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March 10, 2010 > Joseph Weller Elementary instructor wins innovation grant

Joseph Weller Elementary instructor wins innovation grant

By Steve Wyant

The Silicon Valley Education Foundation (SVEF), in partnership with radio station KBAY Teacher of the Month program, awarded Debbie Da Silva a Teacher Innovation Field Trip Grant. Da Silva teaches second and third grade students at Joseph Weller Elementary School, Milpitas. The field trip grant was used to take students to Zeum: San Francisco's Children's Museum, where they learned clay animation techniques.

To qualify for the award, Da Silva, with the help of fellow third grade teacher Ms. Semrau, wrote an essay on the project and why it is innovative, and submitted lesson plans on, a free website provided by SVEF to provide innovative tools for teachers.

Da Silva apparently has a knack for innovative ideas and fundraising. Last year, she also received a SVEF Innovation Grant, earning $500 to purchase a document camera that she uses regularly in her classroom.

A Bay Area native, Debbie grew up in Newark, a city she still calls home. She attended Ohlone College before earning a degree in textiles and clothing from San Francisco State. She began working in the clothing industry, only to be laid off twice in the challenging economy of 1989-1990. At that point she decided to enter the teaching profession.

Fond memories of her fourth grade teacher Ms. Zagaris and the encouragement of one of her carpool buddies, who happened to be one of her former instructors at Ohlone, while attending SF State influenced her decision to enter the teaching profession. Ironically, one of the teachers for whom she substituted was her former fourth grade teacher.

Now a 12-year veteran, Da Silva first taught at E.L. Musick Elementary, Newark, then spent time at Rose and Randall Elementary Schools, Milpitas, before joining Joseph Weller four years ago.

As part of her ongoing pursuit of improving her skills, Debbie enrolled in the Earn Why You Learn (now re-named MERIT) program at the Krause Center for Innovation (KCI) at Foothill College in 2007. The three-week program trains teachers to use technology in the classroom. The knowledge she acquired led her to apply for the grant to purchase the document camera.

One of the KCI program's goals is for its graduates to be able to support their school staff in areas of technology. Both Da Silva and Semrau are now Tech Leaders and provide first-line, tech support for the school staff.

"I'd never have thought I could do that five years ago and now realize I can," Da Silva said. "You just have to know where to find the answers."

One of the duties of a Tech Lead is being in charge of the school's website. She helped a number of teachers set up their web pages this year. She also had the opportunity to become the Yearbook Coordinator, providing guidance during its first year as a digital project.

Da Silva describes her teaching style as "hands-on, make it fun," trying to move from always doing worksheets. In their unit on "measuring," she directed her students to make "Mr. Gallon Man" who provides a visual representation of the various proportions of gallons, quarts, pints and cups. Working interactively makes it easier for students to retain the information. Another skill she has developed is to let her students believe she is learning during the lessons with them and sharing in the learning experience. She believes it encourages them to feel they can learn, too.

Teaching in a school with a relatively high percentage of English as a Second Language (ESL) students has given Da Silva a pragmatic understanding of the role standardized tests play in teacher evaluations.

"While they may be a necessary component, you can't (solely) judge what a child learns on a test answer bubble. The level of language and knowledge is very disparate in many communities. Maintain a portfolio for a child. Comparing how they wrote when they came in with how they write now proves how much they learn," Da Silva concluded.

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