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Project Peru 2009

After returning from a humanitarian trip to Peru in 2004, teachers John Hiers and Keri Bristow bumped into teaching assistant Laurel Tobiason in the halls at Woodstock Union High School and Middle School in Vermont. On the spot, they invited Tobiason to join them on their next trip, in which they planned to build a school in a village near the Amazon River.

“I didn’t take more than a second to answer,” says Tobiason, 56, who admits she didn’t know what she had volunteered for.

But after trips to Cabo Pantoja in 2005 and San Juan de Huashalado in 2007, she and her husband, Eric, have participated in the construction of two flood-safe schools and three wells that have helped hundreds of children. Last year, the Tobiasons also became godparents to a two-year-old Peruvian girl.

“Her father was one of our guides,” explains Tobiason.

This year, Bristow, Hiers, the Tobiasons, and a group of 26 high school students and six other chaperones spent two weeks in March in Peru renovating a medical clinic in San Juan, building bookcases in Cabo, and digging another well. Through yard sales, car washes, donations, and grants, the group raised more than $26,000 to fund the trip.

“This project gives me a sense of the global community,” says Tobiason.

Check out a slideshow from Project Peru.

2009 Prom Theme: The Times They are a-Changin’

Big-money proms may be going the way of big-hair bands—at least during this recession-hit spring. While the average cost of prom has risen above $1,000 per couple, according to Your Prom magazine, expect to see those Fifth Avenue prices coming back down to Main Street levels. More hand-me-down dresses, fewer stretch limos, not so much bling.

“There’s the limo, the shoes, the dress. I can see things being much lower-key this year,” a California teen told USA Today.

Meanwhile, the tradition-laden event also has been evolving in other ways. Last year, one small Mississippi Delta town threw its first integrated prom ever—paid for by native son Morgan Freeman and documented in a recently released film called Prom Night in Mississippi.

Same-sex dates also are becoming more common—although still unwelcome in some communities. One Wisconsin town made news last year when school officials forbade a gay male from running for prom queen. The American Civil Liberties Union concluded they had broken state and federal law, and refused an opportunity to “communicate a message of tolerance.”

Still, one thing never changes: The music just keeps getting worse and worse….

Taking the Hard Road

Conventional wisdom says it makes sense, when learning or teaching new skills, to start off easy. (You don’t just hop on the black-diamond ski run, right?) But recent research from the University of California Santa Barbara, published in the journal Psychological Science, shows it’s often more effective to present harder problems first. When learners begin with easier stuff, they often develop too-simple strategies. Faced with more complicated tasks, learners think about the problem in a more abstract way and develop greater understanding.

Sex + cell phones = Sexting??

A growing number of kids are using cell phones to snap and send risqué pictures—a phenomenon called “sexting,” that may get them in a heap of trouble. In Billerica, Massachusetts, police were recently investigating after a middle-school teacher caught a student forwarding a nude photo to a friend. It’s possible that students, in these kinds of cases, could be charged with possession and distribution of child pornography, authorities say.

A Head Start on the Minority Teaching Gap

If you’re looking for racial diversity in public schools, you’re better off focusing on the play-ground, not the staff lounge. While 42 percent of students are minorities, only 7 percent of teachers are. (Black males comprise only 2 percent of the teaching force!) But waiting until kids get to college to recruit them as prospective minority teachers may mean waiting too long.

That’s why NEA is exploring programs that identify future teachers as early as high school, offering financial aid and mentoring to ease the path into the profession. The Association has compiled a list of programs that do just that, through high school teacher cadet courses, career academies, and scholarships. You can also help boost minority teacher recruitment by advocating for increased funding of such programs with legislators. All that requires is a quick trip to our Legislative Action Center.


Retirement Relief?

Two little-known amendments to the Social Security Act, the Government Pension Offset (GPO) and Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP), have stripped public employees of their rightfully earned retirement benefits—to the tune of $3,600 a year for 360,000 retired teachers, police officers, and firefighters. (And, especially in today’s economy, it can mean the difference between a comfortable retirement and one spent struggling with poverty.)

But, good news! This spring, the Senate introduced legislation to repeal GPO/WEP, which matches a similar bill in the House. Now it’s time for you to sign on, too, and urge your member of Congress to support fair retirement benefits. Contact your representative.

Keep in mind your colleague Peg Cagle, who left a private-sector career in 1993 in architecture to become a teacher. “Most of my retirement contributions to Social Security from my first career,” explains Cagle, “will simply disappear.”

Meet Abraham Lincoln. You know him…right?

A recent civics survey of regular Americans (that is, not the nation’s elite history teachers!) turned up some dispiriting results. Paula Abdul? Oh yeah, we know her. The Puritans? Eh…not so much. According to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 71 percent of the 2,508 Americans who took the National Civics Literacy test failed. The average score was 44 percent.

Try your hand at some of their questions and also our own photo line-up. Answers on NEA Today contents page (right side under the cover image).

  1. What was the source of the following phrase: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”?
    1. The speech “I Have a Dream”
    2. Declaration of Independence
    3. U.S. Constitution
    4. Gettysburg Address
  2. Name one right or freedom guaranteed by the first amendment.
    1. Right to bear arms
    2. Due process
    3. Religion
    4. Right to counsel
  3. What part of the government has the power to declare war?
    1. Congress
    2. The President
    3. The Supreme Court
    4. The Joint Chiefs of Staff
  4. Can you identify these people?
A.  B.  C.  D.  


The Obama Effect

There’s no doubt the new President could help close the achievement gaps in this country through the pursuit of sensible federal policies to support students and teachers. But a recent study, not yet published, suggests that his election alone—notwithstanding anything he might actually do as President—already has helped.

During the study, researchers gave a 20-question test to 472 Black and White test-takers. Before the election, there was a significant gap in scores. Immediately after, it was “statistically nonsignificant.” “Obama is obviously inspirational,” one of the researchers told The New York Times, and yet even they were surprised.

Similar kinds of studies have considered the expectations that students may have for themselves, because of race, and how those expectations govern results. For example, when students with identical SAT scores are asked to first identify themselves by race, and then take a test, Black students do significantly worse. Researchers believe they may suffer anxiety related to racial stereotyping.

Book Focus

Oh, What a Night!

‘Tis the season for chaperones and limousines, taffeta and tuxedos— but a new young adult book by NEA member Laura Preble, a California high school teacher, stirs some fresh air into the traditional genre. Preble, who introduced us to her cast of smart girls with tattoos, robots, and cute boyfriends in The Queen Geek Social Club, returns this time with Prom Queen Geeks (Penguin Group). This time, in their quest for total world domination (or at least over the cafeteria), the queen geeks have decided to throw an alternative prom — one where Converse, not Choo, will be the footwear of choice. “‘The popular kids do their whole prom thing. They advertise some trite theme, sell their stupid bids, buy their overpriced poofy dresses, hire a crappy DJ, and rent their useless limos. Why do people go to this obviously substandard event?’ she screeches. ‘Because they have no other options!’”


Jared Fogle, Subway Restaurant Spokesman

After losing 245 pounds and transforming his own life, Jared Fogle has a new mission: eliminating childhood obesity. This past year, he has toured coast to coast, talking directly to kids about moderation and healthy choices.

What kinds of things can teachers and schools do to help?

When you’ve got kids for seven or eight hours a day, you have the opportunity to be a huge influence. Make sure kids have the health education that they need to make good choices, to know what’s healthy for them and what’s not. Exercise is also important, obviously. A lot of adults feel like, “Aw, I gotta work out...,” but it’s not that way for kids. It’s fun.

What are some of the “at-risk” behaviors that we should know about?

For me, my weight problems started in third grade. I grew up playing all sorts of sports in Indianapolis, but I know what it’s like to get my own video game system and want to focus all my time on that. It started with one hour a day, then two hours, then five hours a day. We’re not going to get rid of video games, but kids need to learn how to better manage their time.

What was it like, being a heavy kid?

Unfortunately, I went from a little bit of a heavier kid, to a chunkier kid, to an obese kid, to an obese teenager. My self-esteem fell. My grades slipped. I just didn’t care as much anymore. When I look back, I missed out on so much of my childhood. I wish somebody like me had said, “This is what’s going to happen to you. This is how your life is going to crumble. These are the pants you’re going to wear.”

When you speak to kids, what do you say?

I’m not a teacher, a doctor, or a parent. I’m Jared from the Subway commercials, and—pardon the pun—I think that carries more weight for them. My chief message is sharing my story and really getting them to see the importance of healthy habits from an early age. I don’t expect you to give up your video games. I don’t expect you to give up your junk food. But I do expect you to do less of it. You need to start making some of your own decisions and realize you want to look good and feel healthy.

This issue also is an important one for NEA. For more information about our work, go to NEA's Health Information Network's website—or check out our partners at Action for Health Kids. Also, pick up a free wellness activation kit, a project co-sponsored by NEA, the National Football League, and the National Dairy Council.

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