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PhilaSoup: Eclectic support for teacher innovation

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Typically, Sunday evening is the time when many teachers make final preparations for a grueling week ahead. PhilaSoup offers an alternative for one Sunday out of the month. It is an event that brings together an eclectic mix of educators and community members to celebrate and support teacher innovation.

For a donation of just $5, folks get to break bread, enjoy homemade soup, and fund some cool education projects. PhilaSoup offers micro-grants for education-based projects that directly impact students’ learning and engagement. Cash awards are given on a competitive basis.

Last month’s session, held on March 18, was at the Franklin Institute. More than 70 diners listened to four project proposals. After having soup and listening to three-minute pitches, attendees cast votes for the winner by placing stones in fancy vases.

I have attended three PhilaSoup events, and the venues have been as eclectic as the attendees. Other past venues include Art Sanctuary and Obama’s Philadelphia campaign headquarters. The organizers emphasize their non-political orientation – Romney and Santorum campaigns can host events, too. The setting is always festive and upbeat, with a few bottles of wine, blinking lights, and a friendly hostess wearing a fashionable shroud, while presenters don an “ask me about my project” stole. The soup stories and anecdotes are always as delicious as the actual ingredients used to prepare the meals.

The seed idea for this social venture started with sisters Claire Landau, a 4th grade teacher at Independence Charter School, and Nikka Landau, a communication professional at Ceisler Media, along with their high school friend Jason Tucker, an attorney and recent graduate from Temple’s law school. Other core members of the organizing committee include Erin Thesing, a 1st grade teacher at Mann Elementary School; Veronika Paluch, a 3rd grade teacher at Alliance for Progress; and Elaine Leigh of Steppingstone Scholars. Each month, they collaborate and distribute roles such as outreach, communications, securing locations, collecting proposals, and organizing food and decor. At each event, you can feel the passion and enthusiasm that the organizers bring to their duties.

Crowd sourcing and micro-grant funding are definitely gaining traction in the education and nonprofit sectors in Philadelphia. PhilaSoup used its skills and know-how about organizing to win $5,000 in the emerging entrepreneurs category at the first PhillySEED (Supporting Entrepreneurship in Education) event. With proceeds from that award, PhilaSoup plans to formalize its nonprofit status and expand the number of micro-grants it can offer.

According to PhilaSoup organizers, attendance has tripled from its first event, at the home of Helen Cunningham, executive director of the Samuel S. Fels Fund. The fledgling venture has also disbursed close to $2,000 to support eight education projects.

When asked what gives PhilaSoup its social entrepreneur identity, Claire Landau explained that the venture’s growth is a testament to the entrepreneurial spirit of Philadelphia teachers. She emphasized that “regardless of the uncertainties and struggles of our school systems, teachers show up each day and make powerful things happen for our students. PhilaSoup is a way to celebrate teachers and give the world a peek at the great things that are happening in Philadelphia classrooms.”

At previous events, there has been a trend of mostly magnet and charter school teachers attending and submitting proposals. All teachers from the Philadelphia area are encouraged to submit proposals and support the PhilaSoup movement. As word of the hearty meals spreads, the hope is that more traditional public school teachers will also submit their innovative ideas. I’m crossing my fingers. I just submitted a proposal.

The next PhilaSoup event will be from 6-8 p.m.on April 15 at the Painted Bride Art Center (230 Vine St.). Space is filling up fast. There is room for 85 diners, so RSVP to philasoup@gmail.com to make sure you get your soup and stones.

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