Providing a spark

The Spark Grants program was created and funded by generous philanthropists Letitia and John Carter in 2013. It offers third grade teachers up to $1,000 for projects that engage students through unique experiences and creative learning methods. Initially available to teachers in urban school districts, this competitive program is now open to every district in the state.

The program is based on a simple premise: students learn best when given real-life opportunities to engage in academic content in meaningful, non-traditional ways. And classroom teachers know best how to provide those opportunities.

While the topics and the methods that teachers will use to implement them vary widely, they are united by several shared beliefs: namely, that experiential learning holds great potential to extend learning that takes place in the classroom and that student engagement requires creative, inspiring, and relevant school experiences.

Proposals are reviewed by a panel of outside experts. They look for evidence that the idea can have a meaningful and lasting impact on student learning and that the applicants plan to evaluate the success of their project.

Teachers have pitched ideas that range from mural painting and ukulele concerts to teaching math through drumming and current events by creating a school newspaper.

Mary Falcone, a STEM specialist at Newport’s Claiborne Pell Elementary School, used a Spark Grant to invest in submersible design kits and two remote controlled miniature submarines, allowing her students to map the depth of the ocean floor.

To complement an upcoming social studies unit on the importance of active citizenship, Carmen Rodriguez at Providence’s William D’Abate Elementary School took her students on a series of field lessons outside of the city.

Troubled by vandalism in the student restroom, Louriann Mardo-Zayat at the Ella Risk Elementary School in Central Falls used a Spark Grant to engage her students in a mural painting project that communicated the importance of shared responsibility and respect for the school community.

At Francis Varieur Elementary School in Pawtucket, third-grade teachers Mary Bergeron and Donna Sawyer pooled their grants to buy 25 digital cameras to support learning activities related to a social studies unit on urban, suburban, and rural communities.

We ask for big ideas, and we get them. The Carters believe that third grade is a crucial period in the academic development of children and that meaningful experiences like those provided by Spark Grants can put more youngsters on the road to a lifetime of academic achievement. We agree. Their vision is giving teachers a remarkable opportunity to be innovative.

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