At this dinner party, there were 10 types of soup: clam chowder, lentil, chicken noodle and others featuring a variety of beans. There was wine and French bread.
But this meal was not assembled for a typical gathering of families or fans to cheer on a sports team. It was a soup dinner for D.C. teachers to raise money for a classroom project.
About 30 educators, friends and relatives had crammed into a Northwest Washington home to talk about schools, mingle with other teachers and hear innovative ideas for school projects.
Erin Thesing, a teacher at Maury Elementary School in Northeast, and two other educators have organized three of these dinners this school year, and they have plans for another before the summer. They call it DC Soup, an idea modeled after programs in Philadelphia and Detroit that fund teacher, artist and activist projects.
Weeks before the dinner, at least three teachers are selected to present an idea for a classroom project. Guests are encouraged to bring a soup, some bread or a bottle of wine. They each also bring $10 to put in a basket. While they eat, teachers present their ideas. Everyone in the room votes for their favorite project, and the winner gets the basket of cash.
“We are trying to build a sense of community,” Thesing said.
The goal of DC Soup is to raise funds for worthy class projects for teachers who often spend their own money on supplies and other educational needs for students. Many of the teachers come from schools where there is little or no financial help available from a parent group. Their schools often can’t spare a few hundred dollars for projects that do not fit neatly within the curriculum.
But the gatherings also are a chance for teachers from charter and regular schools to share experiences with colleagues from across the city. They talk about anything from what it is like to be a novice in a new school to how to run an after-school theater program in addition to their regular duties.
“We know and acknowledge that a lot of us work in silos and often feel isolated in our classrooms and schools, so we want to really create a space where teachers know and support each other,” Thesing told the group gathered on a recent Sunday.
Before hearing about the projects, Thesing asked people to introduce themselves to someone they did not know. Lizzy Banta, a resident teacher at Anacostia High School in Southeast, told Sarah White about her experience as a newcomer to the profession. The work is rewarding, Banta said, but she’s tired all the time. In addition to her work in and out of the classroom, Banta is taking classes to get her certification.
White, who teaches at Bancroft Elementary School in Northwest, sympathized with her, saying she, too, did a training program that required classes after work.
“You just never sleep, and when you do sleep you are dreaming about your kids,” White said.
White said she enjoys DC Soup because it feels good to support other teachers.
This evening, the group had to choose from among three proposals: a rain barrel for Anacostia High, plywood and other materials for the “Lion King Kids” musical at Capital City Public Charter School in Northwest or a food-growing lab for a classroom at Amidon-Bowen Elementary School in Southwest.
“We know we can get funding in different ways, but the goal is that we all have a stake in this,” Thesing told the gathering. “As a community, we decide that we want to chip in a little to make a really cool project happen and feel a sense of ownership.”
The prize was $419.
While spoons clanked against glass bowls and the aroma of soup filled the living room, Rachel Terlop made her pitch. Like other presenters, she wore a blue sash.
Terlop wants an indoor lab to plant vegetables to help illustrate an upcoming unit on healthful food choices. But Terlop also wants it to help one of her students who has struggled all year to stay engaged.
Terlop placed an amaryllis plant near his desk by accident a few months back. She noticed he would stare at it throughout the day.
“I am thinking, ‘Hey, at least he is interested in something in our classroom,’ ” she told the group.
In another science classroom, this student has access to a hydroponics lab where he grows avocados. If Terlop can build a food-growing lab in her room, she thinks it would help build this student’s confidence because he would be able to take ownership of it.
After Terlop, it was Molly Mus’s turn.
Mus teaches environmental science to special-education students at Anacostia High. She also runs the gardening club.
The school’s water has tested positive for lead. The city installed filters for the drinking water, Mus said, but the spigot she uses to water the garden never got tested. Mus bought her own testing kit, which she said found high lead levels.
She wants barrels to collect rainwater that runs off the school’s roof so her students can safely water the garden. Many of the vegetables grown at Anacostia go home with the students.
“It’s a small solution, but it’s a start,” Mus said.
Up next were Nicole Cummings and Cynthia Dorsey, who run the after-school theater program at Capital City. They needed money for materials for their upcoming production of a shortened version of “The Lion King.”
The teachers are used to creating backdrops using butcher paper, masks made from paper plates and costumes from painted T-shirts. But the school just renovated a 400-seat theater space, and the teachers want to construct a better set.
“We want to build Pride Rock,” the central location in “The Lion King” where Simba and his family live, Dorsey said.
After the pitches, everyone received a small rock that they placed in a decorated shoe box representing the project they wanted to support.
Mus, the Anacostia teacher, won.
The 23-year-old teacher, who was surprised at the outcome, said she came to the event to be inspired by others.
“I want to keep learning, and I want to hear other ideas for my classroom,” she said.
But Mus didn’t leave that night without sharing an idea of her own.
Terlop, the teacher who wanted the food-growing lab, congratulated Mus after her win. Mus explained that she had a lab like that in her classroom. It resembled a fish tank.
“I can send you pictures of how we do ours,” Mus told Terlop.
Terlop, Mus suggested, should peruse Craigslist for labs.
“Sometimes people sell things, and I email them saying it’s for a classroom and sometimes they’ll just donate it,” Mus said.
Terlop was intrigued.
“It’s worth it,” Mus said.