Priscilla Zelaya remembers the high school teacher who made her world a little bigger.
“Peter Corrado,” she said. “We still keep in touch.”
Zelaya said Corrado was the first teacher she ever had who exposed her class to global issues like poverty and conflict. Corrado opened his students’ eyes, she said, but kept his mouth shut.
“He never told us what to think or how to feel,” Zelaya said. “He allowed us to make our own judgments about it all.”
Today, Zelaya leads a non-profit organization, organizes volunteer trips back and forth to Haiti and teaches Gainesville students about global issues, all while pursuing her doctoral degree at the University of Florida.
Zelaya is also organizing the first annual Gainesville Connected conference; a gathering specifically for teachers looking to provide their students with an international perspective. The goal of the conference is to help teachers learn how to encourage their students to think globally and to provide them with the resources to do so.
“We want to develop global citizens and start it soon,” she said. “By doing this, we can help teachers to help their students break down stereotypes and expand their horizons.”
Zelaya has been working with Bertrhude Albert for several years after founding their non-profit organization, Projects for Haiti in 2011. Together they have teamed up with Haitians to help empower Haitian communities to improve education and sustain their efforts amid the devastation left by the 2010 earthquake. The Gainesville Connected conference is their latest project.
Zelaya said she and Albert started promoting global education locally with an initiative called 10K Connected, which gets them inside local classrooms to educate students about concepts such as global poverty. Since last October, they have reached more than 3,000 students in northern Florida. After seeing positive results from 10K Connected, Zelaya and Albert designed the conference to expand their efforts and give teachers the resources to promote global education themselves.
Gainesville Connected will take place Nov. 1 at the Alachua County Library Headquarters. There, registered teachers will hear from educators who have ties all over the world.
“It seemed like an ongoing thing that students are not too connected to what’s outside of Alachua County or their personal bubbles,” Albert said. “I believe strongly, and with all my heart, that having social consciousness and being socially aware isn’t something that a person should start figuring out in college.”
Scott Miller, a conference coordinator for Gainesville Connected, can attest to that. He said he didn’t start learning about many current global issues until he began school at the University of Florida three years ago. While working with 10K Connected, Miller said he meets high school seniors who are unaware of many of the issues facing global communities.
“It’s a real shock to them when they learn the facts about poverty in the rest of the world and what some people live through every day,” Miller said.
He believes encouraging students to learn about global issues is crucial. Education has always been a part of his life, so he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to help create the conference.
“My mom has actually been a teacher for over 30 years,” he said. “The moment I told her what I was getting involved with, she signed up.”
Albert adds that by engaging in activities that make students socially empathetic, students and teachers can begin to see professional and personal development in their own lives. She recalls giving a presentation on poverty to a group of young students, one of whom had behavioral issues. After the presentation, she said, things started to change.
“The teacher called to tell us that the boy had made a bit of a turnaround,” Albert said. “He came in the very next day to donate a bar of soap and became really interested in helping people. The empathy he developed reshaped the way he interacts with others.”
Miller said he is excited to be a part of something he believes will produce real results for local teachers and students. He thinks that exposing students to global issues will help some of them find projects they are passionate about and can eventually pursue.
“I feel like I’m a part of something that has some real world impact,” he said, “and I’ve never felt that before.”
Albert says the conference will be structured much like a Ted Talk. Each speaker will have 15 minutes to share the ways their global efforts are impacting local students. Afterward, the teachers will learn how to take what they’ve been shown and apply it practically in their own classrooms.
Zelaya said they currently have 100 teachers signed up. Some, she said, will be driving as far as Daytona, Orlando and West Palm Beach to attend the conference in Gainesville. After receiving positive feedback from registered teachers, Zelaya said her team is already planning next year’s conference.
Zelaya and Albert have extended the deadline to Oct. 31 to allow for about 50 more teachers to sign up.
Zelaya adds that what she and Albert are working to do in classrooms ties into Common Core objectives for teachers. Common Core’s standards, Zelaya said, include critical thinking skills and public speaking, which are two essential components in what she is working to bring to the classroom.
Much like Mr. Corrado did for her, Zelaya wants to help other teachers open their students’ eyes to the rest of the world. Even if people think some of the information goes over a child’s head, she thinks this sort of development is necessary.
“In every classroom I’ve been to, elementary through high school, the kids want to know what they can do to help,” Zelaya said. “Development like this tugs at the heart and truly sticks with the student.”