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Judith Hankes

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Judith Hankes moves around a classroom with confidence. She strides in the aisle asking, “If the child was not able to read and could only listen to the question, how would the child think about what was being asked?”

by Brad Beck
Student Multimedia Reporter

teach the children well

Judith Hankes moves around a classroom with confidence. She strides in the aisle asking, “If the child was not able to read and could only listen to the question, how would the child think about what was being asked?”
Hankes’ task at hand is to get her students, all future teachers, to think like a first-grader. She asks Tommy Giljohann, a junior, to come up to the front of the room to work on a math problem. The air shifts as another student reads the math problem out loud. Giljohann, acting as a first-grader, hesitates as he moves the small blocks.

Judy Hankes
In the classroom: Dr. Judith Hankes leads a lecture to future teachers.

Hankes watches closely, allowing the students to figure out why some math problems, based on the way they are written, pose greater challenges than others. It is hard 
to imagine Hankes, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, doing anything but what she is doing—teaching future teachers how to teach.
Since 1995, Hankes has been teaching mathematics methods and classroom research courses at UW Oshkosh. She is the author of numerous articles dealing with multicultural education issues and mathematics. She is the co-editor of two books, Changing Faces of Mathematics: Perspectives of Indigenous People of North America (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) and Using Native American Legends to Teach Mathematics (Honor Press). She is also the co-author of Lost and Found and Found Again (Whales Library), a primary-level mathematics curriculum resource text and game.
Hankes’ teaching career spans 30 years and includes primary-level classroom teaching, counseling of at-risk students, coordinating gifted and talented programs and mathematics in-service education for public and tribal schools nationally.

Poor and Privileged

The daughter of a grade school dropout and a high school dropout, Hankes had no idea that higher education was even a possibility. Her father, Charles LeRoy Towne, an orphan, ran away from his foster home in fourth grade. Although he had no birth certificate, Charles was identified as Native American, but was told 
to pretend to be Italian so he’d escape the backlash of 
not being of European descent. He survived by panhandling in the streets of Chicago. At 19, Charles Towne married 16-year-old Ruth Florence Ovit, a Swede and also an orphan.
In 1931, the two made a home by clearing and homesteading a 26-acre island on the Fox River in Oswego, Ill. He did odd jobs; she raised chickens and sold eggs and goat milk. Ruth gave birth to seven children on the island. She birthed two of them alone after Charles left the island to get Doc Perkins, the last family doctor in the state of Illinois who made house calls on a horse and buggy. With little money, the Townes paid the doctor with butchered chickens.

Transportation on and off the island was not always easy. The quickest route was using a boat that could take them from the island to the mainland in about five minutes. When the Fox River was frozen, they’d have to trek about a football field’s length on the ice where the water was shallowest.

In this podcast, Dr. Judith Hankes talks about life growing up on the island with her family, pictured above. Produced by Brad Beck.
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Island Living

Although her parents lacked a formal education, Hankes credits them for instilling in her a lifelong love for learning. “Neither Mama or Papa gave any thought to having their children attend college,” she says. “But they were both readers, and they often read aloud.”

And the lessons they taught her were not found in most elementary schools. Her father taught her to trap and skin muskrats. He taught her engineering by building a swing bridge from their home to the high bank on the mainland. As a small child, she walked across the wooden boards and held woven iron cables while the water flowed beneath her. Her mother read and wrote poetry and encouraged her children to explore the world.
When Hankes entered school, she was in for a rude awakening. “I had school children say unkind things. One boy said, ‘Tell me what is your home like.’”

With great joy, Hankes shared the beauty of her island home, the vines and trees that grew all around. The boy sniffed and said, ‘Oh, that’s not what my mom said. She said you live in a dump.’”
Those hurtful words of a child still remain fresh in Hankes’ mind, but she is able to chalk them up to ignorance. Her childhood was idyllic in a sense, one spare of material luxuries but full of love, wonder and learning. “We didn’t have shoes to wear, but we had exotic pets,” says Hankes, who had a pet monkey and parrot. “I felt very privileged; never did I feel poor.”

Sticks and Stones

Still, the idea of going to school was hard on young Hankes. School, to her, was a place where children can be cruel to those who are deemed different. “I would have stomachaches and manage to throw up in the morning to convince my mom that I was too sick to go.”
 The winter months on the island made it even more difficult to get to school. During one harsh winter day when she was 8, she and her brother Ted trekked across the ice, with their mother leading the way. The Towne children had already missed too many school days that winter. “We broke through the ice halfway crossing, and Mom had to keep breaking the ice ahead so that my brother and I could wade behind her.”

Museum Living: Dr. Judith Hankes teaching children in the Aurora Historical Museum.

They made it across, soaked and frozen. After warming themselves in a neighbor’s home, Hankes and her brother finally made it to school, two hours late. Rather than being greeted with sympathy, the Towne children were met with contempt. “The teacher, who was also the principal, shamed us,” Hankes recalls. “He said, ‘You Towne children are going to amount to nothing because you can’t get to school on time.”

The teacher pointed to another student. “She lives twice the distance you do, and she is always here early,” he said. That girl was also the wealthiest student in the class.
Hot with anger and embarrassment, Judy shot back, “Mr. H, you are the most stupid teacher I have ever met.”
The class fell into shocked silence. Then the teacher said, “Miss Towne, into the hall!” 
Eight-year-old Judy Towne spent much of her time that year in the hall.

Path to Learning

Hankes lived on the island until she was 11 when her family moved to Ladysmith, Wis., where she met her first great teacher. “My sixth-grade teacher, Ruby Taylor, was a masterful teacher. It was a wonderful sixth-grade year, but it was the last good year of school I had,” Hankes says. “A good teacher makes a big difference.”

Hankes’ journey into academia was filled with detours that included dropping out of Andrews University in Michigan after a year, getting married to Jerry Hankes and having three children, Bret and twins Kurt and Karla. She and her husband worked as live-in caretakers for the Aurora Historical Museum, a large Victorian mansion built in 1857 in Aurora, Ill. Every spring and fall Hankes would guide about 4,000 visitors through the museum. “I would hold up an antique object and ask students to tell me how it might have been used,” Hankes says. “I had a great opportunity to teach through inquiry.”
She eventually earned her bachelor’s degree from Aurora College in Illinois, her master’s degree from the University of Washington and her doctorate from UW Madison.
Hankes’ childhood, rich with knowledge and exploration, provided the stepping stones that she used to reach her educational goals. However, her own nuclear family situation pushed her into her field of study. Both her husband and youngest son, severely dyslexic, were dismissed by an educational system that lacked the tools to teach children with special learning needs. “My husband and my son formed who I am as a teacher,” she says.
Since completing her doctorate in 1995, Judith Hankes has been teaching educators about mathematics and giving math workshops across the country. Though Hankes is not one to brag about her many accomplishments, she does take pride in this. The child that was told she’d amount to nothing is now a contributor to progressive education research. With a hint of a smile, Hankes says, “Here’s Judy Towne, this little river rat person, now sitting with some of the greatest scholars in math education.”

The Power in Teaching

Currently, Hankes prepares teachers who work with special education children to use an inquiry-based approach to teach math. The special education teachers in the past were seldom taught this approach. “More often, they were taught to give children crutches, rhymes and tricks to get through,” she says. “Those are not life skills.”

In this podcast, Dr. Judith Hankes discusses the importance of diverse learning in the classroom. Produced by Noell Dickmann.
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Teachers these days, she says, have to deal with diverse learners—from a dyslexic learner to a child coming from Somalia who can barely speak English. She hopes her students take away much of the same ideas and lessons she learned from her parents. “A healthy mind thrives on learning. Therefore, the opportunity to learn, really learn concepts and big ideas, is critical for all children.”

When she became a teacher, Hankes says her parents were both pleased. When she became a professor, her mother would brag, “Judy teaches teachers to teach.”
While Hankes can’t undo the wrongs inflicted on 
her by the teachers of her youth, she can help shape 
the teachers of the future. She wants her students to know that they hold great power as teachers to nurture their wards. “[Teachers] are given the opportunity to empower children, to develop their minds through learning,” she says.
For Hankes, that power must be used for the good of all children—from the most privileged to the most disenfranchised. In recent years, Hankes’ research focuses on a segment of the population that is close to her heart—the Native American children. “Native Americans are among the least likely culture groups to choose careers that require math knowledge,” she says. 
Hankes aims to turn that trend around. The life lessons Hankes would like to pass along are simple. “What is important in life isn’t material wealth,” she says. “Rather, it’s liking yourself, believing in yourself, knowing that you can solve problems, take care of yourself and contribute to the care of others. That’s being empowered.”

Student reporter Noell Dickmann also contributed to this report.

Research Matters

Teaching Teachers
Dr. Judith Hankes often holds teacher workshops to introduce different methods of teaching. Read what some of her workshop participants have to say about what they took away from the workshops. Read on.


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