Teacher Innovation Finds Support through East Lansing Educational Foundation

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Monday, August 20, 2018, 8:27 am
Ann Kammerer

Above: Third-grade students from Marble Elementary interview Marble Principal Josh Robertson for The Muskrat Times.

While state funding provides for basic needs of public schools, a crucial boost comes through the private support of parents, individuals and organizations committed to K-12 education.

In East Lansing, that commitment shines through the grants and financial gifts awarded to teachers each year through the East Lansing Educational Foundation. Made possible through private donors, the Grants to Teachers Program supplements materials and experiences that enhance classroom learning throughout East Lansing Public Schools.

“These grants give teachers and students opportunities that supplement the good solid education they are already receiving through East Lansing Public Schools,” says Kwafo Adarkwa (pictured above), Board President for ELEF. “Teacher grants are exceedingly vital in today’s day and age to ensure that East Lansing maintains its status as a top-flight school system.”

Teachers submit proposals and concepts to the Foundation in the fall for the current academic year. Approved projects receive variable amounts from different funding sources based on project scope and need. In the past decade, ELEF has awarded more than $200,000 through the teacher grant program to East Lansing educators at all grade levels.

“One of the highlights of my year is our ‘Prize Patrol Day,’” says Adarkwa. “After we approve grants, our board and members of the school system go to some of the grant recipients around the district to present the check and take a picture. It’s a really impactful day and underscores what we do all year with the community and business leaders to provide funds.”

Programs are currently in the submission and review cycle for the 2018-19 academic year. East Lansing Info will be recapping several teacher grants in upcoming months. Our first features three elementary school initiatives funded through the ELEF Grants to Teachers Program. For more information or to give to the East Lansing Educational Foundation, visit www.elef.us

Making music

Katie Pike wanted to get professional musicians front and center in her music classroom. It wasn’t enough to just talk about an instrument and how it was played. She wanted her fifth-graders to see and hear firsthand how rhythm, harmony and other musical elements really worked.

In Spring 2018, Pike invited two professional musicians to participate in an artist in residency program at Whitehills Elementary. Clarinetist Anastasia Bonotto and Percussionist Tia Harvey came once-a-week for four weeks to interact with 50 children in two classes. The musicians devised lesson plans, led classes, and worked with students on improvisation, creativity and composition.

“I think it’s very important for kids to see themselves actually doing something—in this case, making music,” says Pike, a music teacher at Whitehills since 2016. “And when you bring in a professional musician, students can meet someone who has chosen to do music for their career.”

Bonotto and Harvey encouraged students to step outside their comfort zones, and to engage through singing, instrumentation or creative movement. Students also combined their talents and worked together to compose a piece for ukulele and voice.

Both artists had met Pike through a music performance residency program coordinated by the MSU College of Music at another school district. The College of Music also ran a similar program at Donley and Pinecrest Elementary Schools, but was unable to do so at Whitehills.

“Our program at Whitehills shows how a school and district can do an engagement program independently,” says Pike. “That’s why I love ELEF. They give us a way to have the funding that surpasses what I can do alone in the classroom.”

The Whitehills Artist in Residence Program was funded through a $749 classroom grant through ELEF’s Grants to Teachers Program. Pike hopes to continue the program in upcoming years.

Spreading the news

Rachael Bergan recalls the day she heard her second-grader at Marble Elementary was promoting the idea of a student newspaper.

“She and her friends collected 80 signatures and took them to the principal’s office,” says Rachael. “The principal called us and said ‘So Elle would like to have a newspaper? I have an idea for a couple grants she can apply for and do it next year if you take charge.’”

Rachael enlisted the help of her husband Daniel—an MSU associate professor of communication. Meanwhile, Elle continued her quest and brought the concept to her third-grade teacher early in the academic year.

In Fall 2017, teacher Rebecca Spitzer applied for and received a grant from ELEF. In the winter of 2018, The Muskrat Times began to take form. Started as a student club guided by Spitzer and the Bergans, the newspaper became a force. Communication among students transformed. Writing, interviewing and research techniques solidified while positive change occurred on issues important to students.

“That piece of having a voice and being heard was really important for students,” says Spitzer. “Daniel and Rachael did a great job of listening and hearing what kids wanted to cover and following the direction of the kids.”

By mid-Spring, about 20 third-graders created content for a single, four-page printed issue. The ten features included an interview with first-year Marble principal Josh Robertson, Q&As on recess, a science exploration of “Planet 9,” a movie review, and an investigative series on the condition of the school bathrooms. Student writers also contributed trivia, pictures, cartoons and riddles.

“We talked about opinion versus factual pieces, and brainstormed ideas,” says Daniel. “We didn’t have to do too much to encourage them to pursue things. By the second time we met, a lot of the articles were done and submitted.”

The grant covered producing about 500 newspapers, designed and printed through the online site makemynewspaper.com.

“The newspaper made learning fun,” says Elle.

And it got results on a key issue.

“A group of parents agreed to beautify and repaint the bathrooms,” says Spitzer. “Students made a stink and got results. No pun intended.”

The Bergans hope to continue The Muskrat Times in 2018-19 under the leadership of their fourth-grade daughter. Support for last year’s grant was provided by a $946 gift from the Shrewsbury Endowment and a classroom grant of $54.

Following a trajectory

Julie Maloney put things in motion when she applied for a teacher grant through the ELEF.

New to the district in 2015, the second-grade teacher at Donley Elementary was eager to leverage the science expertise of local resources. When she discovered one of her parent volunteers worked at Impression 5 Science Center, she inquired if the center might be interested in contributing to a science unit.

Maloney’s idea wasn’t far-fetched. That year, Impression 5 staff agreed to come to Maloney’s classroom and help students build miniature trebuchets. A few weeks later, the class visited the science center to reinforce their classroom learning. Once there, they saw a life-size trebuchet, talked to the engineers who built it, and learned how people used the catapult to throw projectiles during medieval times.

“You could see the excitement in their faces,” says Maloney of her students. “They were seeing how something you learned in the classroom applies to the real world.”

Maloney was inspired to repeat the unit in the 2016-17 year but ran into budget limitations. She applied for an ELEF teacher grant, and framed the proposal with input from parent volunteer Micaela Balzer, the director of innovation and learning at Impression 5. Building on the concepts of that first year, the two devised a plan that allowed for two classroom visits from Impression 5 and one visit to the science center.

“One of the things that interested us was how to interweave science concepts with something students could make, build and take home,” says Balzer. “Next generation science standards include lots of engineering skills, so we wanted them to get hands-on experience.”

Balzer says trebuchets were ideal since the simple machines use concepts of counterweights, cause and effect. Students could experiment with variables like weights, size and length, as well as delve into the history of the device.

Maloney’s trebuchet unit with Impression 5 received its first ELEF grant in 2016-17. A second year of funding in 2017-18 enabled expansion to second grade classrooms throughout the district. Maloney estimates more than 280 students experienced hands-on science activities with Impression 5 last year thanks to the $4,760 provided through ELEF’s general endowment. She hopes to continue in 2018-19.

“Students just love when new people and role models come into the classroom,” Maloney says. “This unit definitely opened the doors to more and different lessons.”


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