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Sandra Makielski, a social studies teacher at Davisville Middle School, shows books about the Philippines to seventh graders Mia Rayta and Jovanni Sengsouvnah Tuesday morning.  Makielski was recently awarded a $2,000 grant to help fund a collaborative teaching project with a 7th-grade teacher in the Philippines.

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Sandra Makielski and Rufo de Leon are bridging the world — continents apart from each other — to give their students a better view of the global community and the cultures that comprise them.

Makielski, a Davisville Middle School seventh grade teacher, and de Leon, who teaches the same grade in the Philippines, are collaborating by sharing information both use in their classrooms and exchanges of books.

“This has been my heart project,” Makielski told The Independent in an interview last week, about this focus on seeing the world beyond the culture and customs in the country in which students live.

Voya Financial, Inc. have given the educators for their project a $2,000 grant as part of the company’s 2020 Unsung Heroes awards competition. Selected from a group of applicants from across the United States, Makielski and de Leon are among only 50 winners and have the only winning program in the state.

In addition to receiving the $2,000 award to help fund and bring their program to life, they will now compete with other finalists for one of the top three prizes — an additional $5,000, $10,000 or $25,000 from Voya Financial.  

Makielski said that she plans to spend the money on materials and other costs to keep the project going.


Cultural Understanding

De Leon, contacted by email, noted the importance of this exchange of information about the culture, government and society for students.

“Collaboration has been a lifeline to many people, especially during this global crisis. The teamwork Sandy and I have has been helping our students become global citizens. My students learn from students who live at the other side of the globe, and collaboration helps them shape a better understanding of humanity,” he wrote.

He teaches at Jose Rizal University, in Mandaluyong City, where students attend from grade school through college. The two met when Makielski traveled to the Philippines in 2015 as part of a teacher education program through Teachers for Global Classrooms and decided they decided to work together on cultural understandings.

TGC provides an opportunity for middle and high school teachers from the United States to participate in a program aimed at globalizing U.S. classrooms through an online professional development course, two Washington, D.C.-based symposiums and a two- to three-week professional development exchange.

Both de Leon and Makielski explained how their special project works.

Both classes of students exchange “Cultural Mandalas.” There is no set definition for the meaning or even the form of a mandala, nor could there be, since it appears in the art and architecture – in one form or another – of various cultures around the world. However, they often appear as geometric configurations of symbols.

Students in each class created mandalas to represent their county. The representations included a country’s flag, pictures of food often eaten, government buildings like the White House for those in the United States and historical figures each country honored, Makielski explained.

For the last few years, they swap mandalas class and discussions follow about them. These are individual classes in each country and students have yet to do any online video conferencing with each other, but that could happen at some point, said Makielski.

However, both teachers have Zoom teleconference meetings a few times a month to share information and plan lessons.

Makielski said that in many courses students learning is one-dimensional, perhaps through lessons in a textbook. In this program they are sharing information and discussing cultural history from people who actually live in the different countries.

Just that exchange alone makes the other country more real and less of a passing reference in a text book, she said.

“We pick out the differences, but also find similarities. A lot of the similarities come in music and there is some overlap in food, too,” she said.

“We’re also having conversations about how life can be in the grays, it’s not just this matter or that, but how influences have caused things to happen,” Makielski said, adding, “They are learning that life can be messy.”

In addition, students are also increasing their cultural understanding through reading books from the exchange and filing online book reports for review.


The Next Project

“The next collaboration project we have been working on up to this day is reading literacy reinforcement. Sandy and her sister Kathleen had been generously shipping boxes of books to the Philippines and these are distributed to various public schools that lack resources for reading,” de Leon said.

“For most times, I am the one recommending recipient schools, and Sandy takes care of all the book collection and shipping,” he added, with the Voya grant helping to pay the shipping costs.

Angela Harrell, Voya’s chief diversity and corporate responsibility officer and president of the Voya Foundation, had praise for the two teachers.

“This year, educators like Sandra Makielski and Rufo de Leon have had to be particularly innovative to find new and creative ways to reach students and keep them engaged during   challenging times,” she said.

“We are proud to support educators across the country as they go above and beyond to ensure they are connecting with their students with innovative approaches to learning,” Harrell said.

For 25 years, the Voya Unsung Heroes program has awarded grants to K-12 educators in the United States to honor their innovative teaching methods, creative educational projects, and their ability to positively influence the children they teach.

Since the program’s inception, Voya has awarded more than $5.8 million in support of educators through this nationwide program.

Both teachers said they are thankful for the assistance and recognition of the value of their program. This acknowledgement helps to keep the foundation strong for future work, Makielski said.

De Leon said, “I hope that this partnership will go a long way in the future as we both visualize more informed and more educated students.”

It will build, both educators said, on what they’ve established.

“Our latest collaboration project, ‘More than Words: Including the Excluded.’ will be dealing with inclusivity in society and hope to bolster breaking the barriers of cultural misunderstandings,” he said.

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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