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Teachers have a lot to show and tell after summer vacation

A North Allegheny history teacher starts the school year armed with firsthand observations of the recent escalation of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, and the growing divide between Israelis and Palestinians.

A McKeesport social studies teacher hopes to convey her new understanding of Brazil's political system and issues in history, economics and model United Nations classes.

Spanish teachers in Quaker Valley and Peters, Washington County, have new cultural examples to help their students grasp the intricacies of a foreign language.

All agree that real-world summer experiences can be a crucial component of their professional development.

"I really think that they're indispensable, especially for the kinds of classes I teach," said Greg Funka, a history teacher at North Allegheny Intermediate High School.

It is not known how many public school teachers use their summers to gain real-world experiences that they can use in the classroom. Dozens of private foundations and nonprofit organizations work with universities or directly with teachers to help pay for summer trips to foreign countries.

An increasing number of corporations and nonprofit organizations are participating in similar programs that provide math and science teachers with "externships" at public and private research facilities, according to Education Week magazine.

Funka, 29, of Moon, said a trip to China two years ago gave him concrete examples to use when describing that country's increasing economic significance in the world. A month in Jerusalem this summer gave him direct experience of the Middle East conflicts that have been driving international politics for two generations.

The trip also provided him with the small details such as being frisked whenever he entered a restaurant or store, and learning how to say "No, I don't have a gun" in Hebrew.

Robin Tyke, 44, of Murrysville, spent part of her summer interviewing Brazilians about their political system. She also spent it learning that Salvador's rush-hour traffic is worse than Pittsburgh's.

"I'll never complain again," she said.

Tyke said she was surprised how much Brazilians admire everything about the United States except for its foreign policy.

"Everybody sees us as something to strive for," she said.

The two Spanish teachers said they try to visit different Spanish-speaking countries whenever possible.

Caitlin McKenna, 24, of Peters, spent four weeks at the Veritas University in San Jose, Costa Rica. In addition to learning how Costa Rica differs from Spain and Mexico in terms of dialect and cuisine, she benefited from spending the month surrounded by fluent Spanish speakers.

Elizabeth Crum, 37, of McDonald, Washington County, has visited Colombia, Venezuela, Guatemala, Ecuador and Spain. She spent two weeks in Mexico this summer taking advanced language classes in the morning. More importantly, she spent her afternoons immersing herself in the culture that spawned the language.

"I think it's absolutely imperative," she said. "I think it's impossible to teach something as vibrant and alive as a language without getting out into the culture."

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