May 2011 | Volume 53 | Number 5
Monday, May 30, 2011
Teachers Pursue Professional Learning Around the Globe
As someone who is extremely passionate about teaching abroad, I highly recommend reading this article. It is amazing to learn of the multitude of opportunities available to teachers to spread your skills, knowledge, and perspectives around the world. Here's to making a global impact to education, one student at a time!
May 2011 | Volume 53 | Number 5
May 2011 | Volume 53 | Number 5
From Umbria to Ulaanbaatar
From Umbria to Ulaanbaatar
Teachers Pursue Personal and Professional Learning
Three teachers share their experiences of transformative personal and professional growth achieved through exciting, death-defying, and enlightening adventures.
During her third year of teaching, Erika Tepler was assigned to teach a humanities course with two weeks' notice. The versatile educator, who is primarily an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, had previously taught government, math, and other courses as needed—so she felt she could handle this "opportunity" despite the lack of materials or textbooks.
"I got to be creative with my curriculum," says Tepler.
During the year, as she thought about ways to improve her course, Tepler realized that engaging in some learning of her own would enhance her teaching. Tepler heard about the Fund for Teachers (FFT) program from colleagues who had previously received grants. FFT (www.fundforteachers.org) offers funding for teachers to pursue personal exploration and professional development through travel experiences.
Tepler, who was already fairly well-traveled, wanted to find a special location—someplace, she says, about which there wasn't a lot written. She considered traveling to exotic locales such as the Kingdom of Bhutan (a landlocked country in the Himalayas) or even Mustang (Nepal); but when "reality" set in … the young teacher set her sights on traveling with a nomadic tribe in the Gobi desert of Mongolia.
Tepler was fascinated by the idea of the nomadic lifestyle but, as she discovered, there truly is very little information available about the nation or this particular population. Through Internet research, Tepler found Ger to Ger (www.gertoger.org), an organization that offers "nomad-centered geotourism." Ger to Ger matched Tepler with 12 families that would provide her with room and board and teach her a special skill, such as woodworking, sewing, or making fermented camel's milk. By living with Mongolian families whose livelihood and culture were tied to the natural environment, Tepler says she had hoped to gain information to augment her geography curriculum with new lessons about human-environment interaction and world cultures.
When asked how she prepared for the month-long journey, Tepler admits that preparation really wasn't possible with only scant tourism information available. Armed with a copy of the only Mongolian/English dictionary available in the United States, she boarded a plane destined for Ulaanbaatar.
"To be perfectly honest, I really didn't know what I was getting into." Tepler says.
Mongolia is the most remote place Tepler has ever visited. "I would say 80 percent of the roads, not including the small roads in really remote places, are unpaved. I had no idea how vast Mongolia is—it's the least dense country in the world."
Ger to Ger provided Tepler and the other participants with a cultural sensitivity class before sending them out to the desert. After that, the true journey began.
"You take a public bus and you go out to a middle of nowhere place and someone who does not speak English greets you and takes you to the first family," Tepler explains.
Over a 12-day period, Tepler lived in different tents made of sheep's felt, camel hair, rope and wood; eating what her hosts ate and drinking what water was available. Tepler says Mongolian nomads move anywhere between 4–20 times per year with their animals. Traditionally goat and sheep herders, they rely entirely on their environment for survival.
For Tepler, the adventure was physically challenging and often excruciating. "There are limited amounts of food. Their diet basically consisted of white flour, water, and dried goat," says Tepler. "There were times when I was hungry. I would dream about fruits and vegetables."
And it was hot. "For five days, the temperature in the Gobi reached 120 degrees with whipping winds that sucked all of the water out of my body. The only water available was hot and smelled of goat. It was constantly physically uncomfortable, and it was also emotionally taxing," she says.
But, Tepler says, she gradually adjusted. Without modern technologies or amusements, she learned to play traditional games (using sheep and goat ankle bones) and even picked up enough of the language to have basic conversations.
Tepler came away with an understanding of a truly unique culture and some new friends. "They are the most warm and welcoming people I have ever met," she says. "They are proud of their culture; they want to share it with you."
When she returned to Ulaanbaatar, Tepler also had a chance to talk with Mongolian teachers. "I got to meet some super motivated, really neat teachers and share teaching experiences. I also got to teach a five-day ESL conversational class to Mongolian teenagers," says Tepler, who prepared the young people for potential conversations with American teens.
Back in her classroom, Tepler uses her photos and souvenirs such as fabrics, ankle bones, horse head fiddles, and music to enhance her curriculum. "I gained a rich understanding of an ancient and disappearing culture in a specific geographic context that I can now pass on to my students through hands-on activities with real, foreign artifacts," says Tepler.
She has developed several lessons, including a "Near Death" lesson plan that prepares students for the essay portion of the state assessment. The goal of the lesson is to provide students with background information about desert regions and practice reading strategies, including reading sections from True Tales from the Deserts. Students analyze the essay "Near Death," comparing and contrasting it with a reading about cold environments such as Antarctica and the Himalayas.
Tepler also came back with an invigorated attitude. "For some teachers it's hard to get inspired to write an original curriculum. This [type of experience] is a huge inspiration for that. I think when teachers are excited about what they're teaching—students know that. When you are excited, students are excited and it leads to more learning. When you are an expert in something, the students learn more," says Tepler.
Art teachers Kathleen Courville and Lisette McClung, who both teach in the Clear Creek Independent School District in Houston, Tex., wanted to learn something new. After researching plein-air (which translates to "open air") painting, they applied to FFT for funds to go to Italy, where the painting style traces back to the 17th century.
As they learned more about plein-air painting, they realized the potential for using the painting style to teach their students about more than just art. "We want our students to become more aware of their relationship with nature and the importance of taking care of their environment," say McClung and Courville.
Courville teaches 6th–8th grade art classes, including 2/D and 3/D art, and pre-AP classes at League City Intermediate School. A 35-year teaching veteran, Courville still understands the value of learning. "I had never tried plein-air painting and it seemed like it would be a challenge," she says. McClung also teaches 6th–8th grade courses, including 2/D and 3/D art, and pre-AP art at Space Center Intermediate School. She has 13 years of teaching experience.
They received funding to participate in an intensive two-week program in the Umbrian region of Italy, where they could experience "the golden sunlight and misty blues of the skies that famous artists have explored, and … visit small towns where time has stood still." The teachers studied at the La Romita School of Art and visited Etruscan and Roman ruins, picturesque valleys, orchards, vineyards, and medieval towns.
"The workshop was very intense," says Courville. "We would leave at 9:00 a.m. with a backpack. A van would take us to a village and drop us off, and we would walk through the village and find a spot to work."
But as the artists found, painting outside offered its own special rewards and a unique set of challenges, including 100-degree heat, biting insects, barking dogs, curious bystanders, and ever-changing elements of light, atmosphere, and weather.
"We had to paint very quickly in order to capture the changing effect of light on our subject matter. This [necessity] allowed us to paint with spontaneity and a freshness that we may not have captured otherwise, such as painting from a photograph or in a studio setting," McClung says.
The days were long. "The van would pick us up around 4:00 p.m. and head back to the 16th-century monastery for dinner, and then at 7:00 p.m. we would go to a studio and work on anything from the day or try a totally different technique— maybe collage, assemblage, or mixed media. During the day it was only watercolor or acrylic painting. I came home with 42 pieces of completed artwork!" says Courville.
Courville and McClung documented their daily experiences through digital photographs, sketchbooks, journals, video, blogging at www.kandltravels.blogspot.com, and, of course, their artwork.
Upon their return, they willingly exposed their new works to their students for critiques, allowing students to ask questions relating to the process of creating their work. Courville and McClung say that they wanted their students to see them as teachers but also artists in their own right.
At each of their schools, the teachers started extracurricular clubs, where students travel to different sites within the Galveston Bay area to learn about local history and wildlife while also practicing painting.
"The only challenge was to get the students to actually go outside and try it," says Courville. "I started a weekend club so we could go out for several hours, instead of a limited 45 minutes of class, and experience different sites." McClung says her students are now painting in parks, nature centers, on riverboats and kayaks, and during family vacations.
Like Tepler, Courville and McClung believe that their Umbrian experience gave them a renewed understanding of the importance of learning.
"After 35 years of teaching, most teachers would say, 'You cannot teach me anything new’ or, 'I am burned out; this is no longer exciting to me,'" says Courville. "I came back with pure excitement to get back in the classroom and make a difference for me and my students."
McClung agrees. "I feel that it is extremely important that we continue to learn and grow. I am constantly finding new ways to gain knowledge," says McClung, who helped start an adult plein-air painting group.
For Tepler, Courville, and McClung, pushing themselves, learning new skills, and expanding their own horizons has greatly influenced their ability to do the same for their students.
"You cannot be a successful teacher if you are not practicing what you teach and are not fired up about what you do. The students react to your enthusiasm and will follow in pursuit if they are encouraged to do so," says Courville.
Copyright © 2011 by ASCD