by Dennis Dalman – email@example.com
Social studies and education are practically birthrights for Jen Richason, Sartell Middle School teacher who was recently honored with the Minnesota Middle School Social Studies Teacher of the Year.
Richason’s father, Ben, is a geography teacher at St. Cloud State University. Her grandfather, whose name was also Ben, taught geography at Carrol College in Waukesha, Wis. Richason’s mother, Barb, has been a paraprofessional in the St. Cloud School District.
“They all had an impact on me,” Richason said. “I’ve always loved geography.”
Geography is an integral part of her social-studies classes.
Richason was stunned to learn she’d been named a Teacher of the Year by the Minnesota Council for Social Studies. The award will be presented officially at a banquet March 10 in St. Cloud. The council also honored two other social-studies instructors as Teachers of the Year for the high-school and elementary-school categories. Those honorees are Alan Amdahl of Albany High School and Mariah Singh of Pillsbury Elementary School in Minneapolis.
“I was really, really surprised,” Richason said, on hearing she’d been honored. “It’s an honor even to be nominated. There are so many great social-studies teachers out there and so it’s nice to be recognized by one’s peers.”
Richason was nominated for the award by Rochelle Arellano, an intern in Richason’s classroom several years ago.
Richason loves teaching so much she attributes her success and her recent honor to her parents from whom she developed a love of learning to to her students, their parents and the Sartell-St. Stephen School District.
“As a teacher, I feel a part of this community,” she said. “I feel the community’s supportive power from all the families. And the kids are so excited to learn I feel blessed to be teaching here. It’s not hard to be a good teacher with students like this.”
And Richason’s students return that admiration all the time. After they heard she’d been named Social Studies Teacher of the Year, the students gave her a great big congratulations signed by them and other teachers.
“That was really special,” she said. “It was so thoughtful of the kids. It was better than any award. Nothing is better than kids telling me they love my class.”
Richason said her students are very much connected to the “now” and are aware of history and current events, which makes teaching a joy for her because her students are so keen on learning.
Geography, like penmanship, seems to have become the “forgotten” subject in many schools’ curricula, but not in Sartell. Geography, Richason is quick to note, is more than just place names and features on a map. Richason weaves geography into a study of history, culture, economics, current events and other topics under the rubric of social studies. Recently, for example, her students studied the sinking of the ship Lusitania and how that tragedy helped bring the United States into World War I.
Why is social studies important?
“Regardless of what job you have,” Richason said, “we are all citizens, and we have a responsibility to vote and to work together to solve problems. We are all bound together by being part of society and that need to work together. Social studies really does help students become active participants in society.”
Social studies, including geography, gives people a foundation of knowledge about the world so they can become informed, active citizens, she added.
Social studies, in addition, also helps students learn about the increasing diversity of today’s world. Recently, Richason’s students read a novel entitled “Kimchi and Kalamari.” The book is about a Korean boy who was adopted by an Italian-American family in New Jersey. The boy undergoes some cultural-identity problems he tries to resolve. When his teacher asks him to write an essay about culture and ethnicity, the boy writes he has decided he is, like many others, a human version of a layered cultural ethnic “sandwich.” The title of the book refers to a spicy fermented-vegetable Korean dish (kimchi) and cooked squid (kalamari) so popular with many Italians.
The theme of that novel, said Richason, is becoming increasingly apparent in the greater St. Cloud and Sartell area, with people of varying ethnic backgrounds and so many ethnic foods now available in markets and restaurants. That diversity, she said, is one of the main reasons for teaching and learning social studies, so people can become aware of and understand other cultures.
Richason assigned a “cultural sandwich” essay to her students similar to the one assigned to the Korean boy in “Kimchi and Kalamari.” She was tremendously impressed by how the students, in their essays, described with keen insights and understanding the many forms of diversity in Sartell and the surrounding area and their belonging within it.
Born in Michigan, Richason earned a bachelor’s degree in social studies with an emphasis on history from SCSU. Right after graduating, she landed her job in Sartell and has been teaching there happily for 15 years. She and her husband, Glen Tautges, have two children – Will, a fourth-grader; and Annabelle, a first-grader, both at Pine Meadow Elementary School.