The day was dismal – cool, rainy, and muddy. Yet, there were smiles everywhere! My students were smiling, my colleague and I were smiling--even the parents who chaperoned this field trip were clearly enjoying themselves, despite the sour weather.
It was hard not to be caught up in the excitement. Students were collecting specimens, recording data, and having discussions based on their findings. The most amazing part? The groups that were working so well together met for the first time an hour before, when their buses arrived at the field site from their individual schools. My high school biology and AP environmental science students were collaborating with Justin Runne’s fifth graders from the nearby elementary school to test the quality of water at a local stream. They wanted to determine if the trout that were being raised in the fifth-grade classroom could be released at the end of the school year into a stream that was fed by the one being tested. This exercise was one part of the “Swimming Upstream” project that was funded through a grant from the Hipp Foundation.
The NJEA Frederick L. Hipp Foundation for Excellence in Education has awarded over $1.6 million to New Jersey teachers, in amounts of a few hundred to $10,000. Hipp grants, named in honor of NJEA’s longtime executive director Fred Hipp, fund classroom and extra-curricular projects that are innovative and exploratory in nature. If you have a great idea but need some financial help to get it off the ground, read on.
Writing a grant
All great projects start with an idea. It can be in the form of a question you want to answer, or a problem you want to solve. Maybe there is a topic with which your students grapple that you know could be better addressed through a field trip or other activity. Perhaps you read an article or saw a show that stimulated your thinking. Great ideas are all around us. NJEA’s Hipp webpage has links to past projects. Look at what others have done and brainstorm. Dream big! You can always fine tune your plans later.
My idea grew from a conversation with a fifth-grade teacher in my district, Justin Runne. He was having students read Come Back Salmon by Molly Cone. I asked if his students dissected fish as part of the lesson. When he said he did not, I invited him to bring his classes so they and my high school biology students could dissect together. This proved to be an amazing experience that prompted further discussion and led me to write that first Hipp grant.
Once you have your idea, write a list of purchases that would make your dream a reality. If these are items the district should provide, you are one step closer to achieving your goal, and will not need a grant. If you find that your dream falls outside the boundaries imposed by your school budget, then you need to access the grant application on njea.org/Hipp and start writing. Examples of grant purchases are supplies or equipment, guest speakers, transportation, and field trips.
The grant application can seem a little daunting. I always tackle the piece with which I am most comfortable first, knowing the rest will fall into place.
Start by going to njea.org/hipp. You can complete the application electronically, but it must be printed out for signatures and mailed to NJEA.
Of the major application components, Objectives, Project Plan, Timeline, Assessment, and Budget, I usually begin with my Project Plan. When I know what I want to do, I can then determine the timeframe and materials I would need. Here are some hints and/or questions to guide you through each section.
- Objectives: Think learner objectives. What will students be able to do as a result of your project? Include overriding objectives, as well as individual ones.
- Project Plan: This is where you share your plan. Be specific; what exactly do you want to do, and when, with your students? How does this relate to the current curriculum? How is this different and innovative? Think of this as a brief explanation of your big idea.
- Timeline: You should plan to start after June of the year you receive your grant. Identify the activity you will do, when you plan to do it, and who is involved. Include all activities that are relevant to your project.
- Assessment: How will you know you were successful? What evidence can you collect to support your intuition? Consider final products, pre- and post-test data, and student reflections as examples of evidence.
- Budget: This is important! Link each item you are buying to an activity you are doing. A strong budget is one that makes clear connections between the program and the purchases. If you cannot justify it, do not include it. If your district will provide additional materials or transportation, indicate that support on your application.
Finalizing the plan
Once you write the application, set it aside for a couple of days. I find it useful to ask myself the following questions: Does it describe the plan I thought I was proposing? Are there gaps in thinking? Then pass it along to someone else to read. Resist the urge to outline your idea; see if the reader is able to explain it to you based on their review.
Share your plan and application with your administrators. They can read your application with a fresh set of eyes and let you know if your ideas are clear. And, you will need signatures from the superintendent as well as your association president, so having them on board will expedite that process.
The Hipp grant application contains important guidelines that I found very helpful. Be careful not to include any information that would reveal the district in which you teach. The committee that reviews the applications does it “blindly” to ensure fair consideration for all who apply. Every year good ideas are not funded for simple oversights like a lack of signatures or the inclusion of identifying information.
When you are satisfied with your application, sign it, collect the other signatures you need, and mail it before March 1. If you have won a grant, you will be notified in the spring. One of the unique features of Hipp grants is that the money is awarded directly you, not your board of education. That makes managing the project much easier. The NJEA staff members are extremely supportive and want to see you achieve your goals, so they will provide you with all of the assistance you need throughout the year.
My Hipp Grants
The first grant, “Swimming Upstream,” grew out of the initial experience in which my students and Mr. Runne’s dissected fish together. We were awestruck at the way the older students worked with the younger ones. There were over 40 students in the class at one time and you could hear a pin drop. The fifth graders saw the high schoolers as role models while my biology students clearly enjoyed acting as mentors.
When Justin and I spoke afterward, he shared his dream of participating in the Trout in the Classroom project. Soon a Hipp project was born! Of course, I had to learn a lot about raising, releasing, and catching trout to write the application. But when we saw how much our students learned from this project, it was all worthwhile. And, toward the end of the year, we were fortunate enough to be featured in an episode of “Classroom Close-Up, NJ.” It was a “movie star moment” for our students as they conducted field studies.
Our initial project was expanded this year in my continuation grant, “Swimming Upstream,” Meeting in the Middle. Two more elementary schools in our district have trout growing in their classrooms, and four more high school classes will guide elementary students through dissection and water quality studies. The new classes sang “Happy Birthday” to the first trout that hatched, and have invited other grades in their school to watch their fry grow. The high school students know they will be called on to lead dissection and field studies again and frequently ask when that will happen. And to think that all of this came to be from a conversation that turned into an idea that turned into a Hipp grant.
Coleen Weiss-Magasic teaches college prep and AP biology classes at West Milford Township High School. Weiss-Magasic can be reached at Coleen.Weiss-Magasic@wmtps.org.