NR native receives teaching award
Teaching has always been a passion for New Richmond native Jessica Stovall. So when she found out she had been awarded a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching grant, Stovall smiled so much over the following days that her cheeks hurt.
“When I found out, I was actually grading research presentations on the Iranian War and Revolution as pre-reading for the graphic novel ‘Persepolis,’ when the ‘Congratulations’ e-mail popped up,” Stovall said. “I immediately teared up, and I had to pretend like I was about to sneeze and somehow make it through four more presentations before I could tell my class.”
The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. Recipients of Fulbright grants are selected on the basis of academic or professional achievement, as well as demonstrated leadership potential in their fields.
“I have been open with anyone who would listen about how much I wanted this honor,” Stovall said. “My students make me feel loved and appreciated every day, but it was nice to have a national award also recognize the work that I do in my classroom. Word among my students spread quickly, and the next day many classes brought cupcakes.”
Ever since she was in elementary school, Stovall wanted to be a teacher. She remembers answering “teacher” every time she was asked “What do you want to be in the future?” Most of the credit for Stovall’s passion for teaching comes from her parents, who are both teachers.
“My parents are my true heroes. Their love withstood racial intolerance, and I credit my empathetic and openminded nature to them,” Stovall said. “And they are both amazing educators that have left quite big shoes for me to fill: My mom has taught third grade in New Richmond for 35 years and my dad is a professor at UW-River Falls, winning Outstanding Faculty Member of the Year in 2012. Their teaching is such an inspiration in my daily teaching life.”
Stovall got her degree in secondary education-English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and most recently finished her Master’s degree in Literature at Northwestern in December. Stovall currently works at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park, Ill., where she teaches ninth-, 11th- and 12th-grade English.
Throughout her schooling, Stovall had many teachers who inspired her and set her on the path to becoming a teacher. Among them were Dave Schleh and Amy Almendinger.
“Dave Schleh took such a vested interest in who I was as a person. He cared about each and every one of his students, but also managed to make us feel special. He brought me out of my shell and taught me a powerful lesson of a teacher’s ability to transform students,” Stovall said. “Amy Almendinger, although I knew her as Ms. Scott, inspired me to teach English. I gobbled up everything she taught, except maybe Dicken’s ‘Great Expectations,’ and sparked my lifelong romance with reading.”
Since she began teaching, Stovall has discovered many truths about being an educator.
“I have learned that teaching is a 24-hour job. I’m around students from the time I get to school until the time I leave at 6 p.m.,” Stovall said. “But it doesn’t stop there. I am constantly responding to emails ranging from ‘How can I get my grade up?’ to ‘Can you give me some advice on how to get my mom to trust me?’ And if I am not grading papers, I am thinking about what new lessons I’d like to teach and the most creative ways I’d like to teach them.”
Stovall will use the grant she received for winning the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching to conduct research in New Zealand on racial predictability of student achievement.
“We are failing our students of colors and those underrepresented populations are not faring well in our schools, and I want desperately to interrupt this cycle,” Stovall said. “I chose New Zealand because schools there have an academic achievement gap between white and Maori students that mirrors the gap between white students and students of color in the United States. I will be doing intensive work to study successful approaches for closing the gap at schools in New Zealand, and then implementing those ideas with a cohort of teachers at my high school in the U.S.”
Orientation for her trip will start in August in Washington, D.C., before Stovall heads to New Zealand for a semester. Her school has given her a yearlong sabbatical to conduct her research.
“My primary motive is to continue to learn and perfect the best practices for teaching at-risk and African-American students so that they too have the audacity to dream, to ask the big questions, to read a little deeper into the lines of their novels,” Stovall said. “I want to be a solution for the racial achievement gap at my school. I also want to continue to inspire and to be inspired so I can journey to the end of my own rainbow.”