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Pinellas County teachers rewarded for nontraditional methods

East Lake High students Michelle Hawley, 16, Austin Rametta, 18, Brent Rademaker, 17, Kelsey Oonk, 17, Jesse Ackley, 17, Jacob Paikoff, 17, Krystina Caulfield, 16, and Andres Rodriguez, 18, with their aquaponics system that incorporates plant troughs and a 400-gallon fish tank that will eventually be used to grow lettuce and tilapia.


East Lake High students Michelle Hawley, 16, Austin Rametta, 18, Brent Rademaker, 17, Kelsey Oonk, 17, Jesse Ackley, 17, Jacob Paikoff, 17, Krystina Caulfield, 16, and Andres Rodriguez, 18, with their aquaponics system that incorporates plant troughs and a 400-gallon fish tank that will eventually be used to grow lettuce and tilapia.

One teacher is using sports to teach algebra. Another pair of educators are using a fish farm to teach science, math and business theory. Others are using a garden to show second-graders how science relates to their plates.

They were among 70 teachers recently awarded grants by the nonprofit Pinellas Education Foundation. Every year, the group tries to reward teachers' enthusiasm and creativity by putting money into their classrooms. This month, the foundation awarded $69,000. The Teach for Excellence grants range from a few hundred dollars to $5,000.

So how important are these grants?

"There's no way we can do anything like this" without them, said teacher Cathie Foster, who is expanding a garden at Eisenhower Elementary. "Our PTA is not large. We kind of rely on grants for extras likes this."

Here are a few of the winners and their projects:


East Lake High School (Engineering Academy)

Grant: $5,000 from Raytheon

Teachers: J. Paul Wahnish and Kyle Buck

Project: Wahnish and Buck hope 150 students will learn from developing and operating a green business. Students will apply lessons from science and math as they plan, build and care for a tilapia fish farm in their science lab. Nutrients from the tanks will be used to feed hydroponic plants. The grant will be used to buy fish, seeds and equipment. The students will then track the progress using spreadsheets and use money earned from selling the fish and plants to continue the project next year.


Eisenhower Elementary

Grant: $3,000

Teachers: Cathie Foster, Christine York-Amstutz, Anne Harte, Lauren Knieja, David Hamm and Kelly Meyers

Project: Last year, these teachers used grant money to create a garden that also taught second-graders about science, math and communication. This year, the teachers' ambitions are growing: They hope to double the garden's size and move from planting and growing to cooking with the final product.

"We want to enlarge our garden and plant

vegetables that can be used to create familiar dishes, like salsa and pizza," the teachers wrote in their application. A master gardener will consult with the students and the project will culminate with a harvest celebration.


Dixie Hollins High

Grant: $1,000

Teacher: Jennifer D. Sinphay

Project: It is hard for many students to get

excited about algebra, so Sinphay is relating it to the real world. About 100 students in her dropout prevention programs will use algebraic theory to crunch baseball and basketball statistics, draft building plans and study human impact on the environment.

Sinphay is using her grant to buy a video camera, model building supplies and other materials.

"The question I always get is, 'When am I ever going to use this?' They don't see the relevance of it," said Sinphay, a teacher for nine years. "I'm just trying to pique their interest and motivation."


Perkins Elementary School

Grant: $900

Teacher: George Potts

Project: Potts believes that the first- through fifth-graders participating in his project will not just beef up their math, science and critical-thinking skills, they'll one day change the world.

Potts is using the grant to buy science kits and DVDs that will explain alternative energy concepts — wind, solar, hydroelectric, fuel cell and thermal power.

Online, students will apply their understanding to create a computer model of a green city. In the classroom, they'll build a scale model.

"These students will be the force that implements change in the near future as people around the globe solve our dependence on limited resources and improve our economies and lifestyles," Potts said.


Hospital Homebound Program

Grant: $250

Teacher: Maryellen Mariani

The teenagers in Mariani's fine arts class are battling cancer, recovering from brain surgery and car accidents. Many have trouble following a dry art history textbook. So thanks to the grant, Mariani is giving them extra learning tools this year: sketch pads, colored pencils and watercolor paints.

Her students will keep journals during their lessons on art criticism and analysis, using shapes, colors and words to show their understanding. At the end of the semester, the journals will be graded.

Mariani got the idea from observing professional artists who have learning disabilities and from research that shows children better understand information when they process it multiple ways.

"For these struggling kids, I think we have to look beyond saying, 'Here are the questions at the end of the chapter. Answer them,' " said Mariani, a 22-year teacher. "We need to think of a way that is going to ignite their interest and help them start looking at their thinking."

Luis Perez can be reached at or (727) 892-2271.

Pinellas County teachers rewarded for nontraditional methods 11/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 7, 2009 3:30am]
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