As one of the few African Americans in the small town of New Richmond, Wisconsin, Jessica Stovall often felt like an outsider during the already challenging high school years. Nonetheless, she loved school and sought refuge and understanding in books, eventually becoming a teacher herself. Her personal insights and years of teaching experience — along with a master’s in literature from Northwestern University School of Professional Studies — helped Stovall win a prestigious Fulbright award. She plans to use the grant during a teaching sabbatical to learn how another culture is addressing a significant achievement gap between ethnic groups.
Soon after graduating from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Stovall began teaching English at Oak Park and River Forest High School, a large school just west of Chicago that has struggled with an achievement gap between black and white students. She wanted to “build the classroom she never had,” and filled her curriculum with works by authors of color, frank talk about race and assignments that challenged students to think more deeply about their beliefs.
“I'm proud to have a multicultural classroom community where students know each other’s names and talk about these issues together,” she says.
While juggling the demands of teaching and coaching, Stovall steadily worked toward her master’s degree and found that it had “a huge impact” on both her classroom and her decision to pursue the Fulbright.
“A lot of teachers choose education to do their graduate work because it seems easier or more practical,” she says. “But in the English program I was truly challenged, and I loved showing my students that I was like them — reading, writing papers, and balancing school with life. I found new ways of thinking about the novels I teach my students, and my thesis on literature and race prepared me for the Fulbright application process.”
Stovall, who graduated in 2013, will spend a semester in New Zealand, studying the significant academic achievement gap that exists between the minority Māori people — who have their own culture, customs and language — and the mainstream population.
“Their Ministry of Education is incorporating Māori culture into schools, and I want to learn more about these strategies,” she says. “I truly believe that respecting and acknowledging the multiple identities in a classroom is key to a teacher’s ability to reach students.”