transference I’ve seen is that students are planning their work before they begin writing. This is tremendous growth for our students at this developmental stage.”
The program was an eye-opener for her own learning, as well. “While I think I’ve grown a great deal as a teacher since trying the TCRWP approach – more efficient, more direct, more succinct in lessons – what I’ve really learned is how much more I need to learn,” she noted. “It’s both daunting and inspiring!”
Other teachers have joined with her to use the methods espoused in the program. “I’m so happy to be continuing that learning process with some colleagues who have agreed to continue to pilot this approach with me this year: Larissa Weaver, Heather Russell, Mariel Nicolary, Eric Leonard and Katie Molin,” said Smitherman. “They are such a smart and inspiring group who are wholly committed to their students.”
Smriti Koodanjeri, upper school chemistry teacher, attended the Academic Life Coaching Program over a six-month period, after which she was certified as an associate life coach.
“The program involved weekly two-hour classes with a master coach via Zoom, submission of coaching recordings every six weeks, meeting with coach for the critiquing of the recording, a midterm and a final exam,” Koodanjeri said. “All this took 24 weeks and I received a certificate in the mail stating I am an associate life coach.”
Having finished life coaching 1.0, Koodanjeri is now working on 2.0, which also will run for six months. When she completes that program, she will be a certified professional academic life coach.
When asked what motivated her to become a life coach, Koodanjeri said, “to enhance my teaching ability and understand the student motivation. If I am successful in guiding the student both in class and overall as a whole student, I would consider myself a better teacher. So, to be a better teacher was my motivation.”
The most interesting thing she learned was, “there is a lot more to learn about teaching and interacting with young adults.” And that goaded her to work out a program to help students.
“I am designing activities which help student learn better and be more organized,” she noted. “I frequently encourage students to plan better and make goals (these emails go out at least twice a year). I run time management workshops on B- and D-schedule days at the upper school from 1-1:30 p.m., open to all upper school students. I work with counselors and the academic dean helping and guiding students who seem to need the service. Counselors and academic deans are kept in the loop with all the students with which I am working.” Reactions by both students and their parents has been positive, “particularly parents of the students,” she added.
The entire experience helped her grow as a teacher. “I learned to view each child as a bundle of possibilities,” Koodanjeri said. “I learned the difference between an open- and close-ended question, I learned that all of us can grow and improve by taking specific steps in the right direction. Learning is lifelong and we should continue to want to seek knowledge. Because of this course not only are my students are getting a better experience but so am I!”
With his grant, upper school English teacher Charles Shuttleworth has delved further into the world of the Beat Generation, including primary research and interacting with influential Beat figures. He has constructed a special learning plan, titled the “Jack Kerouac Experience,” that is enriching his students’ understanding and appreciation of Beat literature and Kerouac’s writing in particular. As a bonus, Shuttleworth has become immersed in the work of Beat poets and may end up editing a new volume of unknown works by Kerouac, so students get to hear about that process.
Shuttleworth’s class, “Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation,” grew from his belief, “that Jack Kerouac is the American writer who has had the most influence on literature and culture since World War II,” he said. “I applied for the grant to deepen my knowledge of his prolific output, and in particular his experience as a fire lookout in Washington State, which was pivotal in his life and career.”
Shuttleworth first taught a course on Kerouac and the Beat Generation in 1994 at the Horace Mann School in New York, which Kerouac attended. “That year there was also a major conference on Kerouac at NYU, and I researched and wrote a paper on Kerouac’s Horace Mann experience, interviewing more than 30 of Kerouac’s former classmates,” Shuttleworth said. “I then presented my findings at the conference, gaining all of my students free admission to the three-day event featuring nearly all the Beat writers still alive then: Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Hunter Thompson, Ed Sanders, etc. My work was used as a source in Steve Turner’s book on Kerouac, titled ‘Angelheaded Hipster.'” When he changed jobs, Shuttleworth was unable to continue his elective course until he came to Harker. “Teaching such electives was a major factor in my decision to come here,” he said.
Following the Vegesna grant, Shuttleworth made a number of trips to New York City to conduct research within the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection, which houses the vast majority of Jack Kerouac’s draft manuscripts, journals, correspondence, etc., he said. “I also climbed Desolation Peak in the North Cascades National Park, where Kerouac served as a fire lookout in the summer of 1956, an experience which constitutes the climax of his novel ‘The Dharma Bums’ and part 1 of his novel ‘Desolation Angels,’” he added. And I traveled as an invited speaker to Lowell, Mass., to attend the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival, where I participated in a roundtable discussion of Kerouac’s life and work.”
Shuttleworth noted he uncovered a number of important unpublished documents that shed new light on Kerouac, and particularly on his experience on Desolation Peak. “Virtually all the biographies skim over this experience, stating that during his 63 days alone on the mountaintop, he was merely bored while performing his duties as a lookout,” said Shuttleworth.
“In fact, Kerouac wrote in excess of 90,000 words, keeping a fascinating journal of his day-to-day thoughts as well as writing several substantive manuscripts, all of which are virtually unknown even to scholars; and one in particular that I unearthed from the archives (it wasn’t properly identified and very likely never had been read by anyone) constitutes a major find,” he noted. “I’ve written two essays detailing my findings, and throughout the past year, I’ve been in close contact with Jim Sampas, the executor of Jack Kerouac’s literary estate. Jim has applauded my work, and the likely result is a book which he has called on me to edit consisting of all the writing Kerouac produced that summer. He’s also planning to produce a documentary film on the subject and has called on me to be a scholarly interviewee.”
Shuttleworth did some wonderful research and brought the process right into his classroom. “My experience allowed me to share my findings with my students, which included photographs of handwritten documents, transcriptions I made of unpublished material – unfinished novels, journal entries, etc., and also photos of photos, [such as] the Kerouac family photographs that are part of the Berg Collection’s archives,” he noted. “Most notably we read in class an unpublished manuscript that I transcribed entitled ‘The Long Night of Life’ that served as an excellent introduction to Kerouac’s writing.”
In addition, the class took a field trip to San Francisco and toured City Lights Bookstore and the Beat Museum. “Students heard both from Jerry Cimino, the museum’s founder, and Dennis McNally, who spoke with them for a full 90 minutes,” said Shuttleworth. “McNally is the author of ‘Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation and America,’ an excellent biography that puts Kerouac’s life and work in a historical context. My course begins with the reading of that book, so students were able to meet the author, and it was really great.”
Shuttleworth had a classroom visitor, as well. Jami Cassady Ratto and husband Randy Ratto spoke to students about Jami’s father, Neal Cassady, “who was a major figure in the Beat Generation, the inspiration both for Dean Moriarty, the main character of Kerouac’s ‘On the Road,’ and Randall McMurphy, the main character of Ken Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’
“Another major outcome benefiting the school next year is the connection I made with David Amram, a legendary musician and composer who worked with Kerouac and has collaborated with musical luminaries ranging from Leonard Bernstein, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis. As a result, Mr. Amram is scheduled to spend a week next year at Harker as an artist-in-residence, culminating in an event as part of the Harker Speaker Series where Harker students will perform some of his musical compositions.
Further, in late-breaking news, an article Shuttleworth has written based on his Vegesna research, titled “Imaginary Reasons of Dust,” will be published in the next issue of Beat Scene magazine, coming out in late May, he said. “The article reveals a little-known rift in the friendship between Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg – significant because their artistic relationship was central and so pivotal to the Beat movement,” Shuttleworth added. “The article’s title is a phrase from Kerouac in a letter to Ginsberg, apologizing for his frequent flare-ups and vowing eternal brotherhood on a day when the mercurial Kerouac was in a better mood.”
As for Shuttleworth’s overall experience with the grant, “The experience has been the richest and most gratifying in my intellectual life,” he said. “I’ve been reading and studying Kerouac in particular for more than 30 years, but through this experience my knowledge has reached new heights. I think my students gain a lot by having a teacher with such a high level of expertise and seeing my passion for the subject.”