Sparking innovation in Rhode Island schools

Spark Grants promote reading and classroom innovation

Dozens of teachers in communities across Rhode Island will receive nearly $190,000 through the Spark Grants program at the Rhode Island Foundation.
Launched by philanthropists Letitia and John Carter in 2013, the program offered school-wide reading grants of up to $10,000 for the first time this year. Elementary schools in seven communities will receive grants for proposals that will inspire a life-long love of reading in students.
The program also continued to offer full-time third-grade teachers in any public or charter school statewide grants of up to $1,000 for classroom innovation. Sixty teachers statewide received grants this year.

“We still strongly believe that third grade is a critical stage in the educational development of youngsters,” said Letitia Carter. “The new reading grants are grounded in the belief that imaginative reading and assimilation of context can make learning fun and exciting. Expanding the program’s scope will put more children on the path to educational success.»

Eligible expenses include software licenses, equipment and other resources that otherwise would not be available to teachers. Spark Grants are for one-time expenses and cannot provide ongoing funding to sustain projects.

“As always, Letitia and John Carter are leading innovation by example. Our hope is that their foresight and commitment inspires new creativity and engagement in teachers and their students,” said Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Foundation.

The announcement of this year’s grants took place at the William Winsor School in Smithfield, which received grants for both reading and classroom innovation.

The $5,100 reading grant will give third-grade students access to 500 new books. Students will study the work and techniques of various authors as well as meet a local author, who will tell them what it is like to be an author and illustrator. More than 200 students are expected to benefit from the initiative.
“Inspired by these mentors and experiences, they will become authors themselves, creating their own published books to share with younger students at Winsor and preschoolers at the Greenville Public Library,” said Julia Tanski, who submitted the application and will direct the project.

“Their ability to apply this new knowledge into their own writing will be a true measure of the success of this project,” she said.

With the $1,000 grant for classroom innovation, Visual Arts teacher Lindsay Burrows will buy equipment, including a projector and software, which will enable students to become digital storytellers

“Students will engage in a mixed media creative process that is extremely prevalent in the visual world today. They will be exposed to technology and programs that they have never used in art before and technology and programs that are essential to successful contemporary artists, designers, filmmakers and photographers,” said Burrows.

A second Smithfield elementary school – Old County – also received a reading grant. The $3,500 grant will expand the way reading is taught by bringing in teaching artist Diane Postoian.
Students will role play folk tales with Postoian and embrace the different characters and messages within the folk tales. Through storytelling and role play, students will link dramatic expression to the written literature of folk tales. These activities will assist in developing listening and recall skills essential to sequential thinking.

“We expect to see students spend more time reading independently. They will be more excited about reading and discussing what they have read and learn how to determine the central message, lesson or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details either in the text or through role play,” said third-grade teacher Nellie Chomka, who co-wrote the application with Principal Laurie Sullivan.

In Pawtucket, Elizabeth Baldwin Elementary School and Francis J. Varieur Elementary School both received $10,000 reading grants. Baldwin will use storytelling, story writing, learning from professional authors, exposure to a variety of expository text materials and student presentations of dramatic readings to promote reading. Approximately 120 students are expected to benefit from the program.

“Students will have the opportunity to have the printed word come alive for them. They will learn how print can be utilized to evoke emotion, create suspense, persuade, inform and entertain. Through the opportunity to make print come alive, students are establishing a foundation to support a lifelong love of reading,” said Principal Edna Coia.

Three teachers at Bernard F. Norton Elementary School in Cumberland received classroom innovation grants.

Diane Bennett and Bethany Silva will use their grants to buy Chromebooks. The technology will enable them to tailor writing lessons to the learning styles of their third-grade students.

“Chromebooks will give me the technology to be able to video record mini-lessons and post them for individual or small groups of students to view on Google Classroom. By using a combination of digital instruction and one-on-one face time, my students can work independently which will free me up to circulate and support other individual or small groups of students,” Silva said.

Art teacher Tara Villanova will use her grant to purchase material and have the Biomes Marine Biology Center of North Kingstown visit her students as they begin to create an art mural about protecting our oceans and ocean life.

Biomes will set up an ocean tank in school, which will hold different live ocean animals every week. Students will be able to draw and paint ocean animals for their mural from real life.

“Students will work collaboratively to create a mixed media mural inspired by the mural artist Robert Wyland. The grant allows me to purchase a Wyland documentary, as well as kid-friendly ocean conservation books,” Villanova said.

“The students will focus on celebrating the beautiful oceans that make our state so special and how we can all protect and preserve the oceans and all the creatures that live in them. And the Biomes Center visit and the ocean tank is just one of the most exciting things,” she said.

Lincoln Central Elementary School third-grade teacher Jeff Drolet received $994.95 to bring a competitive dogsled racer and her entire team to the school. Prior to the visit, students will track the team’s progress during a 250-mile race in Maine before selecting their mushers in Alaska’s 1,000 mile Iditarod race. Approximately 60 students are expected to participate.

As a culminating project, students will demonstrate their newfound understanding of teamwork and communication by completing a simulated «I-Kid-arod» course designed to challenge their ability to apply all the knowledge they’ve learned. Parents will be asked to volunteer as race officials to score each team’s ability to use musher commands to navigate, work collaboratively and problem-solve creatively.

“This project supports learning and teaching in my classroom because every student is actively engaged in their own learning and additionally responsible to take on the responsibility of teaching when they need to provide support to their team member or other teams in completing the time deduction challenges,” Drolet said. “This project allows students access to a variety of experiences that extend the classroom far beyond the reach of our school building.”

North Scituate Elementary School received $10,000 to support the “Scituate Reads around the Town!” project, which is designed to encourage students to read more by building literacy skills and excitement for reading. The school will purchase 32 laptops, which will enable students to build their technology and reading skills.

“This will give students access to individualized technology to increase engagement and excitement for reading. It will also allow students to create a digital history presentation based on their research and learning for an authentic audience of their peers in the third grade classes from Scituate schools as well as other members of the community,” said school librarian Kristin Polseno, who will lead the project along with Paula DiLuglio.

The Mary E. Fogarty Elementary School was one of seven Providence schools to receive $10,000 reading grants. Fogarty will purchase nonfiction books, stock the school’s first audio lending library, host parent-engagement events and bring in local storytellers, writers and performers.

“Fostering a love of reading can be transformative in a child’s life as the ability to seek knowledge and use it to reach personal goals is powerful, and indeed, a life altering one. We passionately believe that if children are inspired to fall in love with reading, then they will unlock a world of possibilities – enabling them to achieve all that their heart desires,” said third-grade teacher Gretchen Proulx, who worked on the school’s application.

Other communities receiving grants include Central Falls, Cranston, East Providence, Foster, Portsmouth, Newport, Westerly and West Warwick.

The Rhode Island Foundation is the largest and most comprehensive funder of nonprofit organizations in Rhode Island. In 2015, the Foundation awarded $41.5 million in grants to organizations addressing the state’s most pressing issues and needs of diverse communities. Through leadership, fundraising and grantmaking activities, often in partnership with individuals and organizations, the Foundation is helping Rhode Island reach its true potential.