Transformative Grants: Rachel Sassine Urbana High School

By: Marley Schultz

Rachel SassineSophomore year can be a tricky one, as students begin the search for opportunities after high school graduation, and picking the right classes is nothing less than important.

That’s why Urbana High School English teacher Rachel Sassine, who teaches three different levels of “World Studies English,” examined her curriculum and knew she and her course team wanted to change some things around.

“We felt like the material we were teaching was very Euro-centric and for a world studies class, it didn’t really feel appropriate to do a lot of western literature,” Sassine said. “So, we applied for a grant to get some more diverse texts for a lit circle unit we’re doing in May.”

She ended up receiving a competitive grant from CUSF for $500 that her team spent on the following list of books: In the Time of the Butterflies, Kite Runner,  Joy Luck Club, Between Shades of Gray, and Cry, the Beloved Country.

Sassine said that the structure of the unit would prioritize student leadership and engagement, while also allowing students to pick a book of their choice from the list and discuss openly about it with their peers.

“The kids are really excited and looking forward to it,” she said. “When we have an open house at the beginning of the year, I put the texts out that we’re going to read and even the parents were thrilled to see the options available, saying that they would do a family book study or things like that.”

That said, like many other teachers, Sassine has experienced the struggles related to a lack of resources available, both financially and otherwise, but prides the Champaign-Urbana Schools Foundation on being able to provide teachers with opportunities to improve their classrooms and schools.

“We know there are options for us that we can pursue in terms of grants, especially with CUSF being so visible in the community,” she said. “It makes it easier for teachers knowing that we can try different things and provide for our students, while feeling supported by this organization.”

Through it all, Sassine said that the pandemic really made her rethink what was important in the curriculum and adjust for the prioritized skills as well as the incorporation of better social-emotional learning (SEL) practices.

It’s clear that she places an emphasis on shifting pedagogical and teaching practices so that learning not only looks good on paper but can be seen in real time regardless of the social situations happening around us.

Transformational Grants: Tyler Sims @ Urbana High School

By: Marley Schultz

Tyler SimsPicture the average American high school: brown brick exterior with white cinderblock walls inside, blue metal lockers, and speckled vinyl flooring.
Nothing new but missing a splash of color or mark of inspiration.

Fortunately, Tyler Sims, an art teacher at Urbana High School, wanted to change that, and with the help of the Champaign-Urbana Schools Foundation, Sims and his students have a vision for an incredibly special mural to be completed in the coming years.

“I think the idea of any pops of color in the sad white spaces of the hallways is very welcomed,” said Sims. “There was a general excitement about it, and with art club, we’ve been slowly getting the big mural drawn.”

Sims received a compact grant from CUSF for $250, which was used to buy high quality acrylic paints which currently sit in Sims’ garage just waiting for the right time to be cracked open.

The design of the mural itself was completely left up to the students, and altogether the composition will include a colorful backdrop with the school’s ‘It’s the U Baybe’ hand sign displayed prominently.

“It’s a really nice message, and our principal came up with a new twist on the original sign and meaning,” he said. “One hand alone also means ‘I love you’ in sign language, and that’s a super important image for us.”

Still up in the air is how to paint the symbol, with the two most popular options including either filling it with handprints of all the students, or potentially painting it to resemble a realistic hand.

In the end, the goal for Sims is less about the final product and more about how it will impact and inspire students and staff throughout the building.
According to him, one of the toughest parts about being a teacher, especially during the pandemic, has been the rollercoaster of uncertainty and anxiety, coupled with the feelings of resilience and growth.

“Through it all, I feel I’ve gotten closer with my students, and people are more willing to be vulnerable and communicate their feelings,” Sims said. “A lot of trust has been built, and while the transitions have been hard, it seems people are more open.”

This is the first grant Sims has received through CUSF, as he was introduced to the organization earlier this year by colleagues, but he plans to apply for many more in the future.

“The organization is full of some of the most helpful people I’ve ever worked with,” he said. “For us at the schools, CUSF is a real pillar of the community.”

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