Getting to Know Dr. Jeffrey LaBelle



Dr. LaBelle enjoying his spring break in Maine as he visits his sister and brother-in-law.

The College of Education is excited to continue allowing students to better know its faculty and staff. Dr. Jeffrey LaBelle, S.J., is an Assistant Professor for the Department of Educational and Policy Leadership (EDPL) here in the College. We interviewed Dr. LaBelle so that our students can learn more about him!


Tell us about yourself! Where did you grow up?

I was born in Detroit, Michigan, but (moving with my family at age four) grew up mainly in Phoenix, Arizona, where I attended Catholic elementary and high schools. After graduation, I studied at the University of the Pacific, in Stockton, California, where I had a fantastic undergraduate education in the bilingual Elbert Covell College, from which I graduated in 1976 with majors in Spanish and ESL, with a single-subject teaching credential.

It sounds like you’ve been to many places! So how long have you been in Milwaukee?

I’ve lived in Milwaukee since 2007, except for last fall semester when I was on sabbatical in San Francisco.

What drew you to Marquette and the COED?

Back in 2007, I was motivated to accept a position in Marquette’s College of Education because of the warm welcome of the people here, the fine faculty and staff, as well as the enthusiastic preservice teachers. Our mission to serve urban education and to teach for social justice fits my personal philosophy quite well.

I’m glad that our mission fits well with you! What do you see as an exciting opportunity for this upcoming academic year?

Currently, I look forward to another opportunity this year to teach and share the coordination of a faculty-led summer abroad program in Peru, “Education in the Americas.” I enjoy returning to Peru where I taught high school for three years in the mid-80s.

So what do you like to do when you are outside of the classroom?

Outside of teaching in the College of Education, I enjoy reading popular fiction, listening to classical music, and solving New York Times crossword puzzles, especially the Sunday one.

Currently I am reading the last of 26 novels by Donna Leon from her bestseller Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries. I got hooked on these during my sabbatical in San Francisco when a few Jesuit friends recommended her writing. Working the crossword puzzles helps keep my mind sharpened, especially on Sunday mornings when I enjoy waking up a little more slowly (unless I have an early mass that day).

I suppose that words, language, and literature have always been and will always continue to be a large part of my life. Beyond that, what motivates me most is my love of God, my love for humanity, and my love for nature. I enjoy taking walks outdoors, especially in natural settings, no matter where I am.

You can learn more about the College of Education along with our undergraduate and graduate programs by visiting us online!

#ArmMeWith: A Counselor’s Requests

pexels-photo-460087By Sabrina Bartels

Following the tragic shooting in Parkland, there has been a lot of discussion revolving around gun control laws. And among that discussion is the thought that maybe, just maybe, teachers should be armed. It has caused an uproar around the country, and educators have taken to social media to express their concerns on this topic.

One particular movement that has caught my eye is the hashtag #ArmMeWith. People have held up signs saying “Arm Me With …” and then inserting what it is they feel they need to have in their school buildings. The requests have varied from smaller class sizes, books and pencils, and more school counselors and school psychologists to help students with their social/emotional and mental health concerns.

I was really proud to see school counselors and psychologists on many of these signs. Ever since I joined the profession, I’ve really come to understand just how important it is for students to be aware of their own mental health. A lot of students come to school every morning with a lot of emotional baggage: absent parents, struggling siblings, financial issues, and housing problems to name a few. This means that students are trying to comprehend some very adult problems in the world, even though they are only 12, 13, or 14 years of age. And while they are struggling to understand how and why their lives and families are the way they are, they lose sight of why they come to school in the first place: to get an education. By having school counselors and psychologists in the building, students are able to have someone to process through their thoughts, feelings, and emotions, which then gives them the “brain space” to learn.

But I know that school counselors and psychologists are not the only solution to helping students stay safe and enjoying school. There are so many things that I can think of to “arm” myself with, or things that I hope for every educator. For me, personally, here is my list of both physical and abstract things:

#ArmMeWith resources to ensure that students’ essentials are covered. Just recently, I had a conversation with one of my students who told me that every day she comes to school, she is guaranteed two meals. The weekends are harder; she doesn’t always know how many meals, if any, she will get. The term “resources” also applies to school supplies. There are several students at my school who cannot afford school supplies. When bills need to be paid, and a child needs a new winter jacket because he or she has outgrown their current one, it’s hard to find money to pay for pens, pencils, binders, and notebooks. At my school, we added a community closet, which has been incredibly helpful with our students and families. I wish more schools had this option.

#ArmMeWith patience when working with my students, because sometimes I forget what is important when you are in middle school.

#ArmMeWith compassion. I can never have too much of it. Sometimes, it’s the love for my students that keeps me invested in my job, even on the really difficult days.

#ArmMeWith the right words to talk to my students. Some days, it’s really hard to explain why they need to deal with so much in life. A lot of times, I am at a loss for what to say. It’s hard to reassure them that everything will be okay when they feel as though everyone – and everything – is against them.

#ArmMeWith perseverance to ensure that I never give up on one of my students.

And lastly …

#ArmMeWith love. Some of my toughest students – the kids who scream, swear, and act out all the time – are the students who need the most love. There are students who come to school just to have that meaningful connection with an adult. If there is one thing that all of us as educators need, it is an abundance of love to give and share.


A +/- Approach To Assessment

grade-156087_1280by Elizabeth Jorgensen

A retired colleague entered my classroom today, grunting, his hand in the air. He’s now long-term subbing at a neighboring district. “You know what’s stupid?”

“What?” I asked.

“Rubrics. I was reading short stories and assessing them using the teacher’s rubric. Creative writing earned a four; highly creative writing earned a five. And for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out the difference between what’s creative and what’s highly creative.”

“Yeah, that’s my problem too. Too subjective.”

He told me after his first attempt at scoring, he had a conversation with his students. “The kids, they all agreed that they didn’t know the difference between creative and highly creative either. So I told them we’d scrap that rubric and I’d score the papers differently.” He went on to remind me of his assessments: he awards positive points for everything students do well (stylistic devices, action verbs, entertaining openers) and negative points for errors (run-on sentences, incorrect punctuation, clichés).

When I started teaching thirteen years ago, he shared a favorite assignment with me. In this exercise, students told the story of three people trapped in an elevator. The students wrote in narrative format with correct indents and punctuation and the dialogue tagging rules.

He told students, “You are in charge of this story. You can add as many details as you wish. The rules of reality are also up to you. Maybe people change into sandwiches on this elevator. Whatever! The reason the elevator stalls is also up to you. But your story tells what happens on that elevator with those people. Don’t focus on people outside the elevator, like rescue squads or repairmen. Write about what the people in the elevator say and do.”

He gave students three rules: “1) No ultra-violence. No guns. No bombs. No strangling. Don’t kill off your characters. Be a more astute writer and don’t rely on death to solve your story; 2) No telling the reader what a person thinks or feels. Show us through the character’s actions or words; 3) No graphic sexual scenes!”

And then, he explained his scoring: “You will begin with 50 points and earn your grade accordingly: +3 for each piece of realistic diction used in dialogue; +3 for impressive description that is not overdone; +3 for a WOW (something funny or deep); -3 for repetitive or incorrect tags; -3 for any incorrect grammar, spelling, punctuation or indentations; -3 for inappropriateness or immaturity; and -3 for telling.”

Students, if they felt he missed something when scoring, could argue for more points. He encouraged students to score their own essays before handing them in. Finally, he gave students an example featuring Britney Spears, Elvis, and Buzz Lightyear:

Britney squealed as she twirled her kinky, blond hair and snapped her gum. “Um, like you guys, I think that, um, like, the elevator has like stopped or something. Like hit that button one more time.”

“Hey, baby, how about you and me stop at the Heartbreak Hotel after we get outta here? Priscilla won’t mind,” said an overweight man in a sequined jumpsuit, gyrating his hips so fast it shook the entire elevator.

From out of nowhere, a one-foot tall plastic space man flipped open his space helmet. “Buzz Lightyear to the rescue! This is an intergalactic emergency! Push the button, blonde girl!”

“Like I’m not a slave for you; I’m not a girl, not yet a woman. Treat me with some respect little space man or I’ll send my bodyguard after you!” she said as she applied her pink lip gloss.

And on and on…

My colleagues all grade differently. Some use rubrics; some use the four point system I outlined in an earlier blog; others use the plus and minus system my former colleague favors. No matter your method of assessment, grading challenges instructors to communicate achievement accurately and effectively. I hope your method doesn’t make you throw your hands in the air and grunt.

The Perfect Book for the Perfect Time


Claudette Colvin

Bill Waychunas

I was unpacking some boxes the other week and I came across a box (one of too many) that contains some of my “teaching stuff.” Every teacher has these boxes stashed somewhere, and I’ve even heard nightmare stories of former teachers finishing their careers with storage units full of these boxes. Anyways, in this particular box was a book that I used last year in my 9th grade Activism and Social Justice class called Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice written by Phillip Hoose. It’s a story about a teenage hero who’s name you probably don’t recognize. She was an African American teen living in Montgomery, Alabama, who stood up against segregation by refusing to give up a seat on a bus before Rosa Parks.

That’s right. Before Rosa. One could even argue that Claudette inspired Rosa.

As I pulled the book out of the box and flipped through the highlighted and dog-eared pages, I thought to myself about how perfectly relevant this book and this story are at this very moment in time. As we transition from Black History Month to Women’s History Month, here is Claudette Colvin, the perfect figure to bridge between the months as a Black woman (though she and this book are great for any month of the year). But even more striking to me is how after the rash of mass shootings which our country has recently faced, we’ve seen teens leading the charge towards justice, just as Claudette Colvin and so many other young people have done throughout history.

It might seem obvious by now: I’m recommending this book. If you are a middle school or high school social studies or ELA teacher, you need to consider using this book in your class. Heck, if you are a human being with a pulse, you should probably pick yourself up a copy. First, it’s a Newberry and National Book Award winner, so you know it’s good. Second, it’s only about 125 pages long and written in a style that lands somewhere between a narrative and non-fiction, making it the perfect length and genre for hitting those oh-so-important teaching standards.

But even more important is the way that this book speaks to students by allowing them to connect with a true story about the challenges and opportunities to make the world a better place. The discussions and writing that I saw from students when reading this book were truly incredible and even beyond the typical subjects that one would expect to arise when reading a book that takes place during the Civil Rights Movement. In a quick thumbing through the book, I’m reminded of following topics which either students were able to connect to in this story or that I was able to provide supplemental materials to deepen understanding: school inequity, the criminal justice system, confronting stereotypes about light skin and dark skin African Americans, debating the straightening of hair vs. natural African hairstyles, teachers as activists, diversity in the teaching force, “hidden figures” of the Civil Rights Movement beyond MLK Jr. and Rosa Parks, sex education, adoption, and–most importantly–the difficult individual choices that we all make in pushing our world towards or away from justice.

I’m honestly disappointed that I’m not sharing in that experience with a new group of kiddos this year. But maybe after reading this, I’ve convinced a few more people to give the Claudette Colvin story a read and hopefully get it into the hands of more young people.


Exploring Identity in Milwaukee

milwaukee-1809871_640 (1)By Lupe Serna

Growing up, I remember social studies instruction as very textbook heavy. It seemed like everything we learned about social studies was through text. I don’t recall ever going out to the community to explore social studies, much less to personally witness the role of social studies in real life experiences or in my community. Perhaps that is what influenced my imprecise understanding of the social studies. I never got the opportunity to fully immerse myself in the subject, at least I was never aware that I already was immersed in it on a daily basis.

As teachers, we want our students to see the purpose and importance of class content. We want them to be able to explore on their own and discover new things. Students should be able to question and inquire. They should be able to take what they learned and transfer it outside of the classroom.

In order to accomplish that, one of the biggest resources that we can turn to is the outside world. We can engage students into the lesson by making their city and their communities part of the curriculum. Physically taking students out into the community so that they can see the presence of social studies in the real world can make a lesson much more meaningful. Teaching social studies does not have to be limited to inside the classroom, much less to a textbook. The great thing about teaching social studies is that we can use what’s out there! We can look for sites, museums, or neighborhoods in our communities to connect social studies to students’ lives.

A site in the Milwaukee community that can help us teach social studies is the Old South Side Settlement Museum. This museum is located inside of a home in the South Side of Milwaukee. Despite growing up in that area and passing by that house for years, it wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I visited it during a summer camp job. I always wondered why that house stood out from all the others and when I finally got to experience what it was about, I was amazed by what I found. This museum shows the history of Milwaukee’s immigrant communities in that area of the city throughout the decades. Each room in the house is set up to represent the cultural identities of families who once lived there. Aside from displaying photographs of that neighborhood across the years, it also has antiques and furniture that date back to when families lived there. The cultures highlighted in this museum are the Polish and Mexican cultures. Visiting this museum is a great way to see not only the differences in identities, but also the similarities among these two groups. The tour of this museum goes into the cultural component, but also the historical component in regards to immigration and the living conditions throughout the ages.

Before visiting this site, students can explore different cultures (like the Mexican and Polish that they will hear about at the museum) and their similarities and differences. They can also explore the topic of immigration and the waves of migration into Milwaukee throughout the years. Finally, students could look at the challenges that immigrants face in terms of living conditions, but also the identity crisis that they might experience upon moving to a new country. A means of introducing students to this struggle of discovering and freely expressing one’s identity can be through the book Unidentified Suburban Object. The book can engage the students through the story of a young girl who explores her family’s heritage and only then does she feel like she can be herself.

Students can greatly benefit from both that lesson and visiting that site because it is important for students to learn about what has shaped their community and to begin to discover and be proud of their own identity. One’s identity is composed of multiple factors, cultural identity, like can be clearly identified in that museum, is just one example. A person’s identity also consists of their values, ethnicity, language, sexuality, beliefs, and much more.

Religious and spiritual beliefs are large components that shape our identity. There are many different religious affiliations, and even within each affiliation, there are different practices/rituals that people adopt. Discovering one’s religious/spiritual beliefs is a long and complicated journey for many. To expose students to the religious diversity of the world, teachers can of course begin to explore different religions in the classroom so students can pick up on the differences and similarities between them. However, one of the most impactful ways to teach students about religions is by offering them the opportunity to personally witness them.

A site in Milwaukee that can teach students about Judaism through an exhibit on Jewish Belief and Community is the Jewish Museum Milwaukee. Their exhibit focuses on the religious identity and the sense of community among Jewish communities. This site can be used along with the study of different religions and the values tied to those religions. Students can also learn about celebrations/holidays and find commonalities and differences between them. For example, with the lesson below, students can compare and contrast Hanukkah, Ramadan, and Diwali. Finally, students can learn about the Jewish history in Wisconsin to increase their awareness of the lives and struggles of this religious community. This is something that they can directly interact with and explore in the museum.

Going out into the community and visiting monuments, sites, museums, or any other form of public exhibit is a great way to engage students in the exploration of social studies. If students become aware of the presence of social studies in their immediate surroundings and world, they are more likely to become interested in learning more in the classroom because they see the importance and connection of the content to real life. If there’s any way to effectively approach the teaching of social studies, it’s like this.

Favoring Feedforward Rather Than Feedback

Forward ArrowBy Elizabeth Jorgensen

In my approach to providing feedback and assessing student work, my students produce multiple drafts and then use my feedback to elevate their work. In each assignment, students compose at least three drafts and receive at least three rounds of feedback from me. In addition to this, students receive feedback from peers. But I have struggled with why other teachers don’t want to provide this type of feedback. Do they find it too time consuming? Do they not know what to say to elevate student writing? Are they too attached to rubrics?

I believe growth and learning happens when students edit, modify and update work. This philosophy is the bedrock of my classroom structure and helps justify the time I spend providing feedback.

Today, I read the article “Moving from Feedback to Feedforward by Jennifer Gonzales. Gonzales explains why the feedback teachers traditionally give might not be the most effective. This article also put a fancy name to the type of feedback I provide my students: feedforward.

Jennifer Gonzalez states “the experience of school could be described as one long feedback session, where every day, people show up with the goal of improving, while other people tell them how to do it. And it doesn’t always go well. As we give and receive feedback, people get defensive. Feelings get hurt. Too often, the improvements we’re going for don’t happen, because the feedback isn’t given in a way that the receiver can embrace.”

Gonzalez references The Feedback Fix by Joe Hirsch. In this book, she says Hirsch explains that feedforward is more effective than feedback because it regenerates talents and expands possibilities; it’s particular and authentic; and it’s impactful and redefines dynamics between people.

Gonzalez suggests instead of providing feedback that focuses on past performance, teachers should focus on students’ improvement going forward. Gonzalez wrote, “Instead of waiting until she is finished, then marking up all the errors and giving it a grade, I would read parts of the essay while she is writing it, point out things I’m noticing, and ask her questions to get her thinking about how she might improve it.” Gonzalez’s suggestion is consistent with my classroom structure and model. I wonder if teachers shift from a backwards approach to a forward approach if students will learn, grow and ultimately enjoy school more. I also wonder if teachers would be more inclined to provide feedback if they saw the direct connection to progress.

As Gonzalez wrote, “There’s nothing simple or straightforward about telling people how to improve. So it’s no surprise that we’re still figuring it out and finding new ways to refine it. If the feedback you’re giving to your students, your coworkers, and even the people at home isn’t having quite the effect you intend, try shifting to a feedforward approach. Doing so can help us, as Hirsch says, stop seeing ourselves just as who we are, but who we are becoming.”

Being Confident as a Counselor

school-1413366_640By Sabrina Bartels

One of the best things I did when I became a counselor is join the Facebook group called “Caught in the Middle School Counselors.” It’s a group of middle school counselors from around the nation who use the page to ask advice, celebrate triumphs, and support each other through tough times. People post ideas for bulletin boards, classroom lessons, and any trends that they have noticed.

Recently, one of the counselors asked, “How long did it take for you to feel really confident in your position?” And I had to laugh a little. The truth is, I have been doing this for five years now, and there are still days where I feel like I’m fresh out of grad school and meeting with my very first student ever. My confidence varies day by day, student by student, and definitely situation by situation.

As I scrolled the comments, I was relieved that there were others who were in the same boat as me. Some of the counselors responded that they were in their 15th or 16th year of counseling, and still occasionally felt like they weren’t completely confident in what they were doing! It comforted me that even seasoned veterans at counseling still experience doubts sometimes.

My confidence was especially shaky this last week. I spent the last half of my week feeling like I was drowning. I would create a to-do list, and due to various emergencies, would only get through maybe two items on my list. I was constantly busy, but felt like I wasn’t actually getting anything done. I would even stay late to finish up paperwork, but would still go home feeling frustrated with myself. (I blame the super blood blue moon, or whatever that epic lunar experience was on Wednesday.) I kept thinking that somehow, people more experienced than me would have a better handle on things, or at least be able to accomplish more on their to-do list.

One night, I told one of my coworkers that I felt like I just couldn’t keep my head above water. I was getting overwhelmed with everything, and was mad at myself for not doing more and being more. And he gave me great advice. He told me to go home, relax, and remember that I had made a difference to all the students I met with. I hadn’t looked at it like that before. I had been so caught up in thinking about the students that I hadn’t gotten to meet with, that I completely forgot about all the students I did meet with throughout the day. It made me feel better, knowing that even though it was a tough week, I had been there for my students when they needed me.

I remember thinking when I was in grad school that I would have so much confidence after my first few years on the job. And while I do in some ways (I no longer bat an eye when a teacher asks me to have a hygiene talk with a student) I am definitely still learning and slowly gaining confidence in my skills. Being a counselor is a process. It is definitely not a career where you can just wake up and be “better.” It does take time, and patience, and love both for the students you care for and for yourself. But as tough as it is, I have to say that every challenge, struggle, and long night is worth it.

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