Tuesday, September 25, 2012

2012 Fund for Teachers

Five teachers return with Fund for Teachers stories to tell and a renewed passion for teaching.

Memorial High English teacher Patti Nommensen flew to a creativity workshop in the sunny south of France, then toured colder, wetter Ireland to stand where writers and poets Oscar Wilde and W.B. Yeats created enduring works of literature.

Shanna Ciarella, a Memorial High colleague, at the same time was standing awestruck in Athens on the Acropolis. Like Odysseus of old, her topic of study, Shanna found her own travels around the Mediterranean beset by modern-day setbacks.

Twin sisters and teachers Lillian and Linda Suchoff combined their love of oral stories with a jointly funded trip to Mexico City and Colombia where they heard from and studied with expert Latin American storytellers in their countries of origin.

These Spring Branch ISD teachers and Northbrook High science teacher Bhavna Rawal were among more than 60 Houston-area teachers who spent a portion of their summer on self-designed learning odysseys as scholars, researchers and adventurers after being named Fund for Teachers Fellows. Educators must apply to be chosen for summer grants to travel and study. Individual grants of up to $5,000 are awarded; team grants may total $10,000.

The Fund for Teachers has supported the professional and personal journeys of educators since 2001. In that time, the Houston-based group has awarded about $18 million in Fund for Teachers grants.

As different as their individual trips were, creativity and the quest to understand the creative process are common threads in the summer journeys undertaken by SBISD’s teachers. In their travels, all of the teachers combined professional study with personal interests and vacation – an objective of the Fund for Teachers grants.

Patti Nommensen began her summer trip at The Creative Workshop in Arles, France, where she joined others using cameras, sketchbooks, personal memories, interviews and visualization exercises to spur creative practices. The workshop experience convinced her that “creativity is innate: not learned, but simply forgotten.”

She has taught Pre-Advanced Placement (AP), AP and Dual Credit English classes at Memorial High for 10 years. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, she holds a master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas and has done graduate work in literature at the University of Houston. Her personal work in poetry and film writing has been recognized at Houston Poetry Fest and Austin Film Festival competitions.

From the sunshine and warmth of the Provence region of France, Nommensen flew to the leaden, chillier climate of Ireland. She toured Dublin, the home of famous writers Wilde and others, and then traveled countrywide. Her trip concluded in County Sligo where the great poet W.B. Yeats is buried.

The French workshop and all the ancient ruins, illuminated manuscripts, museums, tours, lectures, guides and graveyard visits led Nommensen to several conclusions about creativity and great artists:

  • “We are all born with a kind of creative genius, and while some are certainly more gifted than others, those we remember – George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Wilde, Joyce and Gerard Manley Hopkins – were persistent in their practice. They gave it their life. While we cannot, it does invite hope about potential and a comment on effort.”
  • “Great ideas are often inspired by simple connections.”
  • “All artists are thieves: they mine life and memory. We have both.”
  • “We, too, should celebrate our native writers of poetry, story and song.”
Shanna Ciarella, who has taught English to ninth-graders at Memorial High for seven years, traced the wanderings of Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s epic tale, The Odyssey, across Greece and the Mediterranean. In ancient Latin, Odysseus is known as Ulysses.

A communications graduate of Texas A&M University, Ciarella attended South Texas College of Law and then practiced corporate litigation for several years before entering the teaching profession.

“It was the best decision I have ever made,” she says. “I love teaching English, and I am so grateful for each of my students.”

On her trip, she visited the Acropolis in Athens, as well as Turkey, the islands of Capri and Santorini, and made other stops related to the mythological story.

“I always tell my students that to really understand life we must step out of ourselves and try to stand in other people’s shoes. I was able to apply that to my journey across the Mediterranean. Just like Odysseus, I experienced thrills visiting Turkey where Odysseus had the idea of building the famed Trojan horse, but I also experienced setbacks. My ship was turned around from port in Africa because of the unrest in Egypt,” she reports.

“My experience proved incomparable. I teach Gifted and Talented ninth-grade students, and they are more than capable of reading and understanding The Odyssey on their own. In fact, many have read it multiple times. My job is to bring the epic to life. I blogged about my experience along the way, and my students will be able to follow Odysseus’ journey through my eyes as they read my blog and follow my adventures,” Shanna says.

She hopes that her trip and blog will inspire her students to write about their own personal odysseys, such as their high school experiences.

As instructors of English language learners, twins Lillian and Linda Suchoff won a team grant to travel and study Latin American storytelling in Mexico City and Colombia.

Lillian, who teaches at Northbrook High, has taught for 20 years in SBISD schools including bilingual and ESL classes at Woodview, Spring Shadows and Pine Shadows elementary schools, and at Spring Woods High School.

She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin and a master’s degree in reading from Corpus Christi State University (now Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi), and recently completed the graduate program in Library Science at the University of Houston-Clear Lake.

Her sister, Linda, teaches prekindergarten at Bear Blvd. School for Earl Learning. A UT-Austin graduate like her sister, she has taught 17 years on SBISD campuses including Spring Branch, Hollibrook and Treasure Forest elementary schools.

The outgoing teacher twins began their Latin American journey in Mexico City with award-winning storytellers Victor Arjona and Angel del Pilar who are the directors of the Festival Internacional de Narració de “Cuentos Grandes, Calcetines Pequeños,” or “Big Stories for Small Socks.” The festival attracts famous storytellers who focus on stories for both younger and older children.

Professional storytellers, or “cuenteros” as they are known in Spanish-speaking countries, were part of the Columbian culture that the sisters absorbed in Cartagena, Cali and Medellin. Summertime festivals in Colombia are famous for traditional, oral folktales and stories that are shared and handed down from generation to generation.

In Medellin, they attended the city’s oldest and largest festival, “La Feria de Las Flores,” or Festival of the Flowers, an annual street party and procession. The sisters were connected there with other storytellers. They also learned about the use of puppets and storytelling props and devices. Back home, they plan to collaborate and create digital lessons that include traditional storytelling elements.

“It was an amazing adventure,” Linda says. “I was struck by the warmth that the Colombians had for us, and the respect and pride that people of Mexico and Colombia have for their own nations.”

“Before our trip, we were both skilled readers of stories, and fans of the storytelling tradition. Now, we will be far better tellers of these stories,” Lillian says.

“We are not master storytellers. Storytelling is one of the great arts. But today, we both know so much more about the craft and tradition of storytelling,” twin sister Linda adds.

Together, the teaching twins issued this statement on their Fund for Teachers experience: “We feel that these travels to Latin America have enriched our lives in many ways, and we expect that they will impact our teaching by helping us make literature accessible to all children through the art of oral narrative. During this summer-long investigation on storytelling, we increased our knowledge, skills, techniques and repertoire of stories while learning more about the Latin American culture and history.”

Elsewhere, Northbrook High science teacher Bhavna Rawal researched the wealth of biodiversity in Costa Rica to help create a unit of study that helps students grasp the concept of sustainability and better understand the impact of human activity on the world environment.

For more information on the Fund for Teachers, please visit:


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