PhilaSoup gives teachers a chance to share ideas

PhilaSoup board members (from left) Gamal Sherif, Elaine Leigh, Nikka Landau, Claire Landau, Veronika Paluch.
PhilaSoup board members (from left) Gamal Sherif, Elaine Leigh, Nikka Landau, Claire Landau, Veronika Paluch. (KRISTEN GRAHAM / Staff)
Posted: September 04, 2012

In a pretty garden set against the city skyline, a spirited cadre of young educators sipped donated wine from plastic cups and talked about the big things:

How to change young peoples' lives and connect with their families.

How tough it is to be a new teacher, and how isolating being in a classroom can feel.

How, regardless of what else is happening in the world - budget cuts, violence, widespread mistrust of educators - their job is to show up every day and give their all.

"All these super-smart and excited teachers; this is an amazing resource!" third-grade teacher Veronika Paluch said last Monday night, motioning to the 80 people gathered around her at a pop-up garden at 19th and Walnut.

Paluch was talking about PhilaSoup, an organization that brings educators together monthly over soup dinners to fund innovative classroom projects.

It's the brainchild of sisters Claire and Nikka Landau, who were inspired by the Sunday Soup Movement, a national network of groups that award modest "microgrants." When they were kicking around ideas at a coffee shop last summer, Philly Stake already existed, funding creative community projects. What if they established a group devoted solely to education, they thought.

"All the press is negative - all you hear about is education crashing, the district crashing," said Claire Landau, 27, a former Philadelphia School District teacher who now teaches first grade at Independence Charter School.

"But we know there are a lot of people in urban education who deserve to be celebrated, who have great ideas," added Nikka Landau, 25, who taught English in Taiwan on a Fulbright Scholarship, but who now works in public relations.

Each month, group members - both district and charter school teachers, but also education supporters - meet over soup at various venues in the city to share ideas. They kick in a minimum of $5 each and vote for their favorites among a series of educator-presented proposals for projects that benefit Philadelphia classrooms.

Last week, the Landau sisters and their board held off on the soup and microgrant and hosted a garden party instead, a drinks-and-appetizers kickoff to the school year at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's pop-up garden near Rittenhouse Square.

Conversation was lively; people shared Twitter handles and swapped e-mail addresses while a keyboardist and trumpeter performed.

One teacher was pumped up about getting her students' work published. Another educator wanted to discuss her project helping young people work through their grief after losing family members to violence. Someone else was bubbling over about finding a community of support after struggling as a new teacher.

Kelsey Johnson, a science teacher at George Washington High in the Northeast, loves the group's concept.

"It's very tangible - we all chip in, and something comes out of it," Johnson, 30, said. "Plus, teachers love to talk about teaching. I'm with adolescents all day, and that can wear you down. But I'm learning from other people's ideas here."

Sheila Myers, a bilingual literacy teacher at Potter-Thomas Promise Academy, a district school in Fairhill, was jazzed about the idea of a support network.

"We have a really talented staff," Myers said of her school. "We have a lot of go-getters who want to do amazing things. But we don't have the money to do everything we want, and this could help."

The group has gotten traction quickly. The first dinner, held in October, was hosted by Helen Cunningham, executive director of the Samuel S. Fels Fund. School Reform Commissioner Lorene Cary made six kinds of soup for the second dinner, held at the Art Sanctuary, the nonprofit arts organization she founded.

"I love them," Cary said of PhilaSoup. "It is its own professional learning community, coming up in the most organic, delightful way."

PhilaSoup has grown steadily. Three educators have joined the Landau sisters on the organization's board. In March, it won a Philly SEED (Supporting Entrepreneurs in Education) grant of $5,000 that will go toward establishing the group's nonprofit status and extending its outreach efforts.

Councilman Bill Green, a sponsor of Philly SEED, is gratified by what PhilaSoupers are doing.

"They just have a positive attitude, and they believe that they can make a difference. They are making a difference," said Green, who attended the garden event.

Since its inception, PhilaSoup has distributed seven grants totaling $2,277.50. It has helped fund a chess team at Mitchell Elementary and a drama program at Young Scholars Frederick Douglass. It chipped in for a set of novels for an honors English class at Germantown High, and more.

But perhaps even more important than the money is the support.

Even though budgets are stretched and some parents never show up for report conferences, the PhilaSoupers have one another. And that has made a difference.

"It's not very often that you get so many teachers from different demographics in one room, supporting one another," said Jenn Curren, a therapist who works with students at Clymer Elementary, a Mastery Charter school. "Everybody has such great ideas. I've learned so much."

Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146,, or follow on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at

To learn more about PhilaSoup, go to, find the group on Twitter @philasoup, or e-mail The next PhilaSoup dinner is scheduled for Oct. 7; the location will be announced soon.

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