KC area teachers will travel the world in pursuit of life-changing lessons

Princeston Grayson, a sixth-grade teacher at African-Centered Prep Elementary School, received news Thursday that he will be able to travel to South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique through the Fund For Teachers thanks to money from the Kauffman Foundation.
Princeston Grayson, a sixth-grade teacher at African-Centered Prep Elementary School, received news Thursday that he will be able to travel to South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique through the Fund For Teachers thanks to money from the Kauffman Foundation. The Kansas City Star

Swaziland … Nicaragua … Harlem…

The Kansas City area teachers who won grants to pursue exotic educational odysseys got their students’ and colleagues’ rapt attention merely by naming the destinations awaiting them.

Just wait and see what happens when they return.

Thirteen teachers in all, from 10 schools in Missouri and Kansas, earned Fund for Teachers scholarships for their rich dreams of inspiring their classrooms.

Imagine, said Princeston Grayson, what courage he might stir in his children when he returns from his summer journey to South Africa with personal tales remembering the uprising of justice-minded youth in Soweto under apartheid.

“They will see how they can be empowered,” he said.

When Michael Jonagan sets students to work on gathering and writing the oral histories of their families and communities, they will study, critique and be inspired by his writing from Nicaragua.

“They will feel more of their own sense of place,” Jonagan said.

The Kauffman Foundation, the local funder of the national Fund for Teachers program, announced the winners Thursday. They were chosen out of more than 50 applicants.

Awards went to teachers in public schools — districts and charters — and private schools. Individuals could get up to $5,000 and teams up to $10,000.

Bound for Singapore … the Western United States … Cambodia …

Grayson, a sixth-grade teacher at the Kansas City Public Schools’ African-Centered Prep Elementary School, teamed with Karis Parker of Raytown’s Spring Valley Elementary School in proposing a trip to Africa.

They will explore the ecosystems and educational practices of South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique to fuel lessons in science and social studies that connect with their students’ lives.

Jonagan, who teaches fifth grade at the charter Kauffman School, wants to stir empathy by sharing his understanding of the struggles in Nicaragua.

Chances are the teachers are chasing after deeper experiences where their lives already have been transformed.

Randi McCreary, a middle school English language arts teacher at the charter Academie Lafayette, is heading to Harlem in New York City to rediscover the world of Langston Hughes that stoked her own writing and poetry.

She plans to create an online WebQuest learning tool, retracing the Harlem Renaissance through the streets, the museums, the music halls, the artwork and the people she re-encounters.

“This will make real-world connections to the content” of her lessons and the students’ own exploration, McCreary said.

Jonagan changed course in college toward becoming a teacher after Xavier University in Cincinnati gave him the chance to live several months in Nicaragua.

An “unmoored, drifting college kid” returned home “inspired to fight for social justice,” he said.

Grayson, a graduate of Langston University in Oklahoma, also had a college learning experience abroad — which took him to Gambia.

He saw so many of his false impressions fall, and “it lit my passion,” he said. When he saw the opportunity to go back as a teacher, he knew he had to pursue it.

Children celebrated with the teachers Thursday when principals surprised them with the news their teachers had won.

They oohed and ahed at the sound of the distant journeys.

Schools today want to create “global citizens, empathizing with other cultures,” said Hannah Lofthus, CEO of the Kauffman School.

When Jonagan, like the other teachers who earned grants, embeds himself in such a learning experience, “he becomes an expert with content that is personal,” Lofthus said.

“It’s something he’s passionate about,” she said, “and it inspires kids to say, ‘I want to do that.’”

The Fund for Teachers, based in Houston, has relied on regional funders to help spread its reach since 2001. The Kauffman Foundation joined in its support a year ago to bring it to Kansas City.

Other teachers winning grants:

Isao Osuga Chapa and Samuel Yi of Alta Vista Charter School; Takiyah Olatunbosun and Mary Powers of Crossroads Academy charter school; Kathleen Cerve of Pathway Academy charter school; Robin Talley of Academie Lafayette charter school; Alaina Mayfield of Hogan Preparatory Academy charter school; Christine Everhart of Nativity of Mary in Independence in the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph; and Kristen Holmes of Westridge Middle School in the Shawnee Mission School District.

When teachers get these kinds of opportunities, it does more than help the teacher and one class of students, said Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Steve Green.

Grayson’s experience in Africa will inspire more teachers, he said. It will contribute to everyone’s work toward “global literacy and global learning.”

“He will be our ambassador.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.