Teachers Get Financial Help For Innovative Classroom Projects

Times Staff Writer

Like most teachers who take on pet projects in their classrooms, France Wong has frequently dipped into her wallet to support her private venture of teaching her second-graders how to cook.

Wong, who teaches at Glenfeliz Elementary School in the Atwater district of Los Angeles, figures she has spent hundreds of dollars over the years on the pots, pans and food that are devoted exclusively to her class.

But this year she and many other Los Angeles teachers have found a sympathetic financial supporter.

Wong is one of about two dozen Northeast Los Angeles teachers who are benefiting from a new privately funded program that finances innovative classroom projects, such as her cooking class.

More than 250 teachers throughout the district have begun receiving checks of up to $400 from the Los Angeles Education Partnership, which during the past several months has been soliciting money from the business community to promote creative teaching techniques and to build teacher morale. More than 600 teachers applied for the grants.

$100,000 in Donations

In all, nearly $100,000 was donated to the Small Grants to Teachers program, which was modeled after similar successful projects in San Francisco, New York and Pittsburgh, said Marsha Charney, program assistant for the nonprofit Los Angeles Education Partnership.

"We feel this is one of the best ways to improve schools," Charney said. "When you give money directly to teachers, you're telling them that you have confidence in them, that they are in control and that they are professionals. That feeling will put a lot of zest and excitement back into the classrooms."

Major funding for the project came from First Interstate Bank of California, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the California Community Foundation and the Public Education Fund.

The grants come with only one string attached--that the money must be used for instructional purposes other than salaries. Teachers must keep itemized receipts, and an official with the partnership will make periodic visits to the schools to make sure the programs have been implemented.

Some teachers have spent all of their grant money and have their projects well under way.

For example, a $400 grant to Elizabeth Myers, a sixth-grade teacher at Glenfeliz Elementary, will allow her students to continue studying aerospace engineering and its history. Myers said she is buying eight Alpha-3 rockets that she will soon launch from the school's playing field to illustrate to her students the mechanics of rocketry. The rest of the money will be used for field trips to museums and airports.

At Elysian Heights Elementary School near Elysian Park, fourth-grade teacher Cecile Preble has bought $400 worth of Byzantine tile for a project that she hopes will demonstrate to her students the relationship between mathematics and art.

"Within art itself there is math," Preble said. "I think my students are beginning to learn that things like balance and shading all require some knowledge of geometry--and that's math."

Using the tiny pieces of tile, students are designing large pictures of a sunflower, a spider web and a leaf, Preble said. The children paint each piece separately and then inlay them according to the geometric patterns found in the subjects.

"It's just going to be beautiful when it's finished," Elysian Heights Principal Evelyn Florio said. "It's a very worthwhile project, and I'm very happy Cecile got the grant. Things like this don't happen very often.

Robert Martin, a history teacher at Marshall High School in Silver Lake, said he was "pleasantly surprised" when he received his grant to edit parts of documentary films onto videocassettes.

"I've been a teacher for more than 30 years, and like any teacher, I've often paid my own way for classroom projects," he said.

Martin's project consists of taking small portions of long documentaries, putting them on videocassettes and then coordinating the topics with textbooks.

"Let's say I've got a long documentary on the Depression, but all we want to know is what President Hoover had to say about it because that's what two pages in a book are about," Martin said. "If we've got the small portion, we don't have to sit through hours of needless film. It's really a back-to-basics thing, kind of a way to trick kids into reading because, once they have a visual image, they will be a lot more interested in it."

Meanwhile, English teacher Mary Sortino, one of Martin's colleagues at Marshall High, is using her $400 grant to teach a literature class to remedial students.

Because the reading skills of some of her students are not high, Sortino's class will focus on only one piece of classic literature. But the students will analyze the work in a manner that Sortino hopes will hold the students' interest. Instead of just reading a book, her students will examine, for example, the political and social climate at the time it was written and will go on field trips to museums that may have objects on display that relate to the reading.

"I haven't decided what book I'll assign, but let's say we read 'The Great Gatsby,' " Sortino said. "We would obviously study the Jazz Age and the 1920s in general, even down to what people were wearing."

Sortino said her $400 grant will be used to finance the field trips and to buy material for several other projects she has planned for the class.

'A Shot in the Arm'

"I think it's great that education is finally getting some attention like this," Sortino said. "The goal is to give both teachers and students a shot in the arm. And, when I see business getting involved, it's just tremendous."

Lois Slavkin, program director of the Educational Partnership, said the high number of teachers who applied for the grants indicates that many teachers have creative ideas for classroom projects that often go unfulfilled.

The grants were awarded primarily to teachers whose ideas could be easily adapted by fellow instructors at other schools, Slavkin said, such as the cooking project being developed by Wong.

Like many Los Angeles schools, Glenfeliz Elementary has a highly diverse enrollment that includes students of Asian, Latin, Armenian and Slavic ancestry, and Wong needed additional kitchen equipment to acquaint her students with a variety of foods.

"I've found that eating is universal, and most of the hustle and bustle in a home takes place in the kitchen," Wong said. "But a lot of my students have never heard of baklava or have never tasted a persimmon. Cooking also is a wonderful way of teaching vocabulary, and there's nothing better than a recipe for learning how to follow directions.

"I've spent a lot of money, and I've had to lug pots and pans from school to my home for a long time. It's good to see that people are not just talking about the rigors of teaching but are actually using their pocketbooks because we need all the help we can get."

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