Global Teacher Fellowships Alter Lives of Participants

Last Updated: October 27, 2011

This article appeared in the October 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

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Kelly Welsh Ellis knew high school students in her 20th Century World History class in Thetford, Vermont weren’t gaining a clear understanding of what happened in Cambodia in the 1970s.

The class addresses genocide as one of the defining characteristics of the 20th century. It includes units on Cambodia, where in 1975, communist guerillas known as the Khmer Rouge took control of the country under the dictator Pol Pot. Over the next four years as many as three million people — including people who could not perform manual labor as expected, dissenters and most intellectuals and teachers — were starved, worked to death, or executed in sites that came to be known as “killing fields.”

“Genocide is a difficult thing for students to grapple with. And, I didn’t really understand how it could have happened in this particular culture either,” says Welsh Ellis. “I also wanted to try to understand how cultures recover from something like this in their history.”

Getting to know a place from inside

So when Welsh Ellis learned about a program that sends American and Swedish teachers to Cambodia to work with Cambodian teachers, she knew she was interested. “Teachers Across Borders (TAB) enables teachers to work with and support teachers working in countries where the educational system is fragile,” explains Welsh Ellis.

TAB offered a great opportunity, but it is a voluntary program and the costs for teachers to participate are high. That’s when Welsh Ellis learned about the Global Teacher’s Fund (now the Rural Trust Global Teacher Fellowship), which offers rural teachers grants up to $5,000 ($10,000 for teams of two or more) to travel and study something of personal interest.

“The Global Teacher Fellowship made it possible for me to go to Cambodia with TAB. It is such an amazing thing that I got to do,” says Welsh Ellis.

Welsh Ellis is one of the teachers who received Global Fellowship grants in 2011. The grant allowed her to spend two weeks helping conduct professional development for Cambodian teachers in the city of Siem Reap.

“The unit I taught was genocide,” explains Welsh Ellis. “I know it seems odd that I would go there and teach genocide. But Cambodian textbooks only began including anything about this history last year, and trials of people responsible have only recently begun. Cambodian teachers knew things that had happened, but people have not talked openly about it. And, teachers were not aware of genocide in other places.”

Kelly Welsh Ellis says she appreciates the opportunity to visit the capital city of Phnom Penh and the 12th century temples at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. But the best thing about her experience, she says, was getting to know Cambodian people. “It was wonderful to get to know a place from the inside. You learn in a much deeper and more meaningful way. People opened up to me and really connected.”

That experience has translated to Welsh Ellis’s teaching. “This year my students are asking more thoughtful questions,” she says. “It’s clear that they are taking more in. They understand what genocide is. And, when we did a unit on colonialism, they were able on their own to make connections and see how a colonial past, a lack of opportunity for people to govern themselves, can weaken culture and make it more vulnerable.”

Immersion in American art forms

Cara Valenti teaches choral music and piano at Northern Vance County High School in Henderson, North Carolina. When she applied for a Global Teacher Fellowship she wanted to learn a lot more about the musical cultures of her rural students, about 75% of whom are African American and about 25% of whom are white.

“When you study music in college, you usually study written music in the western tradition,” she says. “But my students come from much more varied musical cultures. I really wanted to learn more about their traditions and get inside musical cultures that I had not grown up in.”

Valenti, who is originally from New Jersey, saw a great opportunity at Traditional Song Week, part of Swannanoa Gathering at Warren Wilson College.

“This is something I could not have done without the Fellowship. It was a life-changing experience, personally and professionally,” she says.

The week-long Traditional Song workshop included three strands, Valenti explains. “African-American traditional gospel, spirituals, and praise hymns. Meeting house songs — old Baptist church songs and shaped note singing. And, what they called ‘choice,’ which is taking traditional music and shaping and molding it to your own purposes.”

Valenti says that what she learned and “the constant music-making — the community music-making — reminded me of what music is in culture.” It sparked her to re-structure her classes. “I learned so much about musical styles, how to set up so everyone knows when they can take the lead or when to add harmony. Now my students are interacting with each other much more, not just staring at printed music.”

The new approach gives students more opportunities to create and explore musically. “I really want my students to be able to enjoy music throughout their lives and to understand music as a form of community fellowship and sharing and story-telling.”

Fostering creativity in young children

Kathy Tobin and Dawn Elliott have taught together at Eden Central School in Vermont for many years. They’ve set up “reading buddies” between Elliott’s fourth-graders and Tobin’s Kindergartners and figured out other ways to support cross-age learning experiences.

In recent years, both teachers have been concerned about what seems to be a trend. “Our students spend a lot of time watching t.v. and movies and playing video games,” says Tobin. “We really want them to use their imaginations more.”

So Tobin and Elliott began to think about ways to strengthen their students’ creative thinking. “When we saw a creativity workshop in Barcelona, Spain, we thought, ‘this is perfect,’” says Tobin.

“Our students don’t do a lot of traveling and neither do we,” says Elliott. “Going to another country would be a challenge for us, a risk. What a great way to show our students they can take risks, too.”

The pair applied for and received a Global Teacher Fellowship grant as a team.

“The workshop was an amazing experience that focuses on creative writing and drawing,” says Tobin. “We did all kinds of things that help open your mind and get you out of your comfort zone. Ideas were just flying at me.”

Elliott says the experience, which required both risk-taking and reflection, changed the ways she views herself and her work. “I did a lot of deep thinking about my life. It was very powerful.”

Tobin notes that the experience of being in another culture gave her insight into her students’ experience. “We didn’t understand the language, we didn’t know quite what to expect,” she says. “They handed me Euros and at first I didn’t what they were. Then I thought, ‘this is what it's like for our kids.’”

Since returning to school, Tobin and Elliott have been learning Spanish with their students. “We are using our experience to bring Spain to our classroom — photos, food, music, dance, art, architecture,” says Elliott. “The students are feeling our excitement; they’re like sponges.”

Tobin and Elliott are also doing with their students many of the kinds of things they did in Barcelona. For example, Tobin has adapted a workshop class, Windows and Doors of Barcelona. “Students go out and document windows and doors in our community. It gets the kids to look around them and be active in their learning. It’s also a great way to do math with young children. They make comparisons of what they’ve found with our pictures of Barcelona. That helps them get a sense of another place. Who would have thought you could do so much with windows and doors?”

Framing the Concept of Resistance

Like Kelly Welsh Ellis, Margret Atkinson was looking for ways to help her middle grade students in Zachary, Louisiana learn about genocide and, more specifically, to gain a better understanding of the concept of resistance. “When we study the Holocaust, students tend to think in terms of ‘taking a shot at Hitler.’ It’s hard for them to understand the breadth of what was happening or to see the ways that people resisted.”

“The Fund for Teachers grant gave me an opportunity to go to many places and learn about how resistance had happened,” says Atkinson. “I was able to go to LeChambon-sur-Lignon, France, where villagers hid Jews under the nose of the occupying Nazis, and to Sevona, Italy, where Hermann Wygoda, who escaped the Warsaw ghetto, led Italian partisnas in liberating the town. And I met children of Danish fisherman who had risked their own lives helping Jews escape to Sweden.”

As she thought about how to translate that experience to her students she began to relate the concept of resistance to being an Upstander. “The Holocaust Museum Houston has a poster that asks "what role will you play?' It shows a triangle with victims in the center. At one corner is the word perpetrator, at another corner the word bystander, and at the top corner are the words rescuer/upstander. When people are being victimized, other people choose which role on the triangle they will play,” says Atkinson. “Middle grade students can understand upstanding as it relates to bullying, and they can understand the importance of standing up for what is right.”

That shift is making a difference. This year Atkinson says that her students "get the concepts of individual value and the value of the individual in standing up on behalf of others. They speak in terms of being the Upstander and within the construct of acting upon strong morals. They say: 'you must stand up for what yo believe in.'”

Atkinson is taking her experience beyond her classroom with presentations at a Barnes & Noble Educator's Workshop during National Bullying Prevention Month and the National Association for Gifted Children annual conference. Her students keep journals and create art work and have joined her in presentations.

Atksinson is also working to integrate the connect of Upstanding with the district's anti-bullying education measures. "All of us are beginning to frame the concept of upstander within our daily lives,” she says.

Changing practice

The Global Fellowship Program requires teachers to determine what they want to do and learn and how they will go about it. That experience of being responsible for their own learning proved inspiring. Several teachers are writing and making presentations. And all talked about ways the experience has changed their approach to teaching. “We want to give our students the same kinds of active learning opportunities that we experienced,” says Kathy Tobin.

The experience also proves invigorating. “I came back so pumped up. After you’ve been doing something a long time, you need new challenges,” says Dawn Elliott, a sentiment echoed by Cara Valenti. “Teaching can be tiring. This experience refreshed me and reminded me of why I teach music.”

Perhaps most importantly, the Fellowships were affirming. “Many people said they learned from me. That felt really good because I wasn’t out there trying to teach anything,” says Tobin. Echoing this sentiment Kelly Welsh Ellis says, “The experience really fueled my sense of the importance of what I teach in a wonderful way.”

Upcoming Webinar/Rural Classroom: Importance of Cooperative Learning — Rural Trust Global Teacher Fellows' Perspective

You can learn more about the experiences of the 2011 winners of Global Teacher Fellowships at the November 10th webinar sponsored by the Rural Trust.

Participation is limited so sign up now.

Apply to be a Global Fellow

The Rural Trust is seeking applicants for the 2012 Global Teacher Fellowship. Deadline for Intent to Apply is December 15. You can learn more about the program at

Read more from the October 2011 Rural Policy Matters.