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Thank You, Milwaukee Academy of Science Fourth Graders

MAS lesson.jpgBy Bill Henk – Years ago my wise old dad told me “Never make a promise unless you intend to keep it.”

Well, last week I told a class of fourth graders at the Milwaukee Academy of Science (MAS) that I would blog about my visit with them the following Thursday.  And by goodness, I’m a man of my word.  So here goes.

The story begins with several professionals around the city being invited to do a little guest teaching by colleagues in our Teach For America Milwaukee (TFAM) office.  After all, it never hurts for outsiders to get a feel for the realities of classroom life.  At first, I was hesitant, because my regular schedule and workload are ridiculous this time of year, and oddly enough, the thought of working directly with kids again both over-excited and scared me.

I mean, let’s face it.  Although I’ve always loved interacting with kids, which is what drew me to the profession in the first place, it would look pretty bad for a dean of education (as well as her/his college and university) to crash and burn while teaching.  Worse yet, I knew that there would be observers including the classroom teacher, Blake Shultice (a TFA corps member who is also a graduate student at Marquette no less), and Maurice Thomas, the Executive Director of TFAM, again no less.

In other words, bad lesson — so long credibility.

But when I heard I could do my guest spot at MAS, a school I know quite well since I’ve been on its Board for a decade, I decided to man up.  Besides, I was pretty much just supposed to read a book to the kids and call it a day.  And for that matter, I’d done a small amount of teaching at my daughter’s Catholic elementary school not long ago, and not only survived, but left feeling like I still kind of “had it.”

Can you say, “Wake-up call?”

Oh, I did everything I could to get ready.  Familiarized myself intimately with the book, a very good one by Patricia Polacco called “Thunder Cake,” that Blake had recommended.  I practiced my oral reading of it over and over again for dramatic effect.  I identified vocabulary words that the kids might find challenging and prepared to teach them.  I made a pre-reading activity about children’s fears that fit the theme of the story.  I did a deep content dive on thunder and lightning, so I’d be a font of information — armed with insightful commentary, answers to their questions, and some astute comprehension probes of my own.  I even did some hefty research on the author, and came up with some pretty interesting facts about her (if I do say so myself) that I intended to spring on them to create the “Wow” effect.

Even so, I was nervous, because it’s not easy to go in as a stranger and connect with kids in ways that will gain and keep their attention, let alone result in them actually learning something.  But I knew it could be done, and I felt up to the task.  Yessir, Blake and Maurice were going to say, “Hey, that old geezer can really teach; he hasn’t missed a beat.”  And most importantly, the kids wouldn’t detect so much as an ounce of instructional rust.  On the contrary, they’d come to regard me as cut from the same cloth as the very skilled MAS teachers they enjoy every day of the school year.


In fairness, the lesson didn’t sink nearly to the level of a disaster.  It was what I’d call decent, respectable, adequate, acceptable, or OK — nothing to write home about.   Put differently, it fell well short of the scintillating pedagogical phenomenon I had hoped to deliver.

At points I struggled to get my rhythm and to think on my feet.  Instructional decisions that used to come easily and naturally weren’t there for me like they used to be when I was in my teaching prime.  Thankfully, I eventually settled in pretty well and started to manage my time and make adjustments to the activities (that I had overplanned) fairly well.  Even so, I never felt like I was orchestrating the classroom in the way I’d expect of an exceptional aspiring teacher or a seasoned veteran.  It was just barely “good” enough, not the lesson the kids deserved.  They may not have known; but I sure did.

And believe me, the children had nothing to do with the instructional episode’s mediocrity.  On the contrary, they could not have been more welcoming, friendly, and cooperative.  And almost all of them stayed with me as much as I had earned.  Most were very eager to learn and volunteered to answer repeatedly.  And I’m pretty sure that some of them hung in there long enough to learn something, a real credit to them.

So, I want to end by thanking the class for receiving me so warmly, being patient, and giving me much more than a chance.  They gave me the benefit of the doubt for the full hour I spent with them.  By the way, a mere 60 minutes of being at the front of the class left me exhausted.  If the goal of the guest teaching was to give visitors an appreciation for the work of a teacher, then this experience qualified as hugely successful — even for someone who already knew.  Let’s just say that my appreciation is fully renewed.

Thank you, MAS fourth graders, for reminding me how much I love and miss teaching, how incredibly gratifying it is to help shape young, beautiful minds, and how important it is that you be taught by knowledgeable, skilled, passionate, energetic, determined  teachers.


*Photo courtesy of Adam Schmidt, TFA Regional Director of Recruitment. He and Jody Dungey, MAS Director of Development, were also witnesses to a literacy lesson that left a lot to be desired…

Tuesday Trivia: Win a collectors edition of Insurgent

We’ve got two collectors editions of “Insurgent,” the second book in the Divergent Trilogy to give away.  And since it’s Tuesday, we thought a trivia question might be the appropriate way to give you a chance to win it!


For your chance to win a copy of “Insurgent,” post your answer to the following trivia question in the comments!

What is Four’s real name?

Claim your chance to win by leaving the correct answer in the comments section below anytime today between 7am – 6pm. And don’t be afraid to play, even if someone has already posted the right answer! One winner will be randomly selected from ALL correct answers after the close of business and announced the following day.  The winner will be posted on our Facebook page and notified by email.  Please note that you must have a valid email address listed in your comment or WordPress profile to win.

Technological Time Travel

future-medical-technologyBy Elizabeth Turco – In today’s day and age, an abundance of technology in the classroom is the norm.

From smart boards to iPads, my Marquette education has taught me how to incorporate all aspects of technology into my lessons. In my previous semester’s field experience, I have mastered the smart board and have become an expert at bringing all pieces of media into my classes. I started my student teaching ready to show the world how technologically relevant I could make my classroom. After all, technology makes the lessons better, right?

As I entered my classroom, eager to teach my class, (United States history, from the Gilded Age to the present) I had visions of video clips, historical imagery, and beautiful presentations, stimulating and interesting the students for the entirety of the semester. What I was met with, however, was not what I had anticipated. Waiting for me in my classroom, was one of those transparency overhead projectors, with the light bulb and the lenses, projecting simple images or simple text onto a pull-down screen. There was one television, but it was not nearly large enough to be truly seen by all students in the huge classroom. The one computer was not hooked up to any larger screen and was virtually useless in terms of incorporation into lessons. My education courses had done nothing to prepare me for this shock.

In my education classrooms, I was taught that to be the most technological and advanced would help me be a more effective teacher. If I could incorporate more technology, my students would learn better. That is, after all, why so many schools are giving their students iPads and teaching an abundance of computer classes. My education classes were filled with technology themselves, and I could see how the advancements could better student learning. I was not taught how to make the best of a low-tech situation and still teach effectively. Instead of creating beautiful PowerPoints filled with video links, pictures, and easy to take notes, I am forced to adapt.

I have found, however, a bright side. In forcing my students away from technology I am giving them more skills for life. They are able to listen to me talk and take away important points, instead of having it presented to them. It forces me to incorporate more student involved activities, instead of having them simply read a PowerPoint or watch a movie to learn. I find myself growing as an educator. Yes, it is important for students to be trained to keep up with technological advancements, but there is more to life than just technology.  As generations before me have found, there can be teaching and learning without all of the technological hoopla.

It’s a Girl Thing: My DSHA Experience

whyallgirlsBy Aubrey Murtha – Now, I’m no radical feminist.  However, I must say, if you have not experienced an all-girls education for yourself, you really haven’t lived. 

I will admit that I may be a little biased, but after four years of single-sex schooling at Divine Savior Holy Angels (DSHA) High School, I can honestly say that I would not trade that part of my life for the world.  Contrary to popular belief, most all of us are not spoiled or catty.  We do not have a faculty composed solely of nuns—although we do love our one spunky Sister in the theology department.  Our lives do not revolve around One Direction, Twitter, and Starbucks. 

No.  There is much more to an all-girls education than that.

Every now and then, I am sorry for the world’s male population.  You cannot control the fact that your hormones and a few other unmentionables prevent you from partaking in this gloriously formative experience.  You’ve got your fraternities, your brotherhoods of men, your masculine, testosterone-infused, Jesuit centers of intellectual development (shout out to Marquette High), all of which I deeply respect.  However, you’ll never know the joys of wearing a wool kilt to school on the daily.  You won’t understand how difficult it is to put on makeup when there’s no need for it five out of seven days a week.  You may never experience that amazing realization that you are completely content in your own imperfect skin, that it is self-respect, intelligence, compassion, and conviction that make a woman beautiful—not long locks, luscious lips, or a bodacious body.

A hysterical article by Brianna Wiest about all-girls high schools said, “If you want to cause mass hysteria [at an all-girls school], bring in one of the following things: pizza, cupcakes, a puppy, or a boy.”  The accuracy of this statement frightens me, and it certainly illustrates what sort of school climate we’ve got going over at DSHA.  But all jokes aside (maybe), I thought I would set out to discover the real reasons why we loved our single sex education.  I went a little out of the box for this post and asked my former DSHA classmates to give me some reasons why all-girls high school was and is the best, and this is what I got.

The All-Girls Experience: High School Reflections as Told by My Graduating Class

1.)    “There was always taco dip around.” -Tess Zukowski, St. Norbert’s College

2.)    “I never knew how much I would miss wearing my skirt when I got to college.” -Maddie Schultz, UW-Steven’s Point

3.)    “I loved the teachers… And the principal for that matter! They were encouraging, supportive, and passionate about what they taught. They cared about their students academically, but also personally which makes a world of a difference.”  -Beth Dzwierzynski, The Ohio State University

4.)    “I did not know where my hair brush was for four years.” -Winnie Dresden, UW-Madison

5.)     “I didn’t have to wear pants to school.” –Jenna Kaerek, Marquette University

6.)    “Who needs a shower when there’s deodorant?” -Andrea Muehlenberg, University of Tennessee-Knoxville

7.)    “All teachers and faculty made us understand how important hard work is now and for the rest of our lives.” –Elizabeth Baker, Marquette University

8.)    On what she misses: “Taking naps in the hallway…taking naps anywhere, actually.” –Katie Polacheck, Gonzaga University

9.)    “There was always a reason to bake.” –Sandra Mejia, Milwaukee School of Engineering

10.) “DSHA helped me grow into someone in whom I can be confident. I’ve had more than one person tell me that they’ve never met a girl as comfortable with being herself as I am.” –Elizabeth Kraemer, The University of St. Thomas

11.) “No boys = no drama.” –Carina Belmontes, Marquette University

12.)  “Smiles, waves and laughter were common in the hallway, and overall the atmosphere was positive and happy.” –Laura Rieckhoff, The University of Central Florida

13.)  “No one makes out in the hallways!  Also, getting your phone taken away [in class] meant one less Qdoba burrito you could buy” (referring to the monetary fee DSHA charges to reclaim confiscated cell phones)Jessica Chan, UW-Madison

14.) “Nobody judged me when my locker wouldn’t close and had that whole ant infestation thing. Well, you all judged me, but I’d like to think it’s a testament to my all-girl education that I just didn’t care.” –Molly Young, Fordham University

15.) “There was such a strong support system and every girl genuinely wanted others to succeed just as much as she herself wanted to succeed.  Also being able to roll out of bed and not worry or care about how you looked was a blessing, as was living in sweat pants.” –Jessica Gottsacker, Saint Louis University

Obviously, this isn’t scientific research.  I did not do any number crunching or gather any precise data to prove to you that all-girls education is the way to go; hopefully, however, you can detect the immense level of pride we have in our alma mater through my classmates’ comical sarcasm and brilliant wit.  These girls are the finest around, and they are entirely representative of the caliber of the students and human beings that DSHA and other all-female educational institutions create.

So don’t let the general lack of “Y” chromosomes deter you.  All-girls school is where it’s at.

Common Core … Common Sense

common core objectionsBy Bill Henk – It’s risky business any time an academic dean takes a stand on a sensitive, controversial, or politically charged issue.  There’s usually no shortage of potential stakeholders to annoy, upset, offend, or infuriate.  Let’s just say that the fallout can be epic, and the consequences can threaten or end an administrative career.

The position I’m about to take publicly here on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) shouldn’t rise to a level of  high stakes for me, although I suppose it could.  But even if it did, speaking out on this matter is something I must do, as someone who has devoted his career to education.  Why?  …  because the stakes ARE high for Wisconsin school children.

Let me be clear at the outset that this is my position, not Marquette’s.  For that matter, I don’t even know for sure that I speak on behalf of faculty members in my own College of Education, although I think so.  The point is that I  can no longer personally or professionally abide bystander status in the debate over the Standards.  There’s a part of me that just wants to scream, “Please stop the political posturing; can we just get on with it for the sake of the kids?”  But unfortunately, the issue keeps rising from the ashes, and my guess is that it will continue to do so.

A Quick History

In recent years I’ve watched the standards come to fruition primarily through the work of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association.  I’ve seen the CCSS’s be adopted by Wisconsin and 44 other states, and witnessed educators from Kenosha to Superior — and everywhere in-between – work in earnest to try to create the means by which our schools can help students meet these challenging, diversified academic targets.  Enormous amounts of time, energy, and dollars have been devoted to this enterprise.  And now, some among our state legislators and our Wisconsin citizenry want to scrap it all, and literally start all over again.  Wouldn’t that reboot amount to a colossal case of squandering precious human and material resources?

Much has been written on both sides of the argument, and I’ve not only read what both staunch advocates*** and critics have said, but have taken the time to read the standards themselves quite exhaustively.  At any rate, both the testimonials and the refutations are all richer than the crisp treatment the topic will receive here.

Background school apple colourFact is, it would take MUCH more than a single blog post to even begin to capture the full range of points and counterpoints.  So I’m going to cut to the chase in bullet form.

Doing so feels right to me because:  (1) so much of the opposition to the standards is rooted in information that is decidedly incomplete or grossly misinterpreted, (2) the faulty facts are shared widely nonetheless, and (3) the situation is largely THAT matter of fact in my estimation.

Look, I don’t want to dismiss the CCSS critics outright, because they’re certainly entitled to have a point of view about government intervention versus local control.  That argument is not lost on me.   But when the rhetoric drifts incredulously to interjecting fears about sex education and retinal eye scans, then enough is enough.

An Equally Quick Personal Take

Without further adieu, here’s my view:

  • More than anything else, the Common Core State  Standards set the bar higher for students’ academic achievement, not lower as some critics wrongly allege. These aspirations are commendable, and frankly, my major concern about them is that we’re not even meeting the existing lower standards, so we’re going to have to up our game considerably to help kids attain them.  As Valerie Strauss noted in the Wall Street Journal, “If anybody is expecting these standards all by themselves to make much of a difference in schools they will be sorely disappointed.  No set of standards has much meaning without equitable resources to ensure that teachers are trained well enough to reach kids who live in widely different circumstances.”
  • The standards fall short of perfect, but they are notably better than what we have in Wisconsin now.  Not only are they more specific, but they will also encourage students to use reading and mathematics as tools to succeed across other areas of the curriculum.
  • If we attempt once again to create our own state standards, they are unlikely to be better (as some legislators have claimed) than the CCSS’s, and probably would be worse.
  • Common Core alignmentNational tests will be aligned with these standards.  Wisconsin cannot afford to be out of alignment and risk losing further ground academically on these assessments.  Not only would it be further embarrassing for the state, but more importantly, it would be worse for our school children.
  • The Common Core State Standards will allow useful comparisons to be made between states that would benefit Wisconsin in benchmarking.
  • The standards are NOT a specific prescription for curriculum or teaching.  They are goals.  Schools and teachers can use essentially whatever materials or methods they want as long as they scaffold students to meet the standards.
  • The CCSS’s were developed objectively, without a subjective political agenda, let alone to strip the rights of states or local comminities around education.  Nor are they an attempt to usurp religious freedoms.
  • With all due respect, legislators are not professional educators.

Honestly, at this point, I’ve got to ask, “Why did critics wait until now to voice such strenuous objections, founded or not?”  And, “What truly constructive purpose could that tactic serve relative to the welfare of our Wisconsin school children?”

In fairness, the Common Core State Standards are not the panacea for American education.  Far from it.  But they are a definite step in the right direction, which just makes common sense to this academic dean.

common sense


***If you don’t read anything else, please see the recent article by Erin Richards of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.   Her account is clear, sufficiently thorough, on point and accurate.  And eloquent letters by Catholic leaders such as President Michael Garranzini of Loyola University Chicago,  Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee, and Father Joseph Shimek are out there, as are articles and a video from State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Dr. Tony Evers.  And believe me, there is much, much more.

My Experiences with Diversity

diversityBy Christie Hyland – Diversity is a big topic in mental health today.

How can a therapist best serve clients of diverse backgrounds? Developing multicultural competency is an important part of being an effective counselor, so I thought I would explore my own experiences with diversity.

My hometown, where I spent the first 18 years of my life, has a population of around 3,000 people. In 2010, the population was about 86% white, 10% Native American, and the remaining 4% black, Asian, or multiracial.

Despite my town’s homogeneous population, I grew up embracing diversity and was interested in learning about different cultures. I can remember when this interest likely first emerged. I was in second grade. My teacher read a story about how America was a melting pot of people of many different races, and that this was something to embrace. We could all learn from each other’s differences, and that despite our differences, we all had many similarities. However, I soon learned that differences weren’t always embraced.

As I got older, I learned that people who looked differently, lived differently, and loved differently were often treated unfairly. When I learned about the Civil War in fourth grade, I was appalled that slavery existed in the Land of the Free. All men are created equal, so why not black men? Senior year, I learned that women are not guaranteed equal rights as men under the Constitution. This bit of knowledge came while researching for a presentation I gave on women’s rights. I almost changed my presentation topic because I feared I might receive backlash from my male classmates for being a feminist. I learned about the pilgrims and the Indians as early as kindergarten. But in college, I learned that the warm and welcoming Indians faced centuries of atrocities, including genocide, boarding schools, and forced sterilization. I found contradictions in what I was taught in school. I learned that our country that prided itself on fairness and equality had a long history of injustice.

Every injustice I learned about stirred feelings of anger, sadness, and empathy for those affected. My feelings and knowledge fuel a passion for helping others who were mistreated because of their differences. I recognize the importance of living in a diverse society. I think living and learning from those who are different from us, whether it be the color of their skin, the God they pray to, the amount of money they make, or the language they sing in, is incredibly valuable.

Role Reversal: How One of My Students Became the Counselor

Chocolate (1)

By Sabrina Bong – During Ash Wednesday, many of my students told me what they were giving up for Lent.

Some said junk food or soda. Some said gossiping, or biting their nails. One student even said he was going to give up homework (trust me, we squashed that idea pretty quick!) But for me, the most life-changing thing that someone suggested was food.

The student (let’s call her “Jenna”,) had come into my office with her best friend (she’ll be called “Amber.”) Amber was crying really hard. Immediately, I went into slight panic mode. Amber and I have a good relationship; she has been through a lot of struggles and I have been doing my best to help her through them. I was worried that something had happened with her family.

Instead, when I asked Amber what was wrong, she pointed to Jenna and said, “I just asked her what she wanted to give up for Lent. Tell Miss Bong what you said, Jenna.”

Jenna looked at me awkwardly before saying, “I’ve noticed that I’m bigger than all of the other girls in my class. And on my dance team. So I told Amber that I was going to give up food for Lent. That way, I’ll look like everyone else. Amber did it before, and now look at her. She’s beautiful and thin.”

My heart almost broke when I heard that. Jenna is about 5 foot 4, and nowhere near heavy. She has strong dancer’s legs. To me, she is a healthy weight. When I told her this, she reiterated that she was too heavy.

“But it didn’t work for me, Jenna,” Amber said, sobbing. “That isn’t how I got thin. That’s how I got hospitalized.”

“You don’t know what it’s like,” Jenna shot back. “The boys in class say I’m too fat. All the girls on my dance team judge me, because they’re all skinny twigs and beautiful. They get all the boyfriends, not me. I’m just the fat girl.”

Before I could hop in, Amber said in a firm voice, “Jenna, you don’t understand. Do you know what happens to your body when you starve yourself? It eats itself. It attacks the fat in your body, but then it attacks your muscles. You are an amazing person and not in the least bit overweight. But if you don’t believe me, here are some things you can do instead of starving yourself. You can eat healthy. You can work out more. Take your dog for a walk. But don’t think starving yourself is the answer.”

I remember looking at Amber, sincerely impressed. A lot of what she had just said to Jenna was exactly what I had told her earlier in the school year. I was surprised that she had remembered my advice, but also impressed by the way she said it. Here she was, counseling her friend, not needing any help from me. It was the most exhilarating feeling, having a student act as the counselor and repeat my advice.

We managed to convince Jenna to give up junk food for Lent, but not all food. As they were leaving, Amber turned me to me and said, “Don’t worry Miss Bong, I’m going to make sure she eats lunch. And you should call her mom so that she knows too. And if she stops eating, I’m going to come to you right away.”

I laughed. “Amber, you should be a counselor.”

She grinned and said, “I learned from someone awesome.”

How lucky am I? Have a blessed start to Lent!

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