By Sheng Lee (@shengdanger)
University of Wisconsin Oshkosh alumna Wanda Kern ’95 and ’00 MSE, loves sharing a great story with her Jefferson Elementary School students in Oshkosh.
Through a grant, she and her husband, Mike, traveled to Europe this past summer to research two of the greatest storytellers of all time, the Brothers Grimm.
As Jefferson Elementary was celebrating its 125th anniversary, Kern’s curiosity about the fairy tale pioneers grew when she began researching the school’s rich history. Jefferson’s first students were recent immigrants from Germany. Their parents worked at sawmills in the area during the day, and attended the school at night to learn English and basic skills to pass citizenship tests.
The school’s goal for this year was to improve written and oral communication skills among its students, so Kern blended the two ideas together into one “grand educational journey.”
“I wanted to learn more about the inspiration behind the numerous Grimm fairy tales, and I wanted to see and connect with the land and people who had first entered Jefferson Elementary School in the 1880s,” Kern said.
She was delighted when she found out that she and her co-teaching partner, Jodie Kadonsky, were named the 2011 Fund for Teachers fellows.
“The Fund for Teachers Fellowship enriches the personal and professional growth of teachers by recognizing and supporting them as they identify and pursue opportunities around the globe,” Kern said. “Their travels are meant to impact their practice, the academic lives of their students and their school communities.”
With funds secured for her learning quest, Kern and her husband jetted away in late July. Their adventure began in Luxembourg, Germany. They paid their respects to fallen soldiers at the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial, and then traveled to Hanau, the birthplace of the Grimm brothers.
They continued along the German Fairy Tale Road and visited Gelnhausen.
“Gelnhausen was a charming city filled with half-timber-styled houses,” Kern said.
Kern and Mike spent a night in the castle that inspired the Rapunzel story. The castle, located atop a huge hill, is known as Castle Trendelburg.
Traveling through many small villages and hamlets, the couple arrived in Bremen, where the famous Town Musicians of Bremen story was set. Kern described it as a gorgeous and bustling city. From Bremen, they traveled to Hamelin, where they found the Pied Piper directing tours through the city.
As the couple left Germany, they visited the site of the Battle of the Bulge and again paid their respects to the thousands of soldiers who gave their lives for freedom. The couple also visited a war cemetery in the Netherlands.
Making their way to Amsterdam, they visited an open air museum dedicated to Dutch history and explored the canals and lively streets of the city.
“We adored the city of Brussels, Belgium, and even spent six hours in Mets, France — just to be able to say we had been to France,” Kern said. “Our trip concluded back in Luxembourg for our return flight. It was an extremely busy 12-day journey filled with beauty, learning and discovery of ancient and historic buildings and land.”
From her journey, Kern learned about the historic cities. As she visited sites that had inspired stories told for more than 150 years, she gained a deeper sense of appreciation for recording family stories. Upon returning to the U.S., Kern decided to have her students and their parents record some of their family history in written form to be preserved and shared with future generations.
During her time in Europe, she studied culture, politics, geography and cuisine. Although not the original intention of the grant, Kern learned much about the great sacrifices of WWII soldiers.
She also learned how to rely on the kindness of strangers and to admit to not knowing or understanding everything.
“In reality, I was shown how connected the world is, and I was touched by how kind people are all around the world.”
With all of her new knowledge, Kern hopes to apply her research in her classroom.
“I will be connecting my travel and learning experiences to our writing and oral language lessons,” she said. “We will be reading and learning about some of the lesser-known Grimm fairy tales and connecting with written responses to them.”
Kern enjoys helping her students make individual gains both academically and socially.
This year marks Kern’s 16th year teaching at Jefferson Elementary. She loves hearing that her students enjoy school and thinks of them as her “second-grade family.”
In a fairy tale of her own, Kern and her husband live in Oshkosh with their children and pets. In November, the couple will celebrate their 16th wedding anniversary.
Kern was a freshman at UW Oshkosh when she met Mike. He had just graduated from UW Oshkosh with a double major and was working as a financial analyst at a local bank. Kern was working at the same bank as a teller. The two were hired within a week of each other, and the rest is history.
“We have been blessed with three children,” Kern said. “We also have a silly and wonderful cat that we rescued from the Oshkosh animal shelter and a naughty golden retriever.”