LifeChanger of the Year Nominee Profile

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Micheal Dunlea

Position: Third Grade Teacher
School: Tabernacle Elementary School
School District: Tabernacle Township School District
City, State: Tabernacle, NJ

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Michael Dunlea was nominated by his friend, Melissa Collins.

"With the protests raging around the country right now, it is more apparent than ever that there needs to be a better understanding of racism and what it means in America," Collins said. "This starts in our classrooms and in our homes when children are young. As teachers, we need to work harder to ensure that our students make connections with people of other races. Teaching our children about our differences and our shared humanity will help empower the next generation of dreamers and doers, and they will be the cure to end racism. Michael and I tried to bridge those gaps in our classrooms by connecting our students and communities, leveraging technology to connect them to the world at large."

"In the hands of dedicated, creative teachers, technology can be used to connect classrooms and foster relationships between students," said Collins. "For the past three years, Michael and I have partnered our classes using Empatico, a free on-line platform sponsored by the Kind foundation. Michael’s class is all white, and my class is all black, which is significant, especially given what is going on in our world."

During these classroom exchanges, pre-selected student buddies read to each other, discuss books, exchange gifts, and send teddy grams along with a friendly letter to each other. Two years ago, a few of Ms. Collins' students traveled across the country to surprise their buddies in person! Mr. Dunlea and Ms. Collins used funds from a grant to connect a few students. One of Ms. Collins' students had the opportunity to fly for the first time!

Mr. Dunlea took the students on a tour to the beach in New Jersey, Philadelphia, and New York. Later that year, he came to Memphis and surprised Ms. Collins' class on a field trip to the National Civil Rights Museum. She surprised his students, too, on several occasions.

Mr. Dunlea and Ms. Collins also took the students on virtual trips. To better understand social justice, their students connected online with a park ranger at Little Rock Central High School, where they learned about the Little Rock Nine, the first black students to integrate an all-white high school. An expert from the Civil Rights Museum taught them about Jim Crow Laws. Students in both classes participated in a book study on the life of Ruby Bridges. All the children gained a better understanding of the Civil Rights Movement, learning, and working together.

"We wanted to promote kindness in our schools, communities, and the world, so we implemented the KIND Council," Collins said. "Our classes collaborated to create a kindness pledge, signed by all the students. We worked on various kindness projects during the school year. Working with Jennifer Williams, a global leader, we collaborated with classes worldwide on the 'Peace Sign Project.' Students read books about kindness and created signs that promoted peace. Michael and I led our classes on coordinated peace marches in our respective schools, encouraging broader involvement throughout our school communities.

"Each year, we worked hard to spark empathy, creativity, and curiosity among our students. We never missed a beat," said Collins. "We were featured on NBC Nightly News for our work. Everything was going so well. Then, we were faced with the pandemic which closed our schools and put a stop to our connection, but not for long."

"Michael invested in a Zoom account so our classes could stay connected," said Collins. "He wanted my students to realize that they matter, and to continue bridging the racial divide between our classes. Our students were able to continue to interact. They exchanged letters and gifts. Michael paid the postage to mail gifts from his students to my students and he delivered gifts from my students to his students' homes."

Mr. Dunlea leveraged his international connections to coordinate a Global Read -A -Thon with visiting readers from Ireland, South Africa, India, and Poland. The classes had a professional chef from the Memphis area conduct a virtual cooking demonstration, where the students had assembled ingredients ahead of time so they were able to follow along at home to create a healthy meal including salad, sandwiches, and strawberry shortcake. This lesson enabled the students, their families, and teachers to share a meal together.

The students also collaborated on a unit called Festivals Around the World. They learned about each other's festivals in their areas. This sparked Ms. Collins' students to want to learn more about cranberries because Mr. Dunlea's students talked about their local Cranberry Festival. He had farmers from his community connect with Ms. Collins' students via Zoom to educate them about the NJ Cranberry bog farming process and how it has been impacted by climate change.

Mr. Dunlea invited family members of his students to be guest presenters. One student’s aunt lived in Italy and showed a live view from her balcony of Mt. Vesuvius. Another student’s dad, who was a Health Officer in a New Jersey town, talked about coronavirus. Another student’s dad was a Colonel who spoke about what the military was doing to keep everyone safe. Mr. Dunlea made the learning relevant, engaging, and inclusive. Families became active partners and teachers in the process. Students felt more connected instead of isolated.

"Through these impactful collaborations, Michael and I both saw our students make real academic, social, and emotional growth," said Collins. "Learning together spurred them to engage in more positive discourse—with each other and with others who were different. They asked probing questions to seek understanding from peers. Going forward, they aren’t afraid to talk about race and build friendships across racial differences."

"Michael was a LifeChanger, as he helped our classes to stay connected during the pandemic and created remote learning activities to lessen the isolation of school closures while pursuing goals of social justice," said Collins. "He gives me hope of a better tomorrow when things do not seem so bright."


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Comments (5)


Steve Sherman Posted 9 days ago

I work with Michael and his students through various global collaboration activities. There are three types of teachers. Those that can teach, those that can reach and those that can both. Michael is definitely one of the those teachers that can do both. His students love that fact that he virtually brings in experts and colleagues from around the world to enrich his classes and give his students an opportunity to expand their horizons. He is an asset to his school and to the teaching profession.

Milissa Wilk Larstanna Posted 9 days ago

I have known Michael Dunlea from the day he started teaching in his previous district And I am so amazed of how he has grown and expanded his classroom to a worldwide experience for students through technology, partnerships and creativity. He literally has taught his students to think outside the box. He is an example of how great education can be for all students and other educators. He has changed the lives of countless students, not only in his classroom but around the world. Kudos Mike!

Michelle Accardi Posted 10 days ago

Michael is a shining example of the power of a compassionate, engaged educator. As a National Board Certified Teacher, Michael embodies the Five Core Propositions. He gives his time generously to serve other teachers and has appeared on several webinars in recent months to share best practices. As part of the Core Connections webinar series his volunteer work has positively influenced thousands of teachers from around the nation. He is a life changer for so many!

Michael Dunlea Posted 11 days ago

Thank you Melissa Collins! You are an inspirational leader who has changed my life in so many ways. I’m a better teacher and a better person for knowing you.

Kathleen Dunlea Posted 11 days ago

So proud of Michael’s (and Melissa’s) hard work to bring the larger world into students’ lives, connecting them with others from different backgrounds to forge friendships and learn to appreciate each other’s similarities and differences, and connecting with community members and experts as guest teachers! And I’m even more proud that he kept this going in spite of the Covid related school closure. He manages to make online learning fun and meaningful for his students and I see all the hard work that goes into that day in and day out. Teachers are my heroes! ??