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…

4 Responses to “Thank You, Milwaukee Academy of Science Fourth Graders”

  1. 1 Blake March 24, 2014 at 10:39 am


    To start, I want to let you know how much I enjoyed getting to sit down next to some of my kids and watch you teach. To counter one specific statement on your blog post, I doubt any of my students picked up on any sort of “instructional rust”. It was so fun to see their pure excitement with sharing their fears that they found on your worksheet. It was fun to hear them so enthusiastically join you in a chorus of thunder sounds. And I also thoroughly enjoyed getting to observe the candid, caring, and genuinely engaged manner in which you interact with students. If that was a rusty effort, then I would have really loved to see you in a state of everyday practice!

    Secondly, I owe you many thanks. Thank you for teaming up with Teach for America for this activity. Thanks for coming to MAS specifically. Thanks for your legwork to make the lesson so fun. Thanks for writing about us on your blog. It was a wonderful experience. And it made me even happier that I ended up in Milwaukee and at Marquette for this TFA experience.



  2. 2 Mr. Shultice's Storm Chasers March 24, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    Bill, here are some comments from students in my class:

    “Bill, I don’t think you needed to be scared, because you did awesome! Thanks for reading the book to us and sharing some crackling cookies with us! And thank you for talking to us about our fears. Hope you come back soon!” -MS

    “Thank you for reading the book to us! I hope you come back again!” -TR

    “Thank you for showing braveness and coming to visit our class and read to us. And thank you for having us think about our fears with the worksheet!” -JS

    “Bill, thank you for coming to our classroom and sharing your ideas with us. I hope you come back!” -LJ

    “Bill, thank you for bringing us chocolate chip and sugar cookies!” -SH

    From everyone: “THANK YOU!”


    • 3 billhenk March 24, 2014 at 1:29 pm

      Wow, thanks for your very nice messages, kids. It was a pleasure to spend time with you. Really glad you liked the book reading and the activity we did about fears. I’d be honored to come to your classroom again sometime. I appreciate the invitation. Best of luck this school year.



  1. 1 Can You Tell a Great Teacher When You See One? | The Marquette Educator Trackback on March 27, 2014 at 8:52 am

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