2013 Global Teacher Fellows Share Experiences

Last Updated: October 29, 2013

This article appeared in the October 2013 Rural Policy Matters.

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For Jenna Hunter it was watching the rapid decline of family farming in her rural North Carolina community and wanting to find ways that her students could help protect their land and still earn a living. For Pam Dow and Meg Allison it was gaining a new appreciation for the importance of storytelling after floods devastated their small Vermont town. For Selena Montgomery it was concern about the health of local children and a desire to do more to meet the growing diversity in her south Georgia community. Nicole Buschmann and Maribeth Dann wanted to stretch themselves well beyond their usual comfort zones—and gain an understanding of how the ecosystems in their rural Missouri farming town connect to those on the other side of the world.

The 32 rural teachers who traveled the globe as 2013 Global Teacher Fellows each had their own reasons for making a journey to another part of the world. But they all came back with renewed enthusiasm, fresh perspective, an expanded appreciation for their own place, and deeper faith in the capabilities of their students to make their own communities—and the world—better for everyone.

You can read descriptions of each of the 2013 Global Fellows and their travels here. As in previous years, Fellows underscored the importance of being trusted to create their own challenging learning experience. They reveled in a sense of discovery and freedom, experienced unexpected insight, and found new wells of inspiration for teaching. And they all expressed a deep gratitude for a life-changing opportunity.

In this issue of RPM we’ll hear from several Fellows about their experiences, with an emphasis on some of the thought-provoking ideas their travels inspired.

“I can be a contributor”

Orange County High students studying their local environment
Orange County High students studying their local environment.

Jenna Hunter graduated from Orange County High in Hillsborough, North Carolina and taught in New York City before returning four years ago to teach science at her alma mater. “Hillsborough was founded in dairy and tobacco farms,” Hunter explains. But that agricultural economic base has eroded. Quickly. “Few farms still exist as well-functioning and profitable,” she says. “Tobacco farmers have had to switch, mostly to soy or small organic produce operations. Most of the dairy farms no longer have cattle because they can’t compete with factory farms. There are so many farmers who are out of work in a community that once thrived because of farming. Our students are from generations of farmers and they are watching these changes and wondering what they are going to do.”

Hunter shares her students’ love of their place and wanted to find ways to protect it. “I got interested in ecotourism as a tool for conservation of biodiversity and as an economic development strategy that could help preserve the land and place that we love,” she says. “I was also excited about the place-based learning component that is part of the Global Fellows opportunity. I wanted to do something that could translate for our students in a way they would find interesting and applicable.”

Orange County High students study a creek near the school
Orange County High students study a creek near the school

Hunter chose to travel to Costa Rica, where she visited nine eco-lodges. “Costa Rica pretty much wrote the book on ecotourism,” she says. “The lodges were very different takes on the same idea. It demonstrated that there is a market that can make money for the local economy and serve a good purpose.”

Back in North Carolina, teams of students in Hunter’s Advanced Placement Environmental Sciences classes are working directly with a local farmer to consider potential conservation uses of his family’s farm. “Students can come up with their own ideas for what they think fits our community,” she says.

There were additional personal boosts that Hunter wasn’t expecting. “Teaching Environmental Sciences is difficult. The problems are so big that it can feel a little hopeless, and it can be hard to find ways to help the students feel motivated. With the changes in the economic status of our community, a sense of powerlessness comes in multiple veins for our students.”

In Costa Rica, Hunter met many people "passionate about where they are from and taking steps to make it a good place to be,” she says. "Seeing their sense of ownership and responsibility was inspiring. I didn’t know how much I needed that.”

Hunter’s students are enthusiastic about the work they are doing. “I have so much more sense of purpose now,” Hunter says. “The idea that I can be a contributor to the community and the people as a result of this trip, I didn’t see that coming.”

We are all connected.

Moulay Idriss, Morocco
Moulay Idriss, Morocco

Jennice Wright teaches sixth, seventh, and eighth grade social studies at Auxvasse Elementary School in central Missouri, where the curriculum emphasizes civic skills and global competencies. “I’ve always been interested in democratic change and democratic movements,” she explains.

The opportunity to travel to Morocco, an Arab Spring country where democratic reforms are being implemented successfully and peacefully, was just what Wright was looking for. “So much of what students and their families see in the media highlights the failures of democracy and democratic movements and gives the impression that those countries are full of scary people who hate democracy and other religions. It is important for them to see a success story, one that helps demystify that part of the world,” she says.

Wright chose to spend most of her time in the small town of Moulay Idriss, where she stayed in a guesthouse and with a local teacher. By remaining in one place she says she was able to fall into the pattern of daily life. "People invited me into their homes and worked hard to make my trip special. Even before I arrived, people were calling the guesthouse to see if I needed anything. They were helping me build my global network even before they met me,” she says.

Almost everyday, Wright posted photos of her daily experience on Facebook: the people she met, children playing, the markets, and the landscape in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. She also sent postcards home to her students in Auxvasse.

Spice market in Meknes, Morocco
Spice market in Meknes, Morocco

“People were very taken with the architecture and the beauty. In the photos they could see me in another place surrounded by warm friendly people who cared about me and my experiences. What had been concern about my safety began to turn into excitement about what I would be doing next,” observes Wright.

Now students have a more personal connection when they talk about Arab Spring. “So much of that movement was shaped by young people using social media and expressions of youth culture like Hip Hop. That’s something my students can relate to.”

Wright is always asking the question: how are our kids acquiring the skills and confidence to be active citizens—in our community and in the world? She knew traveling to another country would expand her own thinking. “This experience helped build my own global competencies,” she adds. “That’s important as I help my students develop theirs.”

…And we are all unique

Knight's suit near the Guinigi Tower, Lucca, Italy
Knight's suit  near the Guinigi Tower, Lucca, Italy

As a 1st/2nd grade teacher and librarian at Moretown Elementary in Vermont, Pamela Dow and Meg Allison say that literacy and books are at the heart of everything they do. In 2011 Tropical Storm Irene flooded the Mad River and much of the town, including the school building. “It was a real crossroads for our community,” says Allison. “People wanted to be together. When everything is stripped away it’s about community, our person-to-person connections and talking about what had happened. Stories were such a comfort for our students.”

So when the two decided to apply to be Global Fellows, it felt completely natural to go to the heart of the European fairy tale. “Fairy tales speak to universal themes. They are quests for identity, or a new world is revealed,” says Allison.

“And there’s always a little magic,” adds Dow. “In a sense place doesn’t matter; the magic is in a metaphor that helps children imagine what they can be.”

Many people assumed they would go to Germany. “But Charles Perrault was writing down folk tales in Paris 200 years before the Grimm Brothers,” says Dow. Many of the older fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel originated in the mountains of what are now France and Italy. And, many were based on real people. “There are strong female role models behind many of these tales. That helps bring them to life for our students,” Dow adds.

“To see the royal gardens and the castles that gave rise to these stories gave us a new appreciation for the importance of place—of landscape and architecture,” says Allison. “In medieval towns and parts of Paris, the small streets with rows and rows of unique doors and windows were incredible.”

Overlooking a canal in the Cannaregio neighborhood of Venice, Italy
Overlooking a canal in the Cannaregio neighborhood of Venice, Italy

Doors and portals have become an organizing theme, not only for interpreting their trip, but also for their work back home. “Portals serve an important literary function in fairy tales,” says Allison. “When the character steps through one, they are transformed or are suddenly in a new and exciting place. And you, as the reader or listener, get let in on the story. You too are transformed.”

Moretown has its own distinctive landscape and historic architecture. “We have beautiful barns and silos instead of castles and towers,” Allison notes. “And we have lots of interesting doors and windows.”

Moretown students will be asking what’s behind those local portals as part of a community history project. And they will be writing their own fairy tales inspired by their own environment. “It will be fun to see what characteristics they give their heroes and heroines,” says Dow.

Allison and Dow found more connections between their community and some of the places they visited. Recent flooding in Tuscany and rising sea levels in Venice are probably related to the same climate issues that made Irene so devastating in New England. “We really are all connected,” Allison observes.

“It was the flood in Moretown that helped show us that our treasures are our people and our stories and that we need to preserve and protect what’s local,” says Dow. “That’s what makes us unique.”

Maribeth Dann and Nicole Buschmann experienced similar insights about connectedness and community in their trip to Ghana.

Nicole Buschmann and Maribeth Dann in Ghana
Nicole Buschmann and Maribeth Dann
in Ghana

The pair teach middle grades gifted and reading classes and high school/dual credit biology and anatomy, respectively, at Hermann High School in Missouri. They traveled deep into rural Ghana, backpacking, taking canoe trips, and riding in local tro tros (small vans) and buses.

“We wanted to experience different ecosystems,” says Dann describing their travels on the Volta River, in the savannah, along the coast in rainforest and wetlands, and a visit to Ghana’s highest mountain.

“It was thrilling and a little scary,” says Buschmann of their trip in dugout canoes up the Black Volta River to a hippopotamus sanctuary. “It was so different to see animals in their natural habitats, just being themselves. It is such a beautiful environment.”

In addition to hippos, they saw baboons, elephants, water buffalo, antelope, and monkeys. They were warmly received in villages and at a rural elementary school, and they immersed themselves in one of Africa’s largest open-air markets, where 10,000 vendors sold everything imaginable, including pottery, beading, basketry, and batik.

“Human life emerged from Ghana,” says Buschmann. “To be in that place is indescribable.”

Hermann High student using a clinometer to take measurements in a local wooded area
Hermann High student
using a clinometer
to take measurements
in a local wooded area

Like Costa Rica, Ghana has taken steps to preserve unique ecosystems and has designated large tracts as national parks and sanctuaries. But the effects of climate change are serious. “Many people are farmers, and the rains aren’t coming like they were. People feel guilty about cutting a small amount of firewood,” says Buschmann. “But that’s not the real problem; the bigger problems are things going on in other parts of the world. It puts a different filter on how you view things.”

Dann and Buschmann have transformed their experiences back to their students in Hermann by having students observe, measure, study, discover, and document their own local environment. “The students are much more engaged,” says Buschmann. Students are also testing the health of fish and doing timber surveys and soil samples with local landowners.

For all the excitement of their travels, Dann and Bauschmann both say the most memorable event of their trip happened early in their time in Ghana. A young Hermann High graduate working in Ghana was with them in Accra, the capital city. They needed to get to the bus station, but weren’t sure where it was. So their former student asked a young man on the street for directions.

“He didn’t just tell us where it was, he walked us there, translated for us, negotiated our fee, and made sure we were on the bus before he left us,” says Buschmann. “We soon learned that no matter what happened, someone would help us.”

Welcome | The entire person

Kristi Day and Lynn Barber at the Sibelius Monument honoring Finland's most noted composer
Kristi Day and Lynn Barber at the Sibelius Monument honoring Finland's most noted composer

Many students at North Wilkesboro School in North Carolina, where Lynn Barber teaches kindergarten, are learning English. Barber and her daughter Kristi Day, who teaches first grade at Traphill Elementary (also in Wilkes County), traveled to Finland.

Finnish students, including recent immigrants just learning the language, are among the highest-scoring students on international assessments. Barber and Day wanted to learn what Finnish schools are doing to achieve such success.

While the pair found some similarities with American schools, they also noted key differences. “For one thing, teachers had complete autonomy as long as they stayed within the skeleton curriculum,” says Barber. “There’s no prescribed pacing guide, and teachers in the school work together to decide what approaches are best for their students.”

Teachers also stay with the same group of students for more than one year, sometimes for several years. “Teachers really build relationships with the kids. They don’t have to spend time getting to know a new group every year,” adds Day. “Parents even get upset if their children are not with the same teacher for several years.”

Classroom at an elementary school in Espoo, Finland
Classroom at an elementary school in Espoo, Finland

Academic classes in elementary school are hands-on, community-oriented, and last only a few hours. The rest of the day teachers collaborate while students are involved in arts activities and athletics.

“It’s very focused on each child as a whole person,” says Barber. “They ask, ‘what does this child need?’ and then they provide it. At the elementary level, education is all about learning to learn.”

This educational approach is the context for programs for students learning Finnish. “Students who don't know Finnish yet are in their own ungraded classes, limited to 10 students. The teachers don’t worry about the subject content,” Barber explains. “They are focused on learning the language and school culture.”

These students do many of activities that other students do, creating a leaf collection, for example. In the process, they are learning how to learn, building friendships, experiencing what is expected of them in school—and learning Finnish.

“The typical student is ready for the regular classroom in three to twelve months,” says Barber. “Then they go into the class with their age peers and become part of the group learning to learn. It’s a very welcoming environment.”

Sharing a meal

Hunt Middle School garden, Vermont
Hunt Middle School garden, Vermont

Selena Montgomery and colleague Delceina Layne felt so welcomed in the Vermont schools they visited en route to Canada that they returned to Vermont on their way home.

“They chose their destinations for some of the same reasons that Barber and Day were interested in Finland. Montgomery and Layne teach at North Mitchell Elementary in southwest Georgia. Diversity in their school has increased dramatically in recent years, primarily as families from Mexico and Central America have moved to the community for jobs in the agricultural sector.

Montgomery and Layne wanted to learn from schools successfully meeting diversity and teaching language. So they headed to Montreal, Canada where schools have a history of working with diverse populations and to Burlington, Vermont, where the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program is located.

Montgomery and Layne had another goal as well. North Mitchell Elementary has recently started a school garden with an emphasis on healthy living. As fourth and fifth grade teachers, the pair wanted to learn from schools successfully integrating gardening, foods, nutrition, and health into their curriculum.

“When you have rural kids coming in at five or six with high blood pressure, diabetes, buying adult clothes and cutting off the legs, you have ask: How did we get here?” says Montgomery.

While she and Layne enjoyed and learned during their time in Canada, it was the nine Vermont schools they visited that captivated their imaginations.

“It’s just beautiful how they embrace the different nationalities of their students,” Montgomery says.

“When you walk into the school, you see an artwork depicting each of the home countries of all the students,” she says. Sometimes the art—stained glass collages, quilts, bottle cap sculptures—was created by students and sometimes by local artists working in the school.

The school cafeterias were true social and learning hubs. Flags from each nation hung from the ceiling. “The cafeteria had two lines, one with American cuisine and one with international foods; students could choose whatever they wanted that day,” Montgomery explains.

The cafeterias also held food-tasting events and conducted surveys of student preferences. “The students have a real sense of ownership and feeling that their backgrounds and cultures matter,” says Montgomery. In addition, most of the foods served were grown in the school garden or purchased from local farmers and made fresh in the school cafeteria.

Student's colorful lunch plate featuring locally grown produce, Vermont
Student's colorful lunch plate featuring locally grown produce, Vermont

“The kids loved it,” says Montgomery. “Their plates were so colorful, it shocked me. At one school, a five-year-old said to me, ‘oh, I hope the romaine lettuce is ready,’ and then she picked leaves right out of the garden and began eating them. It was beautiful. One school had an outdoor classroom with a homemade bread maker. It was gorgeous.”

The schools also hosted harvest suppers serving vegetables and other dishes, many of which were provided by families. They sent food home with parents and ran community Meals-On-Wheels programs out of the school cafeterias.

The school gardens and greenhouses are integrated in the schools’ curricula and students do much of the work. The curricula, in turn, is integrated with the community—academically, socially, and culturally—so parents and community are very immersed in the life of the school, often volunteering hours of time every week.

“It made students feel pride,” says Montgomery. “It’s a domino effect, for parents and everyone else. It carries through to what people do every day. We never heard, ‘that’s not my job,’ or ‘I don’t have time.’ ”

Montgomery says of their two weeks in Vermont: “We felt like we were part of the family. We were really working hard, eight to five, and we loved it.”

North Mitchell Elementary wants to cultivate a sense of family for all their students. “We want our students to be able to say: ‘I’m from Mexico, and this is my family, too,” says Montgomery.

A big part of that effort will be cultivating their garden and their community connections.

“Sitting down together and having a good meal and conversation, that’s really it,” says Montgomery.

The Rural Trust Global Teacher Fellowship program awards up to 25 fellowships a year to support the professional and personal development of rural teachers. The awards (up to $5,000 for individual teachers and $10,000 for a team of two or more teachers) support teachers’ participation in self-designed summer learning experiences and a two-day place-based learning institute in the fall. Teachers are encouraged to center their learning in an international travel and study experience, out of which they develop interdisciplinary, place-based learning curricula aligned with their specific state and local content standards.

Application deadline for 2014 Global Teacher Fellows is January 30, 2014. Learn how to apply here: www.globalteacherfellowship.ruraledu.org/apply.html.

Learn more about the Global Teacher Fellowship at www.globalteacherfellowship.ruraledu.org/index.html

Read more from the October 2013
Rural Policy Matters.