This Life with Gracie: Druid Hills Fulbright scholar headed to Greece

Vincent Gray, a U.S. history teacher at Druid Hills High School, explains how he used a Wal-Mart receipt to hone his students’ critical thinking skills. GRACIE BONDS STAPLES / GSTAPLES@AJC.COM
Vincent Gray, a U.S. history teacher at Druid Hills High School, explains how he used a Wal-Mart receipt to hone his students’ critical thinking skills. GRACIE BONDS STAPLES / GSTAPLES@AJC.COM

Credit: GRACIEBONDSSTAPLES/gstaples@ajc

Credit: GRACIEBONDSSTAPLES/gstaples@ajc

At the end of another school day early this month, I met Vincent Gray again in the teacher’s lounge at Druid Hills High School.

It was the second time in just two years.

The first time, a parent had reached out to tell me what a great teacher Gray is, the kind that not only teaches students facts, but how to think critically.

After just six years at Druid Hills, Gray, who earned a master’s degree in education at Georgia State University, was making a name for himself as a top-notch teacher. So it was no surprise to learn that the 37-year-old history teacher had made his way into an elite group as a scholar.

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Gray is one of 35 U.S. citizens, two in metro Atlanta, selected to travel abroad through the 2017-2018 Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program. Emily Desprez Isbell, a math teacher at Drew Charter School in Atlanta, also made the cut.

Trust me. This is a BIG deal.

The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to build relations between the people of the United States and people of other countries in an effort to help solve global challenges.

Come January, Gray will head to Athens, Greece, where he will spend six months researching and observing schools there.

Specifically, he will study how to design and implement debate curriculum in schools; how Greek schools are dealing with their immigrant population; how Greek culture deals with the concept of democracy; and how kids are taught to talk to each other in an effective way.

Simply put, Gray wants to know how best to teach democracy in a changing demographic environment.

As with a lot people, his questions started with last year’s presidential election which, Gray said, challenged both his view of the future of education and democracy.

“I was deeply concerned about the ability of democratic participants to actually practice democracy in a responsible way,” he said. “I thought the election was a sign of the destruction of the way democratic processes should work. Fundamentally, how do we talk to each other and how do we evaluate our different beliefs. “

In many ways, he was challenging what he’d witnessed in the same way he’d challenged his students to think about the issues of the day: To view them through a critical lens.

History, he told his students, is a constructive process, not something to be memorized.

“In order to teach kids the importance of what historians do, they need to grapple with the raw materials of history — leftover documents and artifacts,” he said.

What they construct, however, depends on not only how they use that information but the lens through which they view it. At Druid Hills, that could be black, white, Hispanic or Asian. Rich, middle-class or poor. English language or one of 15 other languages.

Greece was not Gray’s first choice. Finland was.

Vincent Gray, left, pictured with other recent Fulbright winners, part of a class of 35 U.S. citizens selected to travel abroad through the 2017-2018 Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program. Contributed
Vincent Gray, left, pictured with other recent Fulbright winners, part of a class of 35 U.S. citizens selected to travel abroad through the 2017-2018 Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program. Contributed

“I got enamored with the research about Finland because it suggests they have one of the best school systems in the world,” Gray said. “But Greece seems to be the perfect fit, and I think Fulbright knew that when they saw my proposal.”

Gray had been dreaming of living and working in another country for some time.

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For the past five years, he and his wife, Avis Wampler, have spent one month every summer living in a foreign city, including Lisbon, Portugal; Oaxaca, Mexico; Budapest, Hungary.

Gray enjoyed the long vacations but he wanted to do something meaningful in another country. With time off, maybe he could somehow sort through the fallout from our nation’s presidential election. It weighed heavy on him.

“I started researching democracy and the changing technological and social environment,” he said. “You can teach all day about history and civics, but how do you teach people how to come to a fundamental agreement about the most important things in a society or at least agree to disagree?”

He started researching Fulbright’s teaching exchange programs. In the process, he happened upon Fulbright’s Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Founded in 2009, the program offers educators in various roles — guidance counselors, curriculum specialists, librarians and others — the opportunity to embark on a journey that begins in Washington, D.C., and then ends in one of 11 participating countries, where they work within their host countries’ local school systems, study at local research centers or universities, and complete capstone projects that have practical applications.

Once back home, they share the knowledge and experience they gained with teachers and students in their home schools and communities.

They say good teachers are good learners.

Can you imagine the kind of teacher Druid Hills will have in Vincent Gray when he returns after this experience?

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