Rachel Kamens, a kindergarten teacher at Alliance for Progress Charter School and GSE graduate, attends a Sunday night gathering of PhilaSoup.

Credit: Amanda Suarez / The Daily Pennsylvanian

It’s a Sunday evening in the basement of the Kimmel Center, and 80 education enthusiasts have found their way into this unlikely location. Their purpose: to network, exchange ideas and eat homemade soup.

The group has congregated to take part in PhilaSoup, an organization that allows teachers and educators to compete once a month for micro-grants. The grants fund various types of projects so that educators can enhance their teaching.

Nikka Landau, a Social Policy and Practice student, and Claire Landau, a first-grade teacher at Independence Charter School and 2011 Graduate School of Education alumna, are sisters and the co-founders of PhilaSoup.

“I’m really passionate about teaching, but it’s hard because things are very negative when you look at the larger context in education,” Claire said. “PhilaSoup presents teachers as innovators in the classroom, which we are, and it presents teachers as professionals and shows what teachers are doing in Philadelphia.”

Nikka had learned about this model of philanthropy while she was living in Detroit. There, she discovered a community group associated with the Sunday Soup movement, which is a network of grassroots organizations that fund community projects over meals.

“It was a great way to get involved and meet people who I had a lot in common with,” she said.

Since PhilaSoup’s founding, the group has received a $5,000 grant from an organization called Philly SEED (Supporting Entrepreneurship in Education), which gave them “a lot more confidence and enthusiasm,” according to Claire. Nikka and Claire believe they are still the only education-themed Sunday Soup organization nationwide, though they have been contacted by individuals who are looking to replicate their model.

Sunday’s event marked the one-year anniversary of PhilaSoup’s existence. The event was hosted by Young Involved Philadelphia, which seeks to increase civic engagement among young Philadelphians.

In the basement of the Kimmel Center on Sunday, three educators pitched their proposals to the background music of soup spoons clinking on bowls. The contestants were vying for the $428 in entrance tickets that had been collected from attendees.

Rachel Kamens, a kindergarten teacher at Alliance for Progress Charter School and Penn GSE alumna, was the winner of this month’s micro-grant. The funds will allow her to buy a projector for her classroom so that she can incorporate technology into her lessons on African American history.

Kamens said afterwards that she was “very excited.” She explained that working in a public charter school poses difficulties for obtaining resources for students, since education funding has dropped in Pennsylvania this year.

“I wouldn’t say we’re better off than a public school,” she said, despite the fact that her school is legally allowed to raise money from private sources.

One of the organizers for Sunday’s event was Patti Tahan, an eighth grade teacher in a Philadelphia public school who is a graduate student in Urban Studies at Penn. She described PhilaSoup as “rejuvenating.”

“It’s a little counter-intuitive for teachers to be out on a Sunday night, but it’s great to meet other teachers,” she said. “As a teacher, you’re not necessarily alone in the classroom, but that’s what it ends up feeling like sometimes.”

Gamal Sherif, a PhilaSoup board member and 1999 GSE alumnus, agreed.

“Teachers need networks where we can connect with other teachers,” he said.

Jonathan Cetel, who received both his B.A. and his Master’s degrees from Penn, currently works for the Pennsylvania Campaign for Achievement Now, a firm that conducts state-level education advocacy. He attends PhilaSoup events to have the opportunity to talk with educators.

“You can’t know what’s going on in policy without knowing what’s going on in the classroom,” he said.

Nikka further explained what makes PhilaSoup unique in her mind.

“I think a lot of what’s exciting about PhilaSoup is the democratic way in which things are done,” she explained, referring to the fact that all attendees vote for their favorite proposal. “It’s definitely an idea worth spreading in education.”

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