Wendy Glenn is a teacher’s teacher and, therefore, a natural to be the new director of teacher education in the Neag School of Education at UConn.
Her predecessor, Associate Dean Marijke Kehrhahn, who laid the administrative groundwork for the job, is even humbled by Glenn’s talents. “I’m not a teacher educator, and she is to the bone,” Kehrhahn says. “She spends her entire day thinking about how to better prepare teachers.”
Glenn is riding a high wave right now. Besides her role as director, new this semester, she was honored last year as a teaching fellow, and returned this summer from a year in Norway as a Fulbright Scholar.
But her true calling is as an associate professor of English education, an expert in young adult literature, and a mentor to myriad Neag students preparing to be teachers.
“I don’t want to give up the opportunity to teach and advise the English education students because they’re why I’m here,” says Glenn, who earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at Arizona State University and left the Southwest to join the Neag faculty in 2002.
Glenn says the new role is allowing her to see the full range of schooling in areas such as music, special education and elementary education, in which she does not hold specialties. Her favorite task ahead as director is facilitating a re-evaluation and revision of the teacher preparation programs at the university.
She has just returned from her year in Norway, where she and her daughters – Miranda, 10, and Shelby, almost 7 – were immersed in the culture and language. Glenn met with 8th- to 10th-graders to discuss American culture, while her daughters took classes taught in Norwegian. And they took pictures and blogged during the entire trip, while her husband, Martin, held down the fort at their Oslo apartment.
When Glenn asked students in Norway what they associated with America, they responded “McDonalds! Paris Hilton! Bad health care and violent schools,” she says. “Having said that,” she adds, “their understandings are also coupled with a real interest and often admiration of what America represents. My mission was to try to complicate their understanding.”
She brought home a larger lesson or two. Norway’s cultural values – an abiding love of the outdoors and pride in family life and hobbies – infuse the way of life.
“In Norway life outside of work has a greater value than work itself, and ironically most Norwegians have a positive attitude about work,” Glenn says. “They’re not resentful of it because it doesn’t take over their lives. It’s just a part of who they are. And they have the time and the freedom to pursue the other parts of who they are.
“I don’t know that that happens in the U.S., ” she says.
Glenn’s specialty, young adult literature, is really a mission. An avid reader in her own girlhood, she sees a propensity among high school students, as they become immersed in required reading, to lose their earlier passion for reading. And, because some educators are not as versed in the richness of the growing young adult genre, it’s often dismissed as romance novels or horror sagas. Trash is the word some use.
But that view is selling the genre short, says Glenn, who has published works about their themes of class, diversity, bullying and conspicuous consumption. “Our responsibility is to teach young readers to be critical readers,” she says. “You can easily have conversations around author’s craft and literary elements, like setting and tone and character.”
Love of reading plays into creating real learners in the classroom, and beyond its walls, she says. Rather than engaging in intense mastery test preparation, which she calls “sacrificing children to what we believe is some greater good” and “morally wrong,” she advocates “a classroom community where students are reading and writing and speaking and thinking authentically.”
“The irony is that if we teach with a passion and allow students to behave as real readers and writers and thinkers, they’re going to do just fine on those tests,” Glenn says.
Some literature for the young deals with controversial themes that not every adult in a community deems appropriate. “My students ask me, ‘Would you let Miranda read this?’ ” Such community discussion requires teachers “to have very clear rationales that underpin why they’re teaching particular texts,” she says, even, or perhaps especially, an accepted author such as Shakespeare, who deals with harsh themes. “If you can articulate the value you see, then you can enter a discussion with the parent,” she advises.
Young adult titles she believes are strong include “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak, a disturbing but poetic handling of a story set during the Holocaust in Nazi Germany; “We Were Here” by Matt Del a Pena, a counter narrative of a Latino youth “who doesn’t fit the media portrayal of urban youth we often are privy to”; and “Sold” by Patricia McCormick, the story of a 13-year-old Nepalese girl whose desperate father sells her into prostitution in Calcutta. “I love the strength of the character, but I think it’s just beautifully written,” she says.
Glenn has one foot planted in the content of her English specialty, but the other is firmly rooted in the methods of teaching that she imparts to her Neag students. How does she combine the two?
“We try to live for students the kind of teacher we ultimately hope they will become,” she says. But the second part is “we want to stop and step back and analyze from a critically aware perspective what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and how we might modify what we’re doing in a classroom of 30 rambunctious 10th-graders.”
Glenn is known as a textbook exemplar of such ideals, responding to emails and emergency calls, not just from her Neag students, but also from alumni teaching in the field.
Isabel Meagher, Neag BS 2007 and MA 2008, now teaches at Glastonbury High School. She recalls presenting with Glenn and others on issues of race, class and sex in Young Adult literature at a November 2008 conference in Texas. “She did not take this opportunity to tell us what she’d like to present. Wendy did what all outstanding teachers do: she let go,” treating the co-presenters as colleagues rather than students, Meagher said.
Glenn was an advisor for Erica Berg, who graduated from the Neag School in 2006 with a bachelor’s, followed by a master’s in 2007. Berg now teaches at Rockville High School in Vernon. “The pre-teachers joke that we become ‘Little Wendys’ when we exit the program,” Berg says, “because we can’t leave her classes without wanting to teach exactly as she does, with an incredible amount of passion and warmth.”