During her 26 years as a math teacher at McNair High School, Maronda Hastie has noticed a disturbing trend among her students.
“I’m around kids who have no ambition,” she said. “They think math is so lame.”
It’s easy to see why. McNair is a Title 1 school in Atlanta. According to Hastie, many of her students come to the classroom lacking an understanding of the inextricable link between math and exciting professions like marine biology. Often they are not provided the opportunity to see people who look like them pursuing those jobs. As an educator who teaches a majority Black population, Hastie, Dekalb County’s Teacher of the Year in 2018-19, wasn’t willing to simply accept that reality.
“I said to myself: ‘Let me update my exposure, and I can, in turn, update theirs,’” she said.
That’s how Hastie last August found herself aboard The Oregon II, an ocean research vessel, as a crew member for nearly three weeks, as part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Teacher at Sea Program. While at sea, Hastie participated in research on sharks, red snapper, and grouper off the coast of Florida, sharing live updates with her students via FaceTime, blog posts, and photo uploads. The experience opened Hastie’s eyes, and those of her students, to a whole new world.
The experience was far different from the traditional professional development that often takes place in the summer, which some teachers say isn’t always valuable. Too often, teachers say, mandatory PD coursework contains subject matter that isn’t relevant to their subject area, serves as a review of skills they’ve already mastered, or simply is not interesting.
In contrast, experiential summer learning opportunities can take teachers far away from classrooms or Zoom sessions. Many enhance educators’ subject-related passions. All seek to offer teachers new and engaging ways to share knowledge with their students.
Seeking opportunities to open students’ horizons
Hastie didn’t start her journey toward expanding her students’ horizons by boarding a research vessel for a 13-day scientific voyage. She began years earlier and closer to home, taking students on field trips to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. On one such trip, she saw a sign posted about the NOAA’s Teacher at Sea Program, through which selected educators spend up to a month at sea on ocean research vessels as a member of the agency’s science team. She was intrigued, but had reservations.
“I was pretty anxious,” said Hastie. “I wondered, ‘Is there going to be a storm? Am I going to fall off the boat?’”
Accepted to the program, Hastie set aside her reservations, trusted the process, and soon found herself immersed in 12-hour crew shifts tagging and recording data on fish and sharks. Logging onto FaceTime from the ship during her students’ class time for part of the journey (most of NOAA’s Teacher at Sea excursions run during the summer or overlap with spring or fall school semesters), she was able to share some key moments, like when a pod of dolphins swam by the boat. Regular postings of blog entries and photos also allowed her students to follow her journey. Hastie even found time while aboard the research vessel to facilitate virtual interviews between her students and crew members—including a biologist, a fisherman, a researcher, and a mechanic.
“You just don’t know which child it’s going to touch,” Hastie said.
Digging deeper than what textbooks offer
Longtime high school history teacher and coach Chet Braudrick wanted to be better prepared to engage in classroom discussions with students in his U.S. history and government classes.
“About half [of my students] are engaged. Usually the ones who are, are digging for something deeper. I feel like it’s my duty to get them there, without giving them my opinion,” said Braudrick, who teaches at Atoka High School in Oklahoma. “Where I live, it’s a small, rural Oklahoma school, and it’s just as red as can be. I try to give both sides.”
Braudrick, however, didn’t always find that the history books available to him provided all the answers.
“As an educator I feel it is my job to be thorough enough to let the students know the whole story, not just the snippets that the text gives us,” Braudrick said. “A lot of history is not in the textbooks. That’s the fun stuff, you can get a deeper knowledge.”
Braudrick has found that deeper knowledge as a participant in several summer professional development opportunities for teachers administered by the National Endowment for the Humanities’ division of education programs, most recently a program on the First Amendment in 21st Century America.
Braudrick said the program allowed him and other participants to dig into landmark decisions made by the country’s early leaders and how they apply today, like the U.S. Constitution’s 10th Amendment on federal powers, Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation”, and the Establishment Clause. It helped to have expert input from guest speakers such as Michael J. Gerhardt, the Samuel Ashe distinguished professor of constitutional law at the University of North Carolina School of Law.
“The program helped me and others wade through the weeds to a better understanding of these concepts,” said Braudrick.
NEH administers the programs tuition-free to K-12 educators. They allow for deep dives on a range of humanities topics—the Gilded Era Progressive movement, Asian and Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian histories in the Pacific Northwest, and many more. Stipends of up to $3,450 cover most expenses associated with the programs, which last from one to four weeks.
Benefits beyond the expected
Whereas teachers spend most of their time during the school year in relative isolation in their classrooms, NEH summer programs bring together educators from all backgrounds and experience levels to discuss the concepts they teach.
“It’s important that teachers meet colleagues from everywhere—new teachers, more advanced, rural, urban,” said Carol Peters, director of NEH’s division of education programs. “Communities form there. Relationships can go on for years.”
Bringing together teachers whose perspectives differ becomes part of the educational process, as Braudrick has learned. “I did not always like where they [the conversations about historical concepts and decisions] ended up, but I can see how they can be looked at through a different lens,” he said.
As these communities of teachers learn more about a given subject, they become natural ambassadors for the sponsoring organizations. NOAA’s Teacher at Sea program, for instance, has now hosted more than 850 teachers on its research vessels, who have collectively logged more than 118,000 hours of research alongside their NOAA crewmates.
“Having them be able to experience first-hand a research expedition provides awesome personal and professional experiences for the teachers,” said Emily Susko, a program support specialist for NOAA’s Teacher At Sea Program. “But a secondary benefit to our agency is that the teachers can go back to their schools and communicate what the federal government is doing with our tax dollars to address these really important issues, like stewardship of our natural resources.”
Participating teachers like Hastie hope that her current students may choose to take up that stewardship in the future.
“To hear one of my students say, ‘I wouldn’t mind being a marine biologist,’ makes it worthwhile,” Hastie said. “They need to see that they can do these occupations.”