Podcast: Donna in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, for Teachers in America

On the HMH Learning Moments podcast today, we have the fifth episode of the Teachers in America series hosted by HMH’s Chief Learning Officer, Rose Else-Mitchell. 



Our guest is Donna Gradel. Donna teaches environmental science and innovative research at Broken Arrow High School in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, where she is committed to unlocking the potential of her students by giving them opportunities to tackle real-world problems. In addition to the many accomplishments you’ll hear about in the episode, Donna also serves as Broken Arrow High School’s science department chair and is an advocate for STEM curriculum and facilities.

In 2015, Donna was one of 10 educators throughout the nation to receive the Henry Ford Innovation Nation Innovative Teacher Award. She was also the recipient of the 2017 Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators, recognizing her innovative approach to environmental education. Donna was one of four finalists—along with finalists Kelly Harper and Danielle Riha, and winner Rodney Robinson—for the National Teacher of the Year for 2019.

Rose first met Donna in Washington, D.C., earlier this year at a reception for all of the state Teachers of the Year. Today’s episode was recorded via phone after their meeting.

Below is a full transcript of the episode.

Donna Gradel teaching students in Kenya.

Onalee Smith: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments. I’m Onalee, and I’m excited to share today’s special episode of Teachers in America as host Rose Else-Mitchell, HMH’s Chief Learning Officer, talks with Donna Gradel, who is the 2019 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year and a finalist for this year’s National Teacher of the Year award. Donna teaches environmental science and innovative research at Broken Arrow High School in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. In 2018, Oklahoma teachers, including Donna and her peers at Broken Arrow, successfully organized a walkout, which lasted two weeks, in order to demand better pay and increased school funding and support.

Along with her students, Donna created the Aqua for Tharaka campaign, which provides clean water and protein for orphans in Kenya. Under her leadership, Broken Arrow High School was the first Oklahoma school to receive a Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam grant. Donna also co-founded the Together Project, a collaboration between the city and the public schools dedicated to finding environmentally friendly ways to restore and enhance the city’s waterways. In addition to being an award-winning educator, Donna is an Oklahoma girls’ basketball state championship coach, a Survivor Co-Chair for Tulsa’s Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, and she holds a bachelor’s and master’s of science from West Virginia University. Now, let’s turn it over to Donna and Rose.

Rose Else-Mitchell: Congratulations! You are the Oklahoma Teacher of the Year for 2019.

Donna Gradel: Thank you.

Rose: Broken Arrow High School must be very proud of you. Did you imagine after 30 years of teaching that something like this could happen?

Donna: No, no. It's funny because you just . . . you know, the way I look at it is I just go to work and I'm passionate. I try to be passionate. I try to connect with my students. I try to work with them, give them some autonomy. I mean, I never dreamed that I would receive awards for just doing what I feel like I love to do and having great students and having a great community that supports you. So yeah, it's been a very exciting time.

Rose: What has it meant to you to have that acknowledgement? 

Donna: Well, it's been a great year. I was a person who—I can't say I was contained into the four walls of my classroom because obviously you know I'm not—as far as an instructor and an educator. But as far as an advocate for education, for students—certain policy and legislation—I really did not have a big role in that. Now in my local community, I was always advocating for more STEM facilities and STEM equipment and STEM opportunities for my students and collaboration and cultural experiences . . . I've always been a big advocate for that wherever I've been. But as far as going to the state level and then the national level, not so much. But last year with our walkout [and] having the opportunity to actually be a voice as an educator and as someone who had this position, it's really changed my viewpoint of a lot of things—the all-encompassing advocacy that's involved in being an educator.

[Read more about the 2018 Oklahoma Teachers Union’s walkout.]

Donna: You know, my platform is about allowing students to have these experiences to try to solve real-world problems and that they can realize their dreams, that they can be world changers. And so on our local level, now we have passed a bond issue where we are building what's called an Innovation Academy. Initially we were looking towards a STEM academy but now we realize that we wanted to be innovative and we wanted to encompass all disciplines. So, I'm very happy to say that I've had a huge role in that—in the development of it, in the committee, and we'll continue to have a role in that, which really excites me. So that's one of my passions. On the state level, I think sometimes as an experienced teacher, we have been in this profession for so long that we kind of get the attitude: “Well, I know what I’d signed up to work for, and I've done it before so I'll just do it again. Pay doesn't really matter that much. I have this passion." Like, we're brainwashed to think this because we lived it for so many years, but younger teachers don't feel that way. They want the respect back. When I started my career, there was a lot of respect for the teaching profession, and there was . . . it was considered a noble profession. It was just treated differently. And then we went through this phase where it's just, you know, it's underfunded. So, we have this generation, this younger generation, the teachers it's like, “Hey, well, we're not putting up with this.” And I think that they have helped to inspire the more experienced teachers. And I like that about them. And so I think that whole experience [of the walkout] for me, and being a part of that, and being a part of being able to have face-to-face discussions with the policymakers has been very enlightening and has been very rewarding, because I do think that collectively . . . I don't think there's just a handful of—the Teacher of the Year is not going to change anything—but the teachers of the state are changing a lot.

Donna Gradel with her students in Oklahoma, designing a renewable energy source for Kenya

Rose: Can you tell me about a teacher that changed your life or had an impact on your choosing to join the profession?

Donna: Yes, I can. Throughout my lifetime, I would say two of my passions have always been nature and sports. And so I grew up during the pre–Title IX [era], and as I entered middle school it was right at the height of the Title IX era, and I loved playing basketball.

[Read more about the history of Title IX with an outline of the legislative chronology.]

And once I got into junior high, middle school, I had this dream that I wanted to get a scholarship but there weren't any for women. And the opportunities for me to play in a school setting, an organized women's basketball team, wasn't there. So as I got into middle school, the boys’ basketball coach—who was . . . Mr. Pizzuti was his name—he was also the industrial arts teacher. He would open the gym so that we could go in the morning and shoot, and I would be the only girl in there. But he noticed my passion and my talent, and so he approached the administration to start a girls’ basketball team. But it didn't come about, didn’t materialize. So he did something that was very unpopular. He recruited me to play on the boys’ team. And so that, at that point in time, was not necessarily the most popular decision that he had made. But he brought me in, and as I started practicing with the boys, all the fathers were showing up for practice—and immediately when they realized that I was probably going to get quite a bit of playing time, a girls’ team was formed. So for me, when I think about Mr. Pizzuti and his willingness to actually place his career on the line so that he could give me an equal opportunity to play basketball, that really demonstrated to me the power of a principle teacher who would go to bat for someone that wasn't even one of his students. I wasn't in his class, but yet he saw my talent, he saw my passion, and he decided gender shouldn't be what keeps me from pursuing what I want to do. So he gave me that opportunity, which eventually—because of that playing time on the girls’ team—catapulted me into a high school career where I was all-state and then eventually I did get a basketball scholarship to West Virginia University. So he was the first one that really impacted me.

Rose: So you teach environmental science, and a sustainable environment is core to the principles of environmental science. What made you choose this particular ecosystem? And talk a little bit about what the students got from that experience.

Donna: Well, I had been on a trip to Kenya in 2004, and because I was a teacher, I was able to visit many different types of schools—the presidential schools and some were way out in what we called “the bush,” which were just huts. Along and throughout Kenya, I started noticing these large ponds and they just looked like green water. So I started asking a lot of questions and they said, “Oh, that is Kenya’s project to combat protein deficiency.” So basically what the government did is they said, “If you will dig a hole, you'll line it [and] fill it with water. We will provide tilapia fingerlings and a bag of food and you can grow your own protein now.” And so I was noticing all these ponds, but there was nothing in them. Maybe every once in awhile, I'd see a mouth—a fish up at the surface gasping for some oxygen. And I said, “What are those?” And they said, “Oh, those were old. They don't function anymore.” But they explained to me the process, and they said the water is too dirty. And I said, “You know, we could actually clean that water, and we could use the dirty water to grow plants also.” And so this thought came in my mind, which I had seen from a workshop years earlier—somebody with teaching on aquaponics systems. So as I came back to school, and several years later, as I was teaching my students and we were having discussions—through our curriculum on clean water initiatives and sustainable farming practices and methods—that's when one student raised their hand and said, “Why can't we help them? Why aren't we doing anything to provide clean water and protein for these orphans and young people in another country?” And so I said, “I think we can,” and started discussing it and realized that there was an opportunity that we could actually work on something here in America and then take it over there and try to . . . initially [it] was to try to clean out a pond and see if we could make it work. As you know, things don't always work out the way you initially plan them. So we had to deviate from our initial plan and go a different direction but . . . we ended up building the entire thing, the entire system—the fish ponds, the greenhouse, the grow beds, everything—at an orphanage as opposed to trying to clean up old ones.

[Learn more about how aquaponics systems can provide a sustainable solution to food insecurity.]

Donna Gradel with students in Kenya, explaining to Kenyan orphans how to grow ingredients for fish food

Rose: That's incredible. I mean connecting your students somewhere in Oklahoma to somewhere in Kenya is an extraordinary opportunity for them to experience the world virtually but be solving a problem that really is impacting kids their own age, younger children, and children far away. How did they react to that and how did you engage them in something that was so far from their experience?

Donna: Oh, it was not difficult to engage them. I have found that this generation, and probably for the last 15 to 20 years, there is a very, very strong sense of purpose in these young people and they have a passion to make a difference when they see that they can have an impact positively on others’ lives or on cleaning up the environment or a solution for any problem. So engagement was the easiest part. The logistics was probably the most difficult part. 

Rose: [laughs] Right. Right.

Donna: So we went, and on that trip and then the following summer, we had an idea of then the scope of it and everything that was going to be needed. So we raised the money from our local foundation—students who wanted to go, they had to raise their own money. A couple of them I helped; if they didn't have access to the funds, we would help them out. We had a pool of students and their parents were involved. We went through a process of elimination. We could only take a certain number because of where we were staying. We were staying at a medical clinic out in the bush. The space was limited, so we could only take between five and 10 students. That forced us to really work with the native Kenyans, which was probably one of the greatest benefits to my students . . . was working side by side with people from a different culture and becoming friends with them and learning about their culture and solving problems. Because over here, you [say], ”Oh, the saw doesn't [work]?” You just plug in a saw, [and] you have electricity. Over there, so we didn't have any electricity, so we had to do everything by hand, etc., etc. The water didn’t work. How’re we gonna put the pumps in? It just was a problem-solving process from day one. And the students loved it. 

Rose: What do you think was the most important thing they learned about another culture in terms of working together side by side?

Donna: The severe poverty was moving . . . I think that really was enlightening to them because they didn't understand what it was like to live on less than a dollar a day and to not have access to medical care or education. I mean even in the United States, I mean we have poverty but we still have access to education. Most people have access to medical care or food. But when you're out there, it's not there. And I think that, and the fact that—and this was very enlightening—when we went back into Nairobi to come back home and we go through a part of the city where there's probably a mile of homes that were probably 30 million dollars or more. All [of a] sudden this inequity that is so exaggerated in a developing country became reality to them. Because they don't see it here in America as clearly.

But there, it was so extreme that they started [saying], “I can't believe they're not helping. Why don't they build roads out there? Why don't they get them clean water? Why don't they do this?” And I said, “Well, do we have any circumstances like this here in America, in Oklahoma?” And so it opened up a whole discussion. And so I think just the way the Kenyans live on so little, but yet they have a very strong spirit and they're very happy people. And that was—I think that was a lesson for them also. And the fact, I think, environmentally they got a bowl of water—that was all they got was a little bowl [of] water—to take their shower in at night. And the girls were, “How am I going to wash my hair? How am I going to do this?” I said, “You'll have extra water by the end of the week, because you'll learn how to do it.” And they did. And coming back here, they said, “Oh my gosh, I waste so much water here. I waste so much food here. I waste so much time here.” I mean the waste. I think those were the most impactful.

Rose: Yeah. That's pretty profound.

Rose: I know you did something pretty special between the high school and the community. I think you called it the Together Project. It was also about making sure that you're actually changing the environment of where you lived and I assume that was student driven as well.

Donna: Yes. That has been a very long term, and will continue to be a long term, collaboration between our school district and the city of Broken Arrow. And we've had a relationship with the city engineer and the water quality-control people for years because we have a stream that runs alongside our high school campus. And there was a pond on the other side of the street, and years ago they decided they were going to make it into actually a flood control pond so they dug it all up and lined the bottom with rocks. And I just remember saying, “Why are you ruining a natural habitat? We're developing so quickly we need to have these green spaces in our town as we continue to grow.” And that question they really took it to heart and thought about it and said, “You know you're right. How can we re-establish the natural habitat even though we need this flood control pond? But how can we allow nature to also thrive in this area?” And that's how this conversation came about. And then students became involved: “What can we do that's a natural sustainable way?” So they came up with the floating wetlands, and now we're working on rain gardens, and we'll continue to expand out where we're starting to bring nature back, because if we can get the quality of the water right then everything will come back. And then we'll get the bottom of the food chain correct, and then we'll start to have that sustainable system and a nice habitat. And the city, I mean, they want it. We're working at all of our waterways around the city now. So we will have elementary students doing certain things, we will have middle school students doing certain things, and then we will have our high school students doing other types of projects that . . . require research and then application and design and then we'll work with the city, and it's been a fabulous partnership.

Donna Gradel with her students in Oklahoma, working on creating a floating wetland

Rose: That is amazing. The opportunity for those kids to be truly part of the community—not just in a tokenistic way where the school and you as the teacher is thanked—but where they're actually contributing and they can pass those waterways every day and see the difference that they're making. I mean that sense of accomplishment is so different to what “regular” school work must look like to them. 

Donna: Yes, and it is [that] sense of accomplishment, sense of making a difference. They realize they've had an impact on their community and on the future of their community.

Rose: I'm wondering if you have a story about a student who you feel you've touched their life in a way that is perhaps just beyond the extraordinariness of the projects that you've run and just beyond the opportunities that you've given within the environmental science domain.

Donna: Well, there's one that comes to mind that I have permission to share. It’s a young girl and she actually was a Chinese girl that was adopted by a single mom—to the one-child policy, they decided to open up and say you can come over and adopt a baby girl. And so this lady goes over and brings back this girl, and fast-forward 15 years later she walks into my AP Environmental Science class by mistake. It was a scheduling error. And she stayed for two days and decided she wanted to stay. So about six weeks into the school year she . . . we had been . . . she would stay after school and discuss things because she was not driving. She still doesn't drive. So she came and she said, “Mrs. Gradel, I'm not going to be here next week. My mom went through a surgery, and there were complications, and she's on life support, and we're gonna pull the plugs. And so I have to go to California. That's where the funeral is gonna be.” And she was so worried about missing her work because she's such a conscientious student. And I'm like, “Oh my goodness, don't worry about that!” So this relationship began to develop because she kept on . . . I said, “Here's my phone number.” And so we developed this relationship. She comes back and [after] maybe a few weeks back, I get a call from her grandma, and she says, “I need you to help me with this girl.” Again, here she is, she's an orphan again. And she says, “I don't know how to direct her for her future.” And she said, “You're the only person she talks about, so can you help me here?” So I started talking to her about her dreams, and I said “What are your dreams?” [She said,] “I don't have any dreams.”

[Hear more from NPR's All Things Considered about the impact of China's one-child policy on U.S. adoptions.]

I said, “You have to have a dream! Some deep . . . there's nothing that you've ever thought of as like ‘This is a dream. I want to do it. I want to be it. I want to go there.’” She said, “Well, yeah, when I was in eighth grade, I wanted to go to MIT but I know I can't go to MIT.” And I said, “Oh my gosh! You can go to MIT! You're smart enough. You could go to MIT.” I said, “You just need some leadership roles and you need a project.” And so I had an environmental science club. She decided to run as president and she ended up undertaking and take on . . . she's the one who helped initiate and start the Aqua for Tharaka. All of it. And she got accepted to MIT, and several summers ago, my husband and I were up there for her graduation. And I look at her life and . . . and I think, “Wow!” And I told her, I said, “You have such an amazing story. You need to tell your story.” But she doesn't . . . she doesn't care if somebody else tells her story. She just doesn't find it compelling to her, and I'm like, “Oh my goodness gracious.” But if it wasn't for her and her leadership ability and her technological ability and her amazing intelligence, I'm not sure any of these things would have actually gotten off the ground. She was the one who started our website. She's the one who started . . . came up with a name. And we did amazing fundraisers. I mean we raised twenty thousand dollars in a year to provide clean water, a well to a remote region, and then to provide all the supplies to build up an aquaponic system. And she has never been to Africa, but without her probably none of us would have gone. She graduated from MIT. She's now going back to Harvard. She took a couple of years off. She's been working, but her plan is to go to Harvard grad school and get an MBA. She got her undergrad in biomedical engineering, and she’s just thriving.

Donna Gradel with a group of her students in Oklahoma

Rose: That is a fantastic story. Donna, thank you so much for sharing it. And you say without her you wouldn't have had the project, but without you she wouldn't have had her life and her dream. So thank you for all of the ways that you clearly are able to touch your students. Before we go I wanted to ask you . . . you mentioned your husband. I wonder what your family thinks about all of this: your projects, your passion for the work, crossing continents to be able to provide clean water to children in Kenya, and supporting all these children that you know aren't yours but you feel so connected to and committed to supporting.

Donna: My parents. My father's no longer with us but my mom is still here, and my mom's . . . both of my parents have been extremely proud of me. I mean, I was in premed when I went to college, and I still wasn't convinced until I met my college basketball coach that I really should go into education. But my father was the one who always said, “You should be a teacher. You can help young people. I see you should do this.” And I'm like, “No, I'm going to be a doctor.” And so my father has always been so proud of me and always was. My mother, my siblings, my whole extended family, and of course my husband—I always say, “The poor guy. I don't think he knew what he was getting into when he married me.” But he has been incredibly supportive and has never in any way kept me from following my dreams and allowing me the support that I need to pursue these things, and he just thinks it's wonderful.

We got married a little bit later in life, and about a year into marriage, our marriage, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and just received a lot of chemotherapy, which eventually . . . I was not able to have children. So we've never had our own biological children, but we have supported a girl in Kenya for years and years—put her through school, put her through college, put her through grad school—and she was an orphan, and so she got married and they named their son after Rich. So we kind of have a family in Kenya, which is another reason why I like to go there now because it's now become a little more personal as well. But I would say my family’s very proud of me and has always been . . . has always encouraged me to continue to help young people. To make the world a better place.

Rose: I'm sure that you don't feel like another 30 years of teaching would be a good idea, but I do. My goodness. I mean, what you have given Broken Arrow High School and the other places that you've worked, what you've given your local community, you've given to all of these students that you've talked about and multiple places in Kenya and think of all of the science that your students leave with that they're able to take to other sustainable projects or future work that they do. It's really extraordinary the impact you've had, Donna. I feel honored to have spent this time with you and to have met you, and thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

Onalee: Thanks for listening and learning with us. Join our community and read our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. You can follow HMH Learning Moments on iTunes [Apple Podcasts], Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Stay tuned for future episodes of Teachers in America, including an upcoming interview with Rodney Robinson, the 2019 National Teacher of the Year. We hope you enjoyed today’s show and will please consider rating and reviewing or sharing with your network. HMH Learning Moments is produced by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, The Learning Company. Thanks again for listening, and we’ll see you next time.

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