New teacher diaries

The kindness of strangers

New Teacher Diaries

Last year at an event for new teachers put on by the UFT, I found out about DonorsChoose.org, a nonprofit organization that matches classroom project proposals from around the country with online donors. Teachers can post requests for materials, and anyone can browse the site for projects to donate money to.

Using the site is easy. You submit requests for student-centered materials that will benefit your classroom. You then go “shopping” for materials in the DonorsChoose eSchoolMall, which links to a variety of online catalogs. You can request anything, from pencils to a classroom computer to musical instruments. The main requirement is that the items requested will directly benefit your students. After the shopping (my favorite part of the process) you then write a proposal explaining a little about your school, the materials you are requesting, and what they will be used for.

Once your proposal is approved and posted on the site it will stay up for a maximum of five months. DonorsChoose says that most projects under $400 are funded within three months. Once your project has been funded you have to confirm that you still want your materials and then they are shipped to you within about three weeks.

Part of what makes DonorsChoose so special is what happens next. DonorsChoose sends you a stamped envelope and a disposable camera, and asks that you take pictures of your students using the new materials. DonorsChoose also asks you and your students write thank-you letters to the donors.

Since joining the site in August, I have had three requests fully funded, and a fourth partially funded.

My first request was for a document camera — a really cool projector that projects any image, text or object onto a wall or screen. I thought it would be an excellent way for the entire class to read Spanish-language children’s books, and it would also allow me to forgo making reams of low-quality photocopies that my students look at once and throw away. The projector works like a dream. My students first used it to present their “dream house” projects — pictures of their dream house, along with floor plans labeled in Spanish. After each short presentation, the rest of the class then “bid” on the house in Spanish. The entire class was engaged, even while watching the 30th presentation that week!

Another of my funded requests was for a classroom Spanish library. From the DonorsChoose eSchoolMall I accessed the Barnes and Noble Web site, where I picked out a great selection of Spanish-language versions of Dr. Seuss books and other classics like “Where the Wild Things Are” and “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” In order to accommodate my native Spanish speakers, I picked more challenging fare including Harry Potter books. I used the books in a recent lesson and once again my students were really pleased. The familiar stories helped them feel more comfortable reading in a second language. And it was exciting for me to see them get excited about reading Spanish.

Creativity and patience are the keys to being successful with DonorsChoose. You need to be creative to design a proposal that is both beneficial to your students and eye-catching to potential donors. And you need to exercise patience while waiting for your request to attract donors.

I was skeptical at first, thinking, “Why would anyone want to help me and my classroom?” To my surprise, people do care and are interested in helping classrooms across the country. When I told my students about what we received they all had similar reactions: surprise and amazement that such a Web site exists. I am truly thankful for DonorsChoose and, of course, for the generous support my class has received. It’s truly rewarding to see my students’ everyday classroom experiences enriched.

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