Cash-strapped teachers turn to Facebook, online sites to equip their classrooms

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Shemena Shivers, a ninth grade science teacher at Melrose High School, smiles as she opens a package from a friend in Arizona. Through social media, Shivers has raised $1600 for her classroom.

When teacher Shemena Shivers walked into her Melrose High School science lab for the first time, she couldn’t contain her excitement at the closet full of equipment and supplies. But after a closer look revealed long-expired solutions and outdated texts, she realized that she would need to spend hundreds of dollars out of pocket just to provide her students a basic science education.

So, she did what many of her fellow teachers have done: She turned to Facebook for help. She created a video of her classroom, issued a heartfelt online plea and posted a link to her supplies campaign on MTR Give, a fundraising site run by the teacher-training program she had attended.

Across the country, most teachers don’t get anywhere near enough to equip their classrooms and keep them running. So they spend their own money, they clip coupons and check out bargain aisles and, increasingly, take their requests online. With school set to open Monday, Memphis teachers are scrambling to stay within budget.

Shivers was lucky, because her teaching training program already had a fundraising site set up. In June, she set a $1,600 goal, which she reached in a month. She can now cover basic classroom supplies, like composition notebooks, index cards, and markers and crayons for her 160 students, many of whom can’t afford their own. It won’t pay for science supplies or experiments, but she’s got much more than what the $200 district supply stipend would cover.

I want to have posters. I want to have, you know, encouraging sayings, mantras to live by, hung up in my class for my kids to see,” she said. “But I can’t give them homework if I don’t have paper.”

According to a U.S. Department of Education report, 94 percent of public school teachers paid for classroom supplies out of their own pockets in 2014-2015. Teachers in urban schools on average spent $526, more than what rural or suburban teachers did. First-time teachers like Shivers are bound to spend more on initial expenses.

To soften that blow, many teachers visit sites like GoFundMe and DonorsChoose to ask their followers to donate to their classrooms. In the past decade, more organizations have adopted this practice, called crowdsourcing, to support teachers and schools.

In 2009, Vincent McCaskill, then a Memphis City Schools employee, saw a need in a district that he said was trying to “patch up budget holes” instead of making strategic investments in students. So, he started SchoolSeed, a Memphis-based independent fund for local classrooms.

It created a crowdsourcing platform, which in two years has generated about $470,000 for various school projects proposed by teachers, like courtyard gardens and library restorations. The site posts district-approved projects, which reap 90 percent of the dollars donated to them.

McCaskill said web platforms offer a means to invest directly in students, whether it’s for a lab experiment or a cozy space to to read.

“While to some people that might not seem like something major, to that teacher it’s very important,” he said. “When those projects are funded, and the teachers are able to do what they set out to do, it’s going to plant a seed.”

Planting the seed

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Shivers in her Melrose High School science lab

Melrose High School, located in Memphis’ historic Orange Mound community, has the highest poverty rate in the district. According to the state report card, over one-fourth of Melrose’s students don’t graduate, and of those who do, less than 1 percent are considered college- ready, based on ACT test scores.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Most of the chemicals and supplies in Shivers’ lab closet are outdated or unusable.

Its ’70s-era building isn’t inspiring, Shivers said.

As she browsed the lab’s closet, she realized she’d have to throw out the buffer solution that had expired 20 years ago. The test packets from 2014 wouldn’t prepare her students for the new science standards. And she didn’t know what to do with the two plastic bags of preserved piglets – stacked on top of each other in a broken plastic crate – except to laugh about it.

“It’s not until people actually see the conditions that you’re working with that, sadly, that’s when people respond,” Shivers said.

With the help of 38 donors, Shivers reached her goal and feels fortunate. But she noted that finding success through crowdfunding is largely dependent on who makes up a user’s network.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s because they just have so many amazing friends and I don’t, I think the demographics of their friends or networks look different,” she said.

Instead of banking on a couple of hefty donations, Shivers said her sphere of Facebook followers were more likely to give small amounts when they could, which meant she had to be persistent in her posts. But that can be hard for some teachers, who may not feel comfortable posting online.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Buffer solution is a staple in many science experiments. This bottle from Shivers’ closet expired about 20 years ago.

Shivers’ classmate Victoria Cummings noted in her first post that she’d been fairly quiet on social media until it came time to ask for classroom donations.

But, like Shivers, Cummings kept posting requests until the last day of the monthlong campaign. “I’m jumping out of my seat because I’m ecstatic!” she wrote, crediting the “village” of 21 donors that helped her reach her goal of $730.

With that donation, Cummings said she could make do. She could repurpose what other teachers had given her, and that she wasn’t too concerned about “trying to be the most decorative person.” Instead, she’d focus on buying the essentials, like a classroom pencil sharpener and books.

Crowdfunding requires an investment in time and effort. Some teachers spent days researching what they’d need and asking the advice of their veteran colleagues.

“Add this to your list,” was a common conversation starter among the group, said Karen Wong, who teaches at Treadwell Elementary.

While a resident, Wong’s mentor gave her tips on what she’d need to buy her first year, like pencils, erasers, and crayons. But she was surprised to find that the classroom also lacked books or basic storage units.

Chelsea Mullins Rachiele teaches math at MLK Prep, where she gets about $75 in gift cards for a teacher supply store.

“I came in hearing that I’d get a little bit of money, but knowing that it wouldn’t go very far,” she said. So she came up with a goal – $1,600 – and prioritized sets of math manipulatives for hands-on lessons and a standing desk to keep her students from falling asleep.

She reached her goal with 13 donations, which covered the basics but not her lower priorities, like an iPad that would keep her from being “tied to her desk” and an extra whiteboard for demonstrating problems.

Making do

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Extra glue sticks, pens, and pencils will allow Shivers’ students to work in groups.

Like many teachers, Shivers gets hand-me-down donations. As she thumbed through two boxes of colored pencils, scissors, and paper that a teacher friend in Arizona sent her recently, she smiled.

“Aww! She sorted them by color!” Shivers said. It would be enough to fill a few baskets so her students could work in groups.

Shivers said she’ll save about $300 of her donations for some lab projects. For her science students, doing, rather than just reading is important.

For the first week of school, she plans to create a gallery walk to teach the characteristics of life. Ideally, she’d like to have students observe some living organisms alongside non-living things, but she probably can only afford to print some pictures instead, she said.

“Who just has living things readily available?” she said. “Not I.”

Shivers has other plans, too. One of them is to transform her lab into an ecosystem at the end of the semester. But her funds will probably run out by then, she said, in resignation.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Shivers hangs a decorative border on her bulletin board – a thrifty way to add classroom decor.

“As much as I love my kids,” she said, “we’re not making that much money to constantly be feeding our classrooms. So you kind of make do with what you have.”

Even after meeting their crowdsourcing goals, the teachers often search for additional ways to save.

In college, Rachel Mohr, a history teacher at Lester Prep, worked with a teacher who used glossy plastic plates for whiteboards – they were disposable, and much cheaper, she said. Now, Mohr follows her lead, using a free website to make DIY signs for her room.  

Wong uses another site, called Classroom Dojo, to ask parents to donate to projects throughout the year, or if she wants to have a party for her students. And her peers have scoured yard sales, thrift stores, and teacher chat rooms to hunt for bargains.

Shivers said she practically “lived at the printer” while completing her residency at Kingsbury Middle School. That’s because there weren’t enough books for her students to take home, so she’d just make copies if they had an assignment.

She remembers watching her mentor demonstrate science experiments – like the ones she plans to do this year – in front of his students, telling them to take notes. That’s because there weren’t enough supplies for them to try for themselves.

Shivers said some of her colleagues worked multiple jobs, and some wrote grants to fund class projects. And while she admires them for doing so, she said, none of those things – including crowdsourcing – should be necessary.

“I don’t know where that disconnect has come in our country where education is kind of just an afterthought,” she said. “You know, as a police officer, you don’t buy your own police unit car. That’s provided for you, your uniform is provided for you, your gun is provided for you. You don’t have to ask somebody for money to do your job.”

How much do you spend on classroom supplies? And where do you go to buy them? Take our survey.

teacher training

These teachers came to Memphis to learn new ways to teach overlooked history

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
35 teachers from across the nation – and one from Australia – came to Rhodes College in Memphis to learn from its unique history and bring those lessons back home.

Roger Henery has come to realize that the students in the diverse Atlanta high school where he teaches tend to think racial conflict is a part of the past, not something that impacts them in the present.

To change that, he’s one of 35 educators who participated in a class that taught him new ways to make history lessons about topics such as civil rights, race, and war more relevant for his students.

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History’s Teacher Seminar program is a competitive professional development program for K-12 educators. For 24 years, several sites across the nation have become citywide classrooms for the program’s participants. Tucked away in a quiet Memphis neighborhood is Rhodes College, where, within its archaic stone walls, teachers – including one from Australia – met earlier this month to learn about the city’s rich civil rights history.

Lead scholar Charles McKinney, chair of Africana studies, and Noelle Trent of the National Civil Rights Museum, have organized the Memphis curriculum for three years. Participants examined archives and visited historic local sites such as the starting point of the 1966 March Against Fear, where activists marched 220 miles to Jackson, Mississippi, to promote black voter registration.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Roger Henery shows fellow high school teachers his lesson on school desegregation.

For a week, the teachers attended daily seminars taught by Memphis area activists and historians, and they were able to incorporate what they learned into potential lessons for their history and English classes. Through its strong network of educators, the program aims to support the teachers as they go back to their schools, some of which may be resistant to the new material, Trent said.

“It’s really the adults that have the issue with it,” she said. The program connects “with teachers to say, ‘Hey, you know, you can talk about these things with a kindergartener or pre-kindergartener… Let’s do it in a way that empowers them as individuals and as members of the society, and as our most vulnerable members of society.’”

Henery’s goal will be to show students how long it takes progress to actually happen, even after changes in the law have been made.

He plans to use old yearbooks to show how slowly (about 15 years) his Atlanta school aligned with Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that ruled racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. His class will look at footage shot 15 years after nine African-American students attempted to enroll in all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
A high school history teacher writes down lesson plans that her team will present to the group.

In another room, Doreen Lobelle showed her lesson to a group of elementary teachers in the seminar. She plans to have her fifth-grade students break down a speech by Joan Bird of the Black Panther Party and compare it to the story of Sandra Bland, who was said to have taken her own life after being forced out of her car by police and jailed for three days.

Lobelle noted that she’d have to edit the transcript for expletives, but that the subject matter was something her young students needed to learn.

“The point is, especially in the neighborhood that I work in, the kids are seeing themselves essentially in the kids that are being killed by the police all over the country,” she told them. “This is something that I have second graders talk to me about.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Rupert Hunt a ninth grade history teacher, shares with his group an outline for an IB argumentative essay on nonviolent protest.

Other lesson plans included reading lesser-known speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr., studying female activists and how they often lacked the visibility of their male counterpart, and observing street signs and schools named after Confederate soldiers.

Embedded in many of those lessons, McKinney noted, is a call to action to confront a “national commitment to avoidance,” by starting to teach children at a young age parts of history that still are being left out of classrooms.

“It literally doesn’t make any sense to me to say, okay, we’re not going to talk about dynamics that are shaping your life in profound and fundamental ways…. We’re not going to talk about those dynamics until you get to high school, or later…. And that’s a problem,” he said.

But even before the teachers had started to work on the lesson plans they would take home with them, they were reminded that they still have a lot to learn.

“I’ll bet you five dollars that you can not tell me who these 10 people are,” Master Teacher Justin Emrich said to the 35 participants, pointing to the the names of historical figures on a screen: Julius Caesar, Adolf Hitler, Ghengis Khan, George Washington, Osama Bin Laden, Paul Rusesabagina, Tarana Burke, Harvey Milk, Raphael Lemkin, and Ben Ferencz.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Master Teacher Justin Emrich asks teachers to raise their hands if they knew who the first few people on his list were. Many of them were unable to guess the last five.

As the teachers struggled about halfway through, he explained that the list was divided between those who “kill people; they’re known for war,” and “bringers of peace.”

Emrich, who was 2016 Teacher of the Year in Ohio, urged the group to think about who they’ve been teaching about in their history and English classes, and how that might change.

“Devote yourself to telling about the other people, from day one,” he said. “… It is the only way we can get our students to do the same.”

Henery, who has been teaching for 12 years, will come back to his classroom with a new perspective on history.

“I came here expecting to learn an awful lot, and I learned probably five times more than that,” he said.

teacher diversity

Memphis colleges are training more teachers of color, new study shows

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Shortly after creating its River City Partnership in 2017, The University of Memphis established is creating an urban teacher training track in its College of Education in partnership with Shelby County Schools.

Teaching degree programs at four-year institutions nationwide are disproportionately white, according to new Urban Institute data. But things look different in Memphis, where two local colleges, the University of Memphis and Christian Brothers University, are making strides to ensure their teaching programs reflect the diversity of the schools that house them.

Meanwhile Memphis’ LeMoyne-Owen College, a historically black institution, has a teaching training program whose student body is almost exclusively African-American. The program focuses on preparing  its students to teach in diverse settings.

“Minority-serving institutions,” like historically black colleges and universities, are “doing more than their fair share of preparing diverse teachers,” Constance Lindsay, a researcher at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “And then there’s lots of schools in urban settings that are sort of over-representing black and Hispanic students” in their education programs — noting that, in some places, the teaching programs have greater percentages of students of color than the schools as a whole.

The Urban Institute data was released Tuesday.

In Memphis, 68 percent of school-aged children are non-white, and teachers of color make up about 40 percent of the city’s educators. But across Memphis-area colleges, more black students pursue teaching degrees compared to other majors.

According to the study, the percentage of black education majors at the University of Memphis (40 percent) closely resembles the racial makeup of the public, four-year college. Alfred Hall, Assistant Dean of Student Success & Strategic Initiatives at the University of Memphis, said that those numbers are the result of new leadership “embracing the notion of being an urban education institution.”

“We continue to serve a metropolitan area, in which we have suburban and rural partners, and we continue to work to meet their needs,” he said. “But we have been more intentional in the past several years about serving an urban education school district and preparing teachers to have success in those settings.”

The university’s goal is to recruit and prepare teachers to “understand a local context.” Last year, the school established the River City Partnership, a student-teaching program, with Shelby County Schools. That program is centered around understanding concepts of equity and social justice, where teachers-in-training learn about the struggles of urban students as well as the best ways to unleash their potential.

“[We don’t want our teachers to just have] a deficit perspective of feeling sorry for them because they come from certain hardships, but to have an appreciation of the persistence and grit that these students have and how they can maximize those attributes to bring about student success,” he said.

At Christian Brothers University, a private religious college, black students make up 32 percent of the student body. But among students who study education, half are black. A CBU representative was unavailable Tuesday.

The Urban Institute report comes on the heels of an earlier study that found students of color were more likely to attend alternative licensing programs for teachers than to complete teacher training offered at four-year institutions. Some of these non-traditional programs, such as Man Up and Urban Teachers, target students from groups underrepresented among teachers.

But while states like Tennessee have begun to welcome some of these alternative programs, the majority of teachers still take traditional routes.

“I think we have to do a better job of just recruiting students to become interested in teaching across the board, from all racial and ethnic backgrounds,” Hall said. “[We need to help them] see the importance of having an increasingly diverse body of teachers to address an increasingly diverse body of students that have an understanding of certain cultural competencies.”

Cumberland College in Lebanon, Tennessee, is the only other school in the state that has a higher percentage of black students in its education program than it does schoolwide. Black students were underrepresented in 24 of Tennessee’s 27 listed teaching programs outside of Memphis. Here’s how they measured up:

Source: The Urban Institute

The full report allows users to search four-year programs and see how they compare to national trends in two key areas: black and white student representation upon enrolling in an education program, as well as black and white student completion rates. You can access that here.

Other teaching programs in Memphis, including Rhodes College, Southwest Tennessee Community College, and Memphis College of Art, are smaller and were not included in the Urban Institute study as a result.