Penn program gives Philadelphia teachers a boost

It was in New Haven, Conn., in the 1990s when Rogers Smith first heard about the Teachers Institute, a program that enrolls K-12 public school teachers in semester-long seminars led by university faculty. A professor at Yale at the time, Smith, quite frankly, was skeptical.

“At first, I thought it seemed to imply that Yale professors could tell teachers in high-need schools how they could better teach their students,” recalls Smith, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science and associate dean for the social sciences at Penn. “I didn’t think I knew anything about that.”

While teaching his first seminar, he learned quickly that his role was to contribute some content knowledge, while the teachers provided expertise in how best to convey that content in their classrooms. Leading a course about racism and nativism in American political culture, a topic he’s studied extensively, the dozen teachers, along with Smith, thought deeply together about how to talk constructively about race in the K-12 classroom. With enhanced understanding, the teachers developed curriculum units on the subject to take back to their students.

“I ended up learning enormously from those seminars, and became a big fan of the program,” Smith says.

When he joined Penn in the early 2000s, Smith knew he wanted to extend the model to West Philadelphia. With strong support from Penn President Amy Gutmann, the Teachers Institute of Philadelphia—TIP for short—was born.

Created 11 years ago as a partnership between the University and the School District of Philadelphia, TIP has served about 330 teachers from at least 70 different K-12 public schools in Philadelphia. More than 30 Penn professors have participated in the spring semester program, with many leading seminars multiple times. Also, every teacher that takes part receives a $1,000 stipend.

“We aim to serve teachers who could really get a boost by coming out of the classroom for a while and learning something new,” says Edward Epstein, TIP’s director. “They have the opportunity to absorb some new content and think about new teaching strategies.”

Tia Larese, a third-grade teacher at Penn Alexander School and a Graduate School of Education (GSE) alumna, has participated in TIP for three years in a row, and has applied to the 2018 program, too. This past year, she took the “What is the Earth Made Of?” seminar, taught by Reto Gieré, the Department of Earth and Environmental Science chair.

Every Tuesday evening for 14 weeks, she met on Penn’s campus, participating in hands-on work and stimulating discussions. Larese developed a 25-page curriculum titled “Volcano Folklore vs. Reality,” which she’s using this school year to teach her students.

“It requires us to blend what we learn in the course with research we do outside of the classroom, along with our knowledge of educational pedagogy to develop an engaging, rigorous unit of study,” Larese says, adding that the lessons, which are available to the public on TIP’s website, are also always created to meet district and state standards.

Jaimie Piotrowicz, a fifth-grade teacher at Cayuga Elementary, participated this past year in “A Survey of Contemplative Practices Across the World’s Religions,” taught by Deven Patel of the Department of Religious Studies. Piotrowicz, also a GSE alumna, created a unit outlining the use of transformative, non-denominational, meditative, and mindfulness practices as a substitute for in-school and out-of-school suspensions.

Piotrowicz, who’s applied again for the upcoming TIP program, says what keeps her coming back is not only the experience of learning new, cutting- edge content from expert faculty members, but also the opportunity to connect and network with other teachers.

“Teachers in our area have few opportunities to interact outside of the schools where we work each day, due to our intense caseloads and demands of our job,” she says. “But TIP affords Philadelphia’s educators an opportunity to bond through learning.”

Herman Beavers, an English and Africana studies professor, who’s taught five seminars, has witnessed this camaraderie firsthand.

“Discussions in the seminars are always lively,” says Beavers, also co-chair of TIP’s University Advisory Council with Smith. “They’re not just talking to me, but also to each other.”

When TIP was first founded, it only served teachers in West Philadelphia. Expansion to other public schools throughout the city happened naturally, and now, for the first time this coming spring, a TIP seminar—“Data Visualization”—will be taught by David Nickerson, a Temple political science professor, at the North Philadelphia campus. With more TIP applicants this year from Kensington-based schools, Epstein says, the hope is that the Temple location will be more convenient.

Other TIP courses to be offered at Penn this spring include the “History of Hollywood,” led by Peter Decherney, of English and cinema studies; “Philosophy, Science & Society,” by Karen Detlefsen, of philosophy; “Robots in Health Care: From Science Fiction to Reality,” by Michelle Johnson, of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and Bioengineering; and “Origami Engineering” by Cynthia Sung, of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics.

“We gear our seminars toward interdisciplinary thinking,” says Epstein. “The thing about these seminars is that teachers from many fields could appreciate and utilize the material from those topics.”

Since TIP’s start, the Penn team has been interested in gauging how the program is working. All along, teachers’ progress has been tracked, using questionnaires to decipher how TIP affects their teaching, their content knowledge, and the motivation level of the students when their new curriculum is used. An important research finding, notes Smith, has linked Teachers Institute participation to higher teacher retention rates.

“It has, in fact, shown real success in keeping talented teachers teaching in the public schools,” Smith says. “This is a program that contributes to job satisfaction. It makes them feel stimulated, respected, and helps them to teach their students more effectively.”

Teachers Institute of Philadelphia