This article was first published at Harker News Online on Jan. 7, 2020

Each year, the Raju and Bala Vegesna Foundation’s Teacher Excellence Program at Harker launches a group of teachers on voyages of discovery. The teachers apply for and are awarded grants from the program to further their teaching skills. The program, started in 2015, has sent a score of educators to seminars, study abroad programs and other educational opportunities. Grants are awarded to individuals and to groups, and are used for entry fees and travel expenses.

“We are incredibly grateful to Raju and Bala for their commitment to teaching excellence at The Harker School,” said Kim Lobe, director of advancement. “The generosity of Raju and Bala Vegesna in allowing our teachers to pursue an opportunity they are passionate about and then share it with their students in the classroom creates an opportunity to impact student learning in a transformational way.”

The San Diego Wildlife Experience

Kristen Morgensen, middle school biology teacher, expanded her world with a weeklong visit to wildlife preserves in the San Diego area focused on conservation science and education.

“The first three days were spent at the San Diego Safari Park and the Institute for Conservation Research located within the park,” said Morgensen. “This was a three-day course offered each summer to help teachers incorporate conservation into concepts and topics that are already being taught in the classroom.

“The course was designed with five modules, and we were put through the rigors of being students for the three days. What I did in the workshop was exactly what I am able to now do in class with my students. Three of the five modules are being incorporated into the classroom this year.

“The first focused on biodiversity and specifically living in a biodiversity hotspot. A hotspot is defined as an area with high natural biodiversity and high human impact. This activity relates greatly to the Bay Area and our students, as we are impacted by higher populations and more development. The other two modules I plan to use this year are focused on genetics and the reproductive system.

“During our genetics unit, we will be studying California condor genetics and how the researchers at the institute were able to save and rebuild the California condor population. During our study of the body systems, we will be looking at the elephant populations and how they have been impacted by habitat loss due to palm plantations in Africa. By studying their hormones, researchers have been rebuilding elephant populations as well. We will also discuss the research that is more recent and related to the Northern White Rhino. This species is considered reproductively extinct as there are only two females remaining alive in the world and neither can carry a baby to term. At the workshop, we met one of the leading researchers looking at rhino feed in captivity and how it is impacting their reproductive rates by influencing their hormones as well.

“After doing the biodiversity activity earlier this year, students have told me they are more aware of their water usage and how the drought impacts native ecosystems. As grade 6 class dean, I am working with Pat Burrows, assistant middle school division head, and Janet Rohrer, assistant facilities director, as we try to save/transplant some of the native plants currently on the Union campus. This year’s grade 6 will be the first grade 8 class promoted from the Union MS campus. We will be taking a representative from each advisory over to Union to transfer native plants into pots so they can be replanted after the construction by the same group of students.

“Another tool I learned at the workshop was a method of peer review. As each group of teachers prepped a poster for presentation to the group, we were given two Post-its. We went and looked at the other groups’ posters and wrote three things – one thing we liked, one suggestion we had and one question we had based on what was written. I have used this method in my classroom and the students really appreciated seeing the feedback and being able to revise their submissions.

“The non-classroom based highlights of the trip were a few special treatments for the teachers. We had a few animal encounters with a three-banded armadillo, and a caravan Safari into the African exhibit where we fed a giraffe and a greater one-horned rhino. We also had a tour of the vet hospital located at the Safari Park as well as the Frozen Zoo. This is where they have cell lines from almost 10,000 animals representing 1,120 species for research as well as reproductive tissues from over 400 species cryogenically frozen for research as well as the hope of helping to rebuild genetically diverse populations of various endangered species.

“The final component of my trip was a day spent behind-the-scenes at SeaWorld. It was interesting hearing of the conservation efforts of a for-profit organization compared to the non-profit zoo. I found it fascinating how little they publicize the efforts they have made like working with the governments in South America to preserve the penguin and turtle breeding areas by regulating the collection of guano for fertilizer.

“This truly was an amazing experience that I would not have without the Vegesna grant. I am looking at many things in my life differently after this experience and carrying what I learned professionally into my personal life as well,” Morgensen finished.

Institute for Social Emotional Learning

A group of teachers from the middle school availed themselves of a Vegesna grant to attend the summer 2019 Institute for Social and Emotional Learning (IFSEL) held at Nueva School in San Mateo in early June. Attending the conference were Patricia Burrows, assistant middle school division head; Mark Gelineau, English teacher; Sharmila Misra, computer science teacher; Kathy Pazirandeh, math teacher; Samantha Salfen, physical education teacher (Salfen had and individual journey, as well; see below); and Ramsay Westgate, history teacher. The group attended the intensive conference for four days, taking workshops, discussing ideas, and learning ways to incorporate social-emotional learning into the Harker middle school community. “It was an absolutely incredible experience,” noted Burrows.

“The selection of this activity came about from the evolution of the middle school advisory program and a growing need we are noticing in our students,” she added. “Last year, the grade level advisory deans and I attended a conference by the IFSEL and came back with not only wonderful ideas to implement, but a sense of direction to help steer both our faculty and students.

“Our educational environment here at Harker is rigorously academic, and while that is one of our greatest strengths, when divested from character, empathy, and a general awareness of the complexities of social and emotional interaction, can also be one of our greatest challenges with our students,” said Burrows. “This conference and the knowledge gained from it was a tremendous step towards helping to ensure we are preparing our students in all facets of their growth and education.”

National Association of Independent Schools Diversity Leadership Institute

Bernie Morrissey, middle school librarian, used his grant to attend the National Association of Independent Schools Diversity Leadership Institute at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va. “This intensive, residential experience brings together independent school faculty from across the country to explore topics related to ability, bias, racial equity, gender identity, socio-economic status and more,” said Morrissey. 

Sessions are taught by faculty from schools around the country, including heads of school, directors of diversity and other leaders within the NAIS community. Working from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. most days in both plenary sessions and smaller groups, attendees enhance professional competencies, build credibility, foster innovation, and plan strategically for building and sustaining school communities that maximize the potential of students and adults alike, according to the institute.

“This opportunity can help me make our school a safer, more supportive and inclusive environment for all students, teachers and families,” Morrissey noted. “As a librarian working with teachers in all departments, I have the unique ability to impact a large number of classes and students, and I hope to use the learning from this conference to benefit all of these constituencies in the Harker community.

“One of the first steps, which Pat Burrows and I have already discussed, is expanding the windows and mirrors reading program beyond just grade 6, maybe to summer reading, Drop Everything and Read (DEAR) days or other occasions. This experience may also enhance my collection development practices and information literacy integrations.”

The Paideia Institute for Humanistic Study

Scott Paterson, Latin teacher, participated in Caesar in Gaula two-week program last summer for AP Latin teachers organized and run by The Paideia Institute for Humanistic Study. 

“This program combines in-class seminars with visits to various important ancient Roman sites in modern France,” said Paterson. “Classes were taught by Dr. Luca Grillo, assistant professor of classics at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and Dr. Christopher Krebs, associate professor of classics at Stanford University.” As co-editors, they recently released “The Cambridge Companion to The Writings of Julius Caesar,” said Paterson.

Classes focused on Caesar as a man of letters, rather than as military man or politician, and included examinations of Caesar’s literary style, his contribution to the standardization of Latin grammar, the genre and themes of his ‘Commentarii de Bello Gallico,’ and possible approaches to the analysis of his literary works,” said Paterson. 

“Site visits were led by Paideia staff and generally included some Latin readings that were relevant to the place. Places we visited included Bibracte, the Pont du Gard, and Alesia, the location of the final showdown between Caesar and Vercingetorix, the leader of the unified Gallic resistance to Roman occupation,” he noted. 

“Participating in this program was a truly wonderful experience for me,” said Paterson. “Because the study of Caesar had to a large degree fallen out of fashion by the 20th century, I had never formally studied Caesar – indeed, had scarcely even read any Caesar before the College Board changed the AP Latin syllabus to include one semester of Caesar beginning in the 2012-13 academic year. 

“The College Board’s decision resulted in much surprise and not a little consternation throughout the Latin teaching community,” Paterson said. “Publishers rushed to provide new texts and commentaries, and Caesar scholarship in universities flourished. My experience with Caesar in Gaul was a terrific chance to engage with the latest Caesarian scholarship and to develop a better appreciation for and understanding of Caesar’s literary achievements, and I have returned to the classroom with renewed enthusiasm.”

Asia Pacific Physical Education Conference

P.E. teacher Samantha Salfen and lower school P.E. teacher Walid Fahmay attended the Asia Pacific Physical Education Conference in November in Hong Kong to enhance their gym and field expertise. The trip gave them the opportunity to learn from the leading global innovators in the physical education field, noted Salfen. “I had the opportunity to learn new practices in physical education while creating friendships to broaden the Harker physical education network,” she added.

“I expanded my knowledge in gymnastics, while also learning the best teaching practices of health education, integrating movement in the classroom and how a healthy physical education program can combat the challenges facing young people in our countries,” she said. “The most interesting thing I received from the conference was from the keynote speaker who opened the conference by speaking on what the end (the purpose/outcome) of physical education should be: to improve its longevity and purpose. He went on to talk about the research of what physical education should look like and how we as physical educators can embody these practices in the ever-changing environments today.

“That speech inspired me to look deeper at my own practices, and to look for different ways I can implement these practices not only in my class but also schoolwide,” said Salfen. “My goal is to create an environment where ‘soft skills’ of physical education are transferable to other subject matters and real-life applications. These ‘soft skills’ include teamwork, communication, problem solving, intrapersonal skills, conflict resolution and leadership.

“Starting in the month of December, I will be kicking off by implementing the activities learned in the pre-conference gymnastics session into my own grade 8 girls class of tumbling. I would also like to start working closely with a classroom teacher in trying to implement the sports education model in the classroom, which involves the ‘soft skills,’ allowing students to see and apply these applications in physical education, the classroom and in the outside world,” Salfen noted.

Fahmy noted the pair attended various workshops on P.E. and health. “Each workshop was geared towards improving the P.E./health teacher and their skills in that specific area (i.e. health, invasion games, nutrition, etc.),” he said. “I was also networking with other educators from all around the globe, bouncing ideas off each other. We learned about the different cultures and health needs for each. It truly was an amazing time learning and networking.”

Fahmy added that one of the highlights was just going overseas. “The more adventurous the destination, the more learning and often times the more enjoyment.” He and Salfen attended and networked during all of the sessions, and “it was well worth it,” he noted.

Fahmy brought home the useful values of tolerance, adaptation and preparation. “The idea of mindfulness and using meditation during our health class was great,” he said. “This will bring tolerance into the classroom. Adaption is strictly for me, we need to understand we are not raising robots, but each of us is an individual and therefore we must adapt accordingly in our teaching methods. Preparation – if we are prepared for the day, then nothing can stop our success and progression.” 

During the conference, Fahmy said he was reminded about the importance of “being the sunshine” in the room. “Students feed off of our energy. Whether they admit it or not, students look up to their teachers and hold them in high regard. That really reminded me to continue to be a positive role model. I want to always demonstrate confidence and leadership, let the students see that in me and watch it catch on with them.

“I am going to double down on being a good role model!” said Fahmy. “This is someone who is always positive, calm and confident in themselves. You don’t want someone who is down or tries to bring you down. Everyone likes a person who is happy with their achievements, but continues to strive for bigger and better objectives! I really felt passionate about wanting to make things better, for both myself and my students!” 

Alan Alda Center for Science Communication

Andrew Irvine, upper school chemistry teacher, attended a workshop in New York City in June to learn about science communication through the Alan Alda Center for Science Communication, affiliated with Stony Brook University. Better known as an actor, Alan Alda has devoted himself to helping scientists and doctors learn and improve their communication skills about technical ideas to the general public using acting and improv games. “I spent two days with Ph.D. scientists from a wide variety of specialties,” said Irvine, “working with communication specialists and acting coaches to learn how to erode barriers and build connections with an audience so that our messages were clear and easy to digest. 

“On day one, our focus was building a message to be delivered in 60 seconds or less without using technical jargon. On day two, we focused on how to craft our story about science to better connect and engage with our audience. I’m excited to share some of these activities with my colleagues to help improve their message, delivery and connection with their audience during my workshop at the 2020 faculty retreat. The conference has helped me not just in the classroom, but in my engagement with my friends and family in personal life. I look forward to sharing my experience with the community,” he finished.


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