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Education

Sketching out a Brighter Future: Nancy Salas-Herrera Makes Her Mark

By Monica Friedman November 29, 2011

Small Scale Online Educational Fundraising

Peace and Education Coalition, Second Chance Campus offers a year-round alternative high school that “services urban at-risk youth, ages sixteen to twenty-one, who have left their traditional neighborhood school for various reasons such as safety, teen parenthood, going into the workforce, [or] relocation.” For the last nine years, Nancy Salas-Herrera has taught literature and art at one of Peace and Education’s two Chicago campuses, where approximately eighty-five at-risk students work toward their Chicago Public Schools diploma on an accelerated track, in a program that acknowledges their unique needs with features such as on-site daycare and classes held later in the day than at traditional high schools.

Salas-Herrera’s love of teaching originated, she believes, in eight grade, when Ms. Rosemary Shedor at the Sacred Heart of Jesus asked her to teach a history lesson. She remembers, “I jumped at the opportunity!” and she “even threw in a pop quiz.” Then, she realized, “I knew I had to—not wanted, had to—get into teaching.” She wanted to “share, interpret, discuss, deconstruct…to inspire others.”

She describes her art classes as “organic and free,” including “touches of the traditional with a flavor of the unpredictable. I like to incorporate functional crafts, like paper lanterns and loom knitting, and multicultural art from around the world.” To imbue her students with a sense of ownership, she requires them to evaluate and critique their own work, with the help of a guiding rubric, and to defend the grade they feel they deserve.

As a literature teacher, she employs a decidedly interdisciplinary technique, bringing “art, food, film” into the lesson and using whatever methods she can think of to illuminate the subject. While teaching The Kite Runner, for instance, she invited an Afghani restaurateur to cater the class and speak about his homeland. The students also made and flew their own kites, researched the history of Afghanistan and, after they finished the book, watched the film. Other innovative lesson plans have included making papier-mâché helmets for Beowulf, hosting a costumed medieval feast for Canterbury Tales, and evaluating their own homemade Rorschach tests when they read “Flowers for Algernon.”

The Chicago Teacher’s Union provides all CPS teachers with a one hundred dollar stipend, Salas-Herrera’s yearly supply budget.

Typically, her principal provides a ballpark figure regarding available funds for art and selects and purchases student text books. Salas-Herrera researches economical novel sets. “Many times,” she explains, “I get free supplemental materials from the web or swap with other teachers in order to save money.” To supplement her funding, she finds free materials on Craigslist; asks friends, family, and students to donate materials; or chooses projects that require “recyclables or natural objects” such as “branches and sand.” But, to do the project she had in mind for this quarter, she needed markers.

Last year’s markers were done for: old, dried up, and unacceptable. Salas-Herrera required $186 for new markers, to complete a large poster project, as well as teach future lessons in which she wants to “introduce Seurat and pointillism, and pigment dispersion.”

The principal of Peace and Education Coalition, Second Chance Campus encouraged teachers to try a website called DonorsChoose to raise additional funds, and Salas-Herrera was further encouraged in this by the endorsement of other teachers, in addition to such personalities as Ophrah Winfrey and her “darling” Stephen Colbert (to whom she adds: “Mr. Colbert, I have another project brewing. Won’t you please, please help me?”). She found the site “easy to use” and its staff “quick to respond to questions.” She adds, “I like that they are honest [about] how and where the funds are being applied to satisfy the request.” To that end, she created her own DonorsChoose project, “Craving for Crayola Markers.”

Her students were encouraged to spread the word, and Salas-Herrera publicized the project on her own Facebook page. In short order, several patrons of the arts donated the money and she soon had her new materials. “It was a wonderful feeling,” she recalls. “People still believe in art education.” She will “definitely” be using DonorsChoose again.

The students at Peace and Education Coalition, Second Chance Campus face challenges that many high schoolers will never know. They may be culturally limited because they are “are afraid or reluctant to venture out of their neighborhoods,” and they often cope with “financial difficulties, run-ins with the law, drug/alcohol abuse, lots of peer pressure, and teen pregnancy.” Some of them are “struggling learners” who require assistance from special education teachers. Often, their emotional issues come to the fore of the classroom, resulting in “disruptions” and student who “shut down” until Salas-Herrera must talk to them individually to “get to the root of the matter, as much as they allow me to know. Sometimes, they just need to cool and calm themselves down before they can approach the daily lesson.”

It’s a challenging atmosphere, and while the work can be difficult, Salas-Herrera says it’s “awesome that I am teaching right by my old neighborhood, the Back of the Yards. I am grateful that I am giving back to the community where I was born and raised.” Alternative schools, she feels, often get a bad rap, but she wants the world to know that, “these kids are not bad. Most them just made some bad choices, but…aren’t we all flawed at some point in time? I commend them for trying to make it right and graduating with a high school diploma. I think it  is an excellent step onto the right path!”