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Gullah-Geechee PD in Georgia: Scholarships Available!

Curious to learn about Gullah-Geechee culture and African-American history in the Lowcountry of Savannah, and Georgia’s coastal islands? Let’s hear about a group travel professional development for teachers on this topic — with scholarships available! — explained by Tara Thomas, an educator who recently returned from the trip.

Teaching Traveling: Tell us a bit about your background, Tara.

Tara Thomas during walking tour of Savannah, GA
Tara during walking tour of Savannah, GA.

Tara: Hi, I am Tara Thomas, a school librarian at Hutchison School, a Pre-K-12th grade school for girls in Memphis, Tennessee. I primarily work with students and teachers in the Early Childhood and Lower School.  I am in my 12th year in this role, and I served for approximately 10 years as a substitute and 4th and 5th grade teacher in the public school system here in Memphis.  

I try to travel as an educator at least once a year. It is usually during the summer. My most important travel experience so far has been visiting Colombia as a Fulbright Teacher for Global Classrooms Fellow in 2019.

Visit at the studio of The Gullahsmith, Mr. Gilbert Walker.
Visit at the studio of The Gullahsmith, Mr. Gilbert Walker.

TT: Nice! Tell us about your travels to the Lowcountry to study Gullah-Geechee culture.  

Tara: I most recently traveled to Savannah, Georgia in July as a part of the Nobis Project. It is a service-learning project with the main purpose of helping educators connect to the history and culture of the Gullah-Geechee people. 

We achieved this goal through walking tours, discussions with community stakeholders, cultural demonstrations, and amazing local food. The highlight of the experience was visiting Sapelo Island. Approximately 28 residents of the Gullah-Geechee community still live there. 

Sweetgrass Basket Lesson.
A sweetgrass basket lesson.

We took a ferry there and had an extensive tour of the island, an amazing lunch, and a sweetgrass basket demonstration, all done by award-winning basket maker and resident, Mrs. Yvonne Grovner. We learned about the struggles to maintain the Gullah-Geechee way of life due to hurricanes, and government entities trying to take away or significantly change their land.  

We also visited the Kings-Tisdale Cottage which now functions as a museum that shows the many businesses of African-Americans in Savannah from the 19th and 20th centuries. We then planned lessons that the Kings-Tisdale Cottage, a small historic home and museum, could use to help local educators prepare for their visit or extend the knowledge of their students.  

Early Morning Ferry View of Goat Beach, Sapelo Island.
Early Morning Ferry View of Goat Beach, Sapelo Island.

I met educators, diversity and inclusion directors, and even another amazing librarian from other private schools across the country. We had important and sometimes tough conversations about making connections with families that represent minority communities in our schools and cities and finding ways to reach out, make positive change, and encourage students to use their gifts and skills to make positive change in their communities.

TT: What a wonderful-sounding trip. How do you find your travel opportunities?

Tara: I found out about this opportunity and the aforementioned Fulbright opportunity through the Scholarships, Grants, Summer Institutes Teachers Facebook group. The tips and discussions in this group have been very beneficial to my goal of being a well-traveled educator.

Sweetgrass Basket Lesson with Mrs. Yvonne Grovner.
Weaving sweetgrass baskets with Mrs. Yvonne Grovner.

TT: How did you find the money to fund your Georgia group travel?

Tara: I applied for and was offered a scholarship through the Nobis Project. My school funded the rest of my travel experience. Thankfully, there was money allocated for professional development. 

I had to apply and explain how the experience would benefit students and the greater school community. I don’t always get travel grants and scholarships or funding, but I apply each year.

Mr. Jamal Toure', our tour guide explaining the importance of The African American Monument in Savannah, GA.
Mr. Jamal Toure’, our tour guide explaining the importance of The African American Monument in Savannah, GA.

TT: Ah! Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful.

Tara: One powerful moment was when we were on our walking tour of Savannah. Our tour guide, Jamal Toure’, a proud member of the Gullah-Geechee community, told us that history was all around us. We just needed to listen and pay attention. 

He showed us shops and a former parking lot near the waterfront that once housed Africans who were waiting to be sold into slavery. He went into great detail about the inhumane treatment of these people.  

He also shared with us that he had given this same tour to students years before. The students were so moved by what they learned about the treatment of enslaved Africans that they petitioned the local government. 

Savannah, GA
The expert tour guide in Savannah, GA.

They felt that the lives of the people who sometimes died while awaiting being sold should be honored. Due to their efforts, a historical marker stands that tells why this place is important. Cars are no longer allowed to park in that space.  

This experience helped many realize that we needed to learn more about the cities where we were from, share this knowledge, and effect positive change and awareness in our own communities.

Lunch prepared by Ms. Grovner during Sapelo Island visit.
Lunch prepared by Ms. Grovner during Sapelo Island visit.

TT: So powerful. How have your travels impacted you as a teacher and person? 

Tara: I am always surprised at the ways that I grow after traveling as an educator. I always meet like-minded, forward-thinking people that have a passion for the work that they do. They inspire me to think in new ways. We often stay connected through social media. 

Specifically, as a librarian, I know that my travels have made me better at choosing books and other resources for my school. I feel that life-long learning is crucial to being a good educator.  

I have come to terms with the fact that I was inaccurately taught some things about history and that new discoveries are being made and new stories are being told. Seeing new places, people, and historical sites in-person has helped me make more accurate choices for what books go into my space and made me a better resource for teachers and students who are doing research.

4 Sankofa bird made by Mr. Walker showing the importance of remembering history.
Sankofa bird made by Mr. Walker showing the importance of remembering history.

As a person, I have always found out something new about myself when I travel. I have found that I have ideas and generalizations about people and places that have been proven inaccurate. I have had to learn to navigate new places and experience nature in a way that I don’t do at home. 

Being able to see the peace and beauty of Sapelo Island during my most recent trip was particularly meaningful to me. I truly appreciated the gift of close community and the sound and feel of the ocean. It was a powerful experience!

Tara on Goat Beach, Sapelo Island.
Tara on Goat Beach, Sapelo Island.

TT: What advice do you have for teachers who are dreaming of travel, or travelers dreaming of teaching?

Tara: It sounds cliche’, but Just Do It!  Let people at your school know of your desire to travel. Money sometimes becomes available at the last minute, and if people know that you’re interested, they may send money and opportunity your way.  

I also would say, look for opportunities based on your passions. You may teach Math and still love historical places. If you have travels based on your passions, you will add an interesting layer to your lessons that will energize you and may inspire others!

TT: Thanks so much, Tara! Readers, what questions or comments do you have?


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T. Thomas

Wednesday 25th of October 2023

It was an honor to share this experience. Thank you for the brilliant way that you put everything together, Lillie!

Lillie Marshall

Thursday 26th of October 2023

Aww, thank you! And thanks for your wonderful interview.

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