Nurturing Philly Teachers

May 19, 2014

I didn’t know it, but each Spring Penn offers four full-fledged courses to Philadelphia schoolteachers. K-12 educators vie for a seat in late afternoon courses designed to nurture, inspire, and energize their classroom teaching. Spring 2014 offered Robotics, the Biology of Food, and Teaching the Holocaust… and now Dr. Alan Lee (who heads up the Teacher Institute of Philadelphia Program, aka TIP) wanted one more – a new class on Penn Museum’s upcoming exhibition, Native American Voices: The People – Here and Now.

I have little experience creating school curricula for kids, and as a full time Curator and Keeper, I am not a Penn professor… so my first inclination was ”

“Sorry, I don’t think that’s for me.” “But, wait!” said Alan, “the teachers will create their own curriculum units – that’s not your job. Your job is to get the teachers informed and excited about your topic, which is entirely relevant in our Philadelphia schools… Philly teachers need to hear your message and to learn about Native Americans today.”

Well ok, that was the only arm twisting I needed. Helping educators teach about Native America today! Amazing! What an incredible opportunity to break stereotypes and to begin to shape the next generations’ attitudes about American Indians. There are so many living Native leaders, communities, and important issues to introduce, and so much that Philadelphia school kids need to know!! I was hooked, and now, eight months later as the teachers are finishing up their projects, I can’t say enough about the TIP program.

TIP offers teachers the opportunity to  expand their knowledge and develop a new curriculum unit for their school.
TIP offers teachers the opportunity to expand their knowledge and develop a new curriculum unit for their school.

We met in January, after the teachers had applied and were accepted into the program, and two months before the exhibition opened.Twelve pair of eyes stared at me across the table, and honestly, I was completely terrified.But with a little help from my TIP teacher adviser, Terry Anne Wildman, an experienced and award winning instructor from Overbrook Elementary, things quickly got rolling. And now, thirteen weeks later, the program has surpassed my expectations and has been incredibly rewarding. You might hear that the Philadelphia school system is broken, but let me tell you, the dedication, talent, and creativity of the teachers is truly inspiring.

From January to May we met on Tuesday evenings from 4:30-6:30pm. Twelve dedicated educators made their way to the Museum after an already long day in their elementary, middle, and high schools around the city. After getting settled and a quick snack of chocolate and clementines, we discussed what was going on in the city schools and questions inspired by the week’s assigned readings. Then the group came behind the scenes into Penn Museum’s Collections Study Room to look closely at Native American objects.With paper and pencil, they were asked to draw what was before them as we discussed what we were seeing…Oneida birchbark decorated with porcupine quills, Hopi katsinas carved of cottonwood root, purple and white wampum beads made of quahog shell, and ceramic water jars from San Ildefonso Pueblo. Drawing requires quiet and careful observation, contemplation, and reflection, and this simple exercise keyed them into the materials objects are made of, construction techniques, and elements of design – all entryways into the many stories and meanings material objects hold.

We looked closely at Hopi katsina carvings with our Hopi guest, journalist Patty Talahongva.
We looked closely at Hopi katsina carvings with our Hopi guest, journalist Patty Talahongva.

Most evenings we had a Native American speaker who brought a living, dynamic perspective to the rich and diverse topic of Native America today. Guests included Tina Pierce Fragoso, Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape from nearby Bridgton, New Jersey; Penn History Fellow Dr. Douglas Kiel, Oneida of Wisconsin; Dr. Margaret Bruchac of Penn’s Department of Anthropology, an Abenaki ethno-historian with an interest in Northeastern wampum; Patty Talahongva, a Hopi journalist who spoke about the importance of language and offered a close read of contemporary Hopi Katsina spirit carvings; Pueblo archaeologist and Penn graduate student, Joseph (Woody) Aguilar shared his insights on ceramics from his home community of San Ildefonso, New Mexico; and the world renowned Haida artist and wood carver from British Columbia, Robert Davidson. Other speakers included Penn Museum’s Director Dr. Julian Siggers, a specialist on ancient lithic technologies, who showed us how to make stone tools with a flint knapping demonstration; and my own presentation about NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, which is important to all tribes across the country. Each conversation offered Native perspectives and new understandings about objects in Penn Museum’s collection.

While the exhibition’s major themes of Local Nations, Sacred Places, Celebrations, and New Initiatives shaped the teachings of the course, TIP requires that each student research and develop a unique and substantive curriculum unit for their school. Many of the teachers have incorporated object learning into their new lesson plans, and all are presenting new information about today’s Native peoples and topics of concern in Native communities today. Here is a list of what they are working on:

  • Erin Bloom for Wagner Middle School: Children of the Earth: Native American Identity, Sacred Places, and Ties to the Landscape.
  • Matthew Bryne for High School of the Future: Pueblo History and Art for the Spanish Classroom
  • Rich Holms for the Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Service Center: Code Talkers and WW II
  • Sydney Coffin for Edison High School: The Spirits Still Among Us: Native American Poets and the Voices of History in the Present Tense.
  • Cynthia Lee for Middle Years Alternative: Native American Music and Living Legends
  • Keysiah Middleton for Longstreth Elementary School: Stories of Black Seminoles
  • Pat Mitchell-Keita-Doe for Tilden Middle School: Whispering Rivers: Whatever Happened to the Lenape of Pennsylvania?
  • Peter Morse for Overbrook High School: The Lenape Diaspora
  • Tiffany Moyer for Overbrook Elementary School: The Cherokee and the Trail of Tears
  • Kathlene Radebaugh for Lea Elementary: Fact Versus Fiction: Comparing Primary and Secondary Sources on Christopher Columbus and the Colonization of the New World.
  • Cara Wallin for Shawmont Elementary School: Math Inspired by Ancestral and Contemporary Pueblo Culture.
  • Terry Anne Wildman for Overbrook Elementary School: The Lenni-Lenape People, Yesterday and Today.

The TIP Program is a unique academic professional development partnership between the University of Pennsylvania and the School District of Philadelphia. Built upon a successful model of partnership practiced by Yale University and the New Haven (CT) School District, Dr. Alan Lee heads up Penn’s Teacher Institute of Philadelphia. The goal of the Teachers Institute is to improve the quality of classroom teaching in public schools in West and Southwest Philadelphia, through a sustained academic professional development effort. Read more about the program here: http://tip.drupalgardens.com/