by Meg Petersen, Professor of English
Meg Petersen is a teacher, a writer of fiction and essays, a poet, and a passionate advocate for the teaching of writing. As director of the Plymouth Writing Project, she leads the organization’s efforts to promote exemplary instruction of writing in every classroom in New Hampshire.
In 2008 Petersen was awarded a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to work with teachers in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, in the teaching of writing. Santo Domingo was already familiar territory for Petersen; she had lived and worked there years ago. She returned for a brief time in 2007, when she and several of her graduate students worked alongside teachers from Santo Domingo schools.
Foremost among Petersen’s goals for her Fulbright year in Santo Domingo was to get her 19 students—all teachers from a single school who voluntarily registered for her course—to improve the teaching of writing. In the essay that follows, Petersen recalls a writing exercise in which one of her students shared her moving story of how she learned to write.
“I didn’t start school until I was 9,” Patria said by way of introducing her writing, then added, “And I didn’t learn to read until I was 12.”
We held our writing class for teachers in an attic classroom in La Escuela Politécnico Militar San Miguel Arcángel, in the part of Santo Domingo known as Villa Mella. The school had attained some fame a few years before with the opening of a computer center that was going to serve the community. By the time Pilar, my co-teacher, and I came to the school a year and a half later to meet with our class for the first time, the computers had been stolen. All that remained was a beat-up VCR locked away in the auditorium closet.
The 19 teachers Pilar and I were to work with were gathered in the staff room around several plastic tables. To begin our class, we asked them to write about an experience with writing. We all bent our heads over our notebooks. Some of theirs were student notebooks, purchased in local supermarkets or colmados, adorned with pictures of High School Musical, Dora the Explorer, and even Barbie. Like their students, the teachers wore uniforms—olive green jackets over white blouses. One teacher had brought her preschool-aged daughter, who sat at the table drawing. As we wrote in concentration for 10 minutes, we could hear the physical education class on the other side of the partition. They were poised in deep squats, legs akimbo, and their teacher was calling out, “Uno, dos, tres …” counting off their times. The noise of the primary grade children out at recess on the cement courtyard drifted up through the open windows. When I had first visited the school to make arrangements for the class, I had almost suffered heatstroke in this room, but the heat was more bearable now, on this January day.
I asked them to find a stopping place in their writing, and then I shared what I had written. We talked about it together. Normally, when I do this exercise with a class, I ask teachers to share their writing in groups, and report what they have learned from each other’s stories. On this day, however, one of the teachers spontaneously began to read her writing out loud to the whole group and asked them to react. We continued reading and responding together. We heard stories of letters written to sweethearts, messages to and from children and parents, and about a 5-year-old child who woke up early in the campo and bathed with cold water, because she wanted to go to school with her brothers and sisters. The director of the school had turned her away because she was too young. She was still bitter.
Patria stood up to read next. After telling us how long it had taken her to learn to read, she explained that back when she was young, if you didn’t have money to get a uniform or a notebook, you could not go to school, so it had taken her a while to get there. She was glad the government was now supplying uniforms for those who couldn’t afford to buy them, and had started a program of giving students breakfast.
“When I first went to school, I would sit in class day after day,” Patria began reading, “understanding nothing. I was ready to give up on school and just go back home to help my mother, but one day that changed. The teacher came up alongside my desk and told me she was going to help me to learn to write my name. She taught me how to make the straight vertical line, the stick, and then the half moon shape, and then to bring them together to make the letter P.” Patria paused, smiling at the memory.
“I made sticks, and I made half moons, and then I put them together: stick with a half moon, stick with a half moon, stick with a half moon, over and over. And I was so overjoyed when I realized I could make a P. I filled the entire paper with Ps. When I went home that day, I wanted to keep making them, but there was no paper or pencils in my house.”
She paused, as if to build suspense, “So I took a burnt end of the firewood, and I used it to make letter Ps all over the walls of my wooden house. I kept on making Ps—sticks with half moons one after another—until there was no room to make any more. I completely covered all the walls. That was the beginning,” she read, “of learning to write, and to read.”
As the class responded to her story, I thought of how it reminded me of Helen Keller going to the well that fateful day with Annie Sullivan. Patria had read her story as if it were nothing special, and the class responded as if she had read something that was within the realm of normal experience, but I couldn’t help thinking it was a miracle. It took me a while to gather myself up sufficiently to comment without using that word. Instead I told them how I noticed that one thing, one bit of learning, can open up the world, how that was all it took, but that the teacher had to take the time.
That one thing, that one letter, began Patria’s literacy. And I still think all of it is a miracle. Writing always seems that way to me.
Teachers in Villa Mella, indeed in all of the Dominican Republic, work in incredibly difficult conditions. When I first came to the school, waiting to meet with the director, I was sitting on a little folding chair in the office. I looked at the pictures hanging in the entry hall of the different courses—1A, 2C, 3B, 3A, etc. I had been so struck by the quantity of students in each class that I had counted and recounted them as I waited. There were more than 50 students in these primary classrooms.
Most public schools in the Dominican Republic, and this one is no exception, run on three tandas, or shifts. Students attend either in the morning, the afternoon, or the evening. Teachers often work all three (and thus can see over 150 first graders in a day). They are paid by the tanda and salaries are very low. At one point, the paycheck a Dominican teacher earned did not cover even the cost of transportation to get to the school. Add to that heat and noise, and lack of textbooks and supplies, and their jobs become even harder.
Teachers can be hard to find and substitutes are non-existent. In order to have our class, we used the children’s recess period and then the 7th- and 8th-grade students covered the primary classes for the last hour on Wednesdays when we came.
Just the Beginning
Later, as our work here progresses, we will read articles about the nature of writing and about teaching it. We will revise and edit practices in these classrooms. Pilar and I will enter the classrooms and teach with these teachers. We will read their writing and they ours. We will respond to each other, and after all of this, we will measure the progress of their students. This day is only a beginning.
This inauguration is important, however, because teachers have started to write. They have also shared, responded to each other’s writing, and analyzed what it can teach them. They will compare these initial thoughts with what they learn about research and theory, and bring it all to their classrooms. It has to begin with writing. When teachers become writers, even through this small exercise, they begin to express their own vision of the world.
This process has never ceased to amaze me, whether it takes place in my composition class at Plymouth State University or with teachers in the Plymouth Writing Project summer institutes, or here in this school serving poor children in the north end of Santo Domingo. When teachers and students learn to write, they represent themselves in the world. In many ways it is always a miracle, and it always feels like important work.
Our goal here in the Dominican Republic is to form a writing project site. Teachers like Patria will share their writing and their teaching with others in institutes like the summer institute we hold in New Hampshire each year at Plymouth State University. Later, when Patria has gained more confidence, she might demonstrate her teaching practices for other teachers, or enter a study group to explore some aspect of teaching writing that puzzles her. The girl who learned to write at the age of 12, and who now faces three classes of more than 50 2nd-graders each day, may come to be a teacher leader in a Dominican writing project.
Patria’s name means country, with the same root as the English word “patriotism.” She was named in hope. In the moment when she read her story about the teacher who helped her learn to write the letter P, she represented the whole country for me. Her story reminds me that despite the obstacles these teachers face, miracles are still possible.
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In fall 2008, the University System of New Hampshire (USNH) announced an exciting newopportunity for financially challenged students to participate in Semester at Sea (SAS), a shipboard education program. Students from USNH’s three residential campuses—PSU, UNH, and Keene State College—who are eligible to receive the Affordable College Effort (ACE) grant are eligible to participate in the Semester at Sea program. The ACE grant is applied to their semester at sea, and the Institute for Shipboard Education (ISE), the organization responsible for Semester at Sea, covers the rest of the cost.
Last fall, two ACE students embarked on the journey of a lifetime. Katy Swafford, a sophomore childhood studies major at PSU, was one of them.
It was a ten-day trip to Italy during Swafford’s senior year of high school that inspired her to seek out study abroad opportunities once she got to PSU. When she received a Semester at Sea flyer from the Global Education Office (GEO) in campus mail, Swafford says, “I had no idea that there was a study abroad program that allows students to travel around the world on a ship and experience 12 different countries—it looked too good to be true.”
Intrigued, Swafford paid a visit to the Global Education Office. “Everyone was extremely helpful,” she recalls. “Jess [Morel, associate director of GEO] took the time to work one on one with me and answer any questions I had. She was great. And if she didn’t have the answer she would contact someone who did and let me know.”
Swafford’s semester at sea was a team effort: Jess Morel and members of the Financial Aid Team, the Bursar’s Office, the Semester at Sea program, and USNH worked together to support Swafford during the application process and to ensure that all paperwork was completed. Swafford and her academic advisor, Professor of Education Robert Miller, worked together to select her classes, which included global studies and marine biology. Morel was Swafford’s campus advocate and primary contact throughout the entire semester at sea. “It was a delight to know that we could all help make this happen for Katy,” says Financial Aid Team Director Schlabach.
A Floating University
“I had never been on a ship before, so I didn’t know what to expect,” remembers Swafford of her first hours on board the MV Explorer, a 24,300-ton ship that is, in essence, a floating university, complete with classrooms with closed circuit television capabilities, an 8,000-volune library, a computer lab, a student union, and two dining rooms. It didn’t take long for her to acquire her sea legs and new friends on the ship. “Everyone was friendly and wanted to meet new people, too, so it was easy to make friends,” says Swafford.
The voyage included 11 ports of call around the globe. In Africa, Swafford went on safari with only an open jeep separating her from sleeping lions, advancing rhinos, and playful zebras. In Japan, she experienced the clean beauty of the land and the friendliness of the people. In Viet Nam, she visited a war museum and a school for children who are deaf and hard of hearing. “Although I learned about the culture of all of the ports, Vietnam was the first place where I felt like I truly understood and experienced the culture,” she says.
And while Swafford enjoyed her shipboard classes and cultural excursions at every port, she also made room for fun, like when she celebrated her birthday with a skydive in Hawaii. “My goal was to enjoy the trip as much as I could,” she says.
Swafford is grateful that she was able to take part in Semester at Sea, and is excited that the ACE grant and ISE scholarship is opening the opportunity to a greater number of students. “Studying abroad is the best thing that I have done so far and I think that everyone should have this opportunity,” she says. “This scholarship allows people to do this, not worry about the cost, and truly enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” – Barbra Alan
by Barbra Alan
Who says a career in accounting can’t be exciting?
Jane Poulin’s career has taken her around the globe to Austria, Spain, Germany, Italy, France, Japan, China, and the Netherlands, among other places. She has served as chief accounting officer at a Fortune 500 company and has twice served at the Securities and Exchange Commission, where she’s been privy to some high-profile corporate and accounting fraud cases. Now she’s involved in negotiating newly-proposed international auditing standards with expert accountants from around the world.
A Great Start
Poulin, a native of Lee, NH was the first in her family to attend college. A good student, she was accepted at all of her top choices, including Plymouth State. Eager to start studying in her field of choice, she chose Plymouth State, which she says, “worked for me financially and allowed me to immediately major in accounting.”
To friends and family, Poulin’s choice in major came as no surprise. Growing up, she had an affinity for numbers, was a frequent visitor to her salesman-father’s office, and often joined her parents on business trips. Early in her college career, however, she learned that it would take more than just a natural ability with numbers to succeed. “I thought I had understood my intermediate accounting class, but then we had our first test and I didn’t do very well,” she recalls. Sensing her disappointment, her professor, former business department chair Paul Buck, pulled her aside after class. “We had a little conversation and after that, I buckled down, worked harder, and did well. It wasn’t easy, but I needed that wake-up call.”
Poulin maintained a strong GPA throughout her time at PSU, consistently earning a place on the Dean’s List and the President’s List. Shortly after graduating in 1984, she embarked on what has become a highly successful accounting career. Every position she has taken has offered her not only more responsibility, but also, as Poulin notes, “more opportunities to learn and to be challenged.”
A World of Opportunity
In 2000, after working as an auditor for well-known firms in New England, Poulin was ready for a new challenge. On a whim, she applied for an associate chief accountant position at the SEC and got the job. From 2000 to 2005—a period that saw many high-profile corporate and accounting scandals, including Enron, WorldCom, and Adelphia—Poulin served as a technical accounting and auditing expert, providing advice to commission accountants, SEC registrants, and public accounting firms.
After five years at the SEC, Poulin was ready for a new opportunity, and for four years served as chief accounting officer at Corning Incorporated. She returned to the SEC in 2009 as associate chief accountant, again in the Office of the Chief Accountant, but now focused on international matters. In this role, she works on policy, standards setting, and the convergence of global accounting, auditing, and ethics standards. “It’s a lot of reading, writing, and interpreting rules,” she says.
Because of the nature of her work, Jane has developed strategies for politely deflecting questions from everyone from cunning reporters to curious dinner party guests who may ask about confidential matters. And while she maintains an unflappable demeanor publicly, privately, she enjoys the excitement and intrigue of her work. “I remember I used to call my mom and say, ‘My issue’s on the front page of the Wall Street Journal today!’” she says. “It was kind of neat to know you were working on an issue that would rise to the upper left column of the front page of the Wall Street Journal.”
“I’ve done so much that I never envisioned doing, and I think it all comes back to having great parents who raised me well and the opportunities I had at Plymouth State,” Poulin says. “I learned that good things happen when you work hard and do the right thing. Now I have the opportunity to give something back.”
That “something” has taken a number of forms. Last February, she came back to her alma mater to present a session on the SEC and meet with College of Business Administration faculty and students, who were especially interested in her work negotiating new international auditing standards and her thoughts about the recent financial crisis.
During her visit, she met PSU accounting major Mitch Shortell, for whom she has since served as a mentor. At Poulin’s urging, Shortell applied to a competitive summer internship opportunity with the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board in Washington, DC. The board, which reports to the SEC, oversees the auditors of public companies to protect investors and the public interest by promoting independent audit reports. After a 30-minute interview and a reference from Poulin, Shortell landed the internship. “Jane was a tremendous help to me throughout the process,” he says.
Poulin is also supporting PSU in the form of charitable giving that will help make a PSU education more accessible to deserving accounting majors. Who knows? Maybe someday, they, too, will launch an exciting career beyond anything they envisioned.
Petra Schaefer’s route to becoming a school psychologist was an unusual one. After receiving a biology degree from Columbia University’s Barnard College, she went to work in experimental hematology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Two years later, she was recruited by a Wall Street firm to develop strategies and to work in financial futures and future options. After many years on Wall Street, she agreed to establish a branch office in Concord, New Hampshire, and then, a few years later, “retired” to stay home and raise three children.
As her children entered school, Schaefer started volunteering. She worked on a newsletter that sought to help parents bridge the worlds of school and home. She piloted an after school program, Kids with Spirit, that Governor Jeanne Shaheen awarded a citation of merit.
“Combined with other volunteer efforts around education, it seemed like I was working full time again,” Schaefer says. “I had so many ideas about how things could be better, so I decided to go back to school for my MEd. I sought advice from a close friend who is a speech and language pathologist and she indicated that if I went into special education that I could really make a difference—and never be bored!”
Schaefer called PSU’s College of Graduate Studies and talked with the late Dennise Maslakowski, then director of the MEd program. Within the week, Schaefer had enrolled. “Dennise was amazing—truly inspiring, and a real ‘get it done now’ person,” Schaefer recalls.
After earning her MEd, Schaefer was hired by Colby-Sawyer College as a learning specialist, working closely with learning disabled students. “As part of that job,” she says, “I was required to interpret psychoeducational evaluations and I decided that I needed to learn more in that area. Dennise told me that Leo Sandy was starting a school psychology certification program at Plymouth State, [so] I met with Leo, signed up, started taking classes again, and eventually completed my certification and CAGS [Certificate of Advanced Graduate Studies] at PSU.”
With her new credentials, Schaefer was hired for her current position as school psychologist at the Towle Elementary School in Newport, New Hampshire. “At first, it seemed like quite an undertaking, but I generally like to bite off more than I can chew, and then chew faster,” says Schaefer. “I love working with people, analyzing data, and crunching probabilities.”
The link between her work on Wall Street and her work in public education lies in Schaefer’s passion for data and how it can be used to help people. “Without data,” she says, “you’re just another opinion.”
Schaefer’s achievements at Towle Elementary School and in the Newport School District have included the adoption and implementation of the Response to Intervention method of diagnosing and responding to learning disabilities, earning the district one of five New Hampshire RESPONDS grants. Her work has included implementing numerous other programs for collecting and analyzing data about student progress and curriculum effectiveness, and it has shown great results, including positive ratings of Annual Yearly Progress from the Department of Education and the reduction of the need for special education by fifty percent. “Instead of labeling students as learning disabled, our focus now is on labeling what they have learned and what they still have to learn,” she says.
According to Schaefer, her time at Plymouth State was essential to shaping her new career. “I have always believed that higher education taught me how to think and all I had to do was to apply this thinking strategically for it to work in any setting. It’s never too late to be a lifetime learner.”
Plymouth State’s strength, she says, is its ability to provide both breadth and depth. “You touch on many things, then focus on a few. At Plymouth State, you get out of it what you put into it, and if you’re a go-getter, you can get an infinite amount of benefit from such a place.”
But for Schaefer, the greatest benefit to studying at Plymouth State was the personal connections she made with her instructors and classmates. “I left with great human resources. [My classmates] went on and pursued their interests, so now I know experts in all types of school psychology,” she says. “My relationships with the teachers and my classmates are the things I took with me, [they are] the things that really matter.”
Plymouth State University provided Schaefer with the tools and resources she needed to make a significant career change, and she has used those tools and resources to help change the lives of the students she encounters every day. Reflecting on the effect of her time at Plymouth State, Schaefer says, “You don’t know the effect by the grades, but by the work people do in the world.” –Matthew Cheney
Matthew Cheney is an adjunct faculty member in English and Women’s Studies at PSU.
Greetings from University Advancement, where we are eagerly anticipating the community open house for the Plymouth State University Welcome Center and Ice Arena, to be held on Saturday, September 11. Composed of the Eugene and Joan Savage Welcome Center and Hanaway Rink, the building is home to Panther men’s and women’s hockey and the first phase of PSU’s Active Living, Learning, and Wellness (ALLWell) Center, where athletics, academics, and recreation will meet in one dynamic, state-of-the-art complex. Activities and opportunities surrounding the opening of the arena have sparked energy and enthusiasm across campus and beyond, as we have worked collaboratively with community partners to shape celebrations that offer something for everyone.
So many of you have supported PSU over the years, offering your time, talent, and treasure to sustain our mission and to build a strong foundation for growth. I hope you will continue to recognize the critical difference your gifts make, supporting both for PSU’s long-range vision as well as the more immediate needs of students, faculty, and programs.
Please join us on campus this fall for any of our exciting events and help us welcome a new era of excellence in academics and athletics, service to campus and community, and regional partnerships with PSU alumni and friends.
Thank you for being part of Plymouth State University’s future. I look forward to welcoming you to campus this fall.