Crowd-funding Classroom Needs with DonorsChoose.org: An Interview with Sharon Sullivan
I had the pleasure of meeting Sharon Sullivan at her school, Wells Elementary School, in Wilson, NC, to talk to her about how she uses the popular educational grant-funding website, DonorsChoose.org, to meet the needs of her students. Ms. Sullivan taught for 11 years at an elementary school in Durham and has been in Wilson for the last two years. She is currently teaching 5th English Language Arts and Social Studies.
She has used DonorsChoose.org to fund MI Write (formerly PEG Writing), along with many other projects and supplies, several times in her teaching career and has become an expert grant writer. Since funding is a hardship felt by many teachers and schools across the country, we wanted a closer look at how DonorsChoose.org has been used to provide materials and subscriptions that make a huge impact on student success.
When and how did you discover MI Write?
I heard about it over ten years ago when I was teaching at the elementary school in Durham. It was called NC Write then. It was mandated by the school, and I was kind of overwhelmed by it in the beginning. But then, I had an exceptional group of 4th and 5th graders who just loved it. They loved it so much that one day, I was sitting in my room and talking with another teacher, and I had a girl sitting on the floor with her headphones on, working on an NC Write lesson. The other teacher was like, “Should we be talking in front of her?” and I said, “Oh no, it’s like TV to them.” She had no clue that we were in the room. She preferred to do that over recess.
Wow. You know you’ve got a good thing when they want to stay in at recess!
Oh yes. I kept that group of students for two years, for 4th and 5th grades, and we weren’t going to get funding for it the next year. So my rising 5th graders wrote letters to the PTA saying how incredible this writing program was and how important it would be for the 4th graders to have it, and that’s how we got funding that year.
What were the obstacles you faced when you decided to start using MI Write?
Obviously, funding is one of the obstacles. With last year's group of kids, it was a totally different environment. I had a mostly Hispanic population where English is truly their second language, and I said, “Just give me two weeks with it and I promise you’ll love it,” and it worked. What I found was that my Hispanic population actually did the best with this program. I think it’s because it was a quiet way for them to learn English. I would catch kids doing the lessons on their own, and that’s an amazing thing to see. When you think they’re on something else on their Chromebook and you look and see it’s MI Write, it's amazing! So the obstacle was “I don’t want to do it,” and just to get them to try it. I did a lot of modeling first to show them how it works. I actually run a lot of my writing through it as well. I think that was helpful. Another obstacle goes back to funding. This year, my principal thought she had the funds for it, but she didn’t.
I [also have had push back] from my school because they didn’t quite understand; they thought it was something where I was saying, “Okay, GO,” and then letting my students just do whatever they wanted on it. So it took a little bit of, “No, you really do have to guide the children through things,” to help convince them. I’m also using the messenger thing on there with the students and we’re talking back and forth. So it’s not a completely independent program, and I’m not just saying, “Go for it.” [My administrators] thought it was more like a game.
When and how did you find out about DonorChoose.org?
My assistant principal [at the elementary school in Durham]. We needed calculators and she asked me to write [a grant], and I’d never heard of them before, so she helped me put it together. I've been using DonorsChoose.org ever since; so about 13 years.
Have you become the grant writer?
Yes. I have written one for two people at this school this year, and I’ve written three grants for people at other schools. It takes me maybe an hour to put one together at this point because it’s really short and simple to do.
How does DonorsChoose.org work? Walk me through that process.
After creating your account, you write a paragraph about who your kids are, and then about three paragraphs about what it is that you want and how you’ll use it in the classroom. It comes down to writing four or five paragraphs and then they take care of the rest.
The people at DonorsChoose.org have been really helpful because they’ll do these special days where they’ll match funding and that’s how we got the second grant funded this year. I just got funding for two other classes in 5th grade, and that was done by my sister-in-law and someone from California who just came in and did the rest. I have no idea who that was. I think my most recent MI Write grant was funded because the DonorsChoose.org staff can look through the grants and recommend them to people who donate on a regular basis, so our grant actually got passed along to some of the regulars.
When you first start using DonorsChoose.org, they don’t let you use an outside vendor, like MI Write, but all you have to do is email them and they will help you. I’ve gotten to know a few of the people there like Kate. I talked to her and just told her what I’m looking to do. I try to get my donors lined up ahead of time, and she’ll make special allowances for me, so that has been really, really helpful.
So [the staff] can look through the grants and recommend them to people who regularly donate?
Yes, or people who have donated to me in the past will sometimes get an email from DonorsChoose.org letting them know that I’ve got a new grant.
Former parents have been good to donate as well. One time, I called my dad and said, “Would you please fund this?” I’ve even had aunts and uncles of the kids donate. The kids will advocate for it too. The way I got my first class on it was through DonorsChoose.org and I knew one person who had donated, and the rest were total strangers.
What I love about DonorsChoose.org is that it’s specifically for classrooms. People know what they are donating for, it’s for education. Have you used them for other projects?
Oh yeah. I’ve used it for field trips, like helping our kids get to Washington, DC; for a lot of materials; I just did a Social Studies one. I use it for a lot of things, even schools supplies.
The other nice thing about it is that DonorsChoose.org asks you to write a thank you note to the donors, which I think is great. But then they ask the kids to write a thank you note too once it’s funded. What I usually do is send samples of their writing (that they want to share with other people), and that goes to the donors.
Also, when you donate, you can give up to 15% of your donation to go back to the general community, and they reach schools that don’t really have a chance of getting funded. So that’s good for schools in a very low-income area. It doesn’t mean you can’t use it because DonorsChoose.org will help you get your grant out to people or they’ll fund it themselves. I do encourage any of the people that I know to go ahead and give that 15% because that’s giving back to somebody else.
What would those small grants be for?
They could really be for anything. [DonorsChoose.org is] attached to Best Buy, Amazon, LakeShore, and other big companies. I’ve done grants for paper and things like that. I recently got four boxes of paper from Amazon and that cost about $100. You can get things that you need. Still, you can’t just jump right in [with the outside vendors], but you can always just email the people there and ask.
What would be your advice for teachers who wanted to use MI Write or DonorsChoose.org?
For MI Write, I’d let them know that there are a lot of components to it, and I know that when I’ve seen teachers kind of shy away from it, it’s because of the technology piece and they just think it’s too much. But I started small and focused on maybe one or two things at a time and learned as I went. I think my advice to someone who is new to MI Write is don’t stress out about it because the kids will show you stuff and you’ll pick up things as you go. It’s a really great resource and the kids really, really take ownership over it.
My advice to anyone who wants to use DonorsChoose.org would be to do really small grants at first, like $100. They work on a point system, and you can't use outside vendors until you have five points. So these smaller grants are quick and easy to fund and will give you points to build up to be able to use an outside vendor. Also, kick it off with a small donation yourself. I usually start mine with $25. I also try to keep my grants under $500, which is why I did MI Write in two parts because it’s more likely to get funded.