Faye Chiu and Eszter Weiss, veteran math teachers, spent last summer in Italy and Greece — not bathing on the Riviera or hopping the isles, but retracing the steps of the ancient mathematicians in search of inspiration to energize their curriculum at Manhattan’s Millennium High School.
And while they were soaking up information about Archimedes, other city teachers were going to the far corners of the earth for their students, too: to Sweden to learn about individualized learning plans; to Iran and Turkey to collect information for helping non-Muslim students understand their school’s growing Muslim population; to Brazil to gather tips on getting girls interested in physical activity.
If the trips don’t sound like the average professional development sessions, it’s because they’re not. Instead, enabled by the national organization Fund for Teachers and its local partner, New Visions for Public Schools, are fueled entirely by teachers’ own curiosities.
In the past, New Visions offered the grants only to teachers affiliated with the schools it manages and supports. But this year, the nonprofit added supplementary grants of up to $10,000 that are open to teachers in all city high schools — provided that they teach courses that culminate in a Regents exam, have been teaching for at least three years, and plan to return to the classroom in September. Applications for this summer’s YouPD Challenge Grants are due Feb. 29.
The concept behind the grant is simple, according to Robert Hughes, New Visions’ president.
“The best professional development is the professional development that teachers create and define for themselves,” he said.
Hughes said the program’s expansion is meant to recognize stellar educators throughout the city.
“With all of the controversy flowing around teachers it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the extensive commitment that the vast majority of teachers make,” he said. “Despite the rhetoric, we have some of the strongest teachers in the country.”
As a Fund for Teachers partner, New Visions has doled out $2.3 million to 600 teachers since 2003, allowing them to design and pursue their own global journeys towards growth.
The application process is slightly more rigorous for this expanded crop, with the added requirement that they submit a unit plan and video that demonstrates their ability to tailor their curriculum to meet the Common Core standards. The expectation is that teachers will invigorate their practice and curriculum through these travels and then pass on what they’ve learned to their colleagues.
Chiu and Weiss’s trip to Italy and Greece was not their first trip enabled by Fund for Teachers. Through their school’s affiliation with New Visions, Chiu and Weiss also received a grant to travel to Hong Kong and China in 2006.
The first trip was born out of a curiosity about why Millennium’s students from Asia and from Asian-American families were generally more proficient in basic mathematical skills than other students. The teachers designed a six-week itinerary chock full of school visits and interviews that could inform their own practice.
While they saw certain cultural practices around education that wouldn’t translate well back in their New York classrooms — students bowing to the teacher, families being required to financially contribute to their child’s education — they also found strategies that they could steal.
“We were very into open questioning and discovery-based learning,” Weiss said of their pedagogy at the time. “We weren’t into drilling and rote memorization.”
But seeing the latter practiced on the other side of the globe planted the idea that in moderation it might help their students.
“If it’s just creative then you don’t have accuracy, but if you just focus on the drilling and the rote memorization then you can’t develop their critical thinking skills,” Chiu said.
Now Weiss, Chiu, and other teachers in their department try to strike a balance; they make games of drilling students on basic mathematical knowledge and they have started using a skills-based math curriculum, Delta Math, some of the time.
If the trip to Asia was about bringing students into modern times, the trip to Italy and Greece was about connecting them back to ancient ones.
Inspired by a weekend outing to an exhibition of the nearly 4,000-year-old clay tablets that document early Babylonian mathematics, the pair decided that retracing the paths of ancient mathematicians would help them help students better appreciate the genesis of and need for the formulas that can seem so stale in a high school algebra class. The stories they picked up about the earliest scholars have now infiltrated their lessons.
Crafting their own professional development adventures did leave them susceptible to some hiccups, like being turned away by the Chinese Ministry of Education and being denied access to antique math manuscripts at an Italian library. But they said the payoff of charting their own course was worth it.
“It’s self-designed and it doesn’t get much better than that,” Chiu said.