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Minnesota High School Teacher Named 1996 Teacher of the Year

April 19, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Minnesota teacher Mary Beth Blegen no longer spends hours preparing multiple choice tests or lecturing students on how to write good essays. Students keep asking questions, but she’s giving fewer answers.

It’s part of a teaching philosophy that has earned the high school teacher from Worthington, Minn., top honors as national Teacher of the Year.

``I have come to believe that the most important thing I can do for students is to allow them a chance for self discovery,″ says Ms. Blegen, who will be recognized by President Clinton at a White House ceremony Tuesday.

Ms. Blegen and her students read, discuss, write and argue. She challenges them to think about what they are learning and why.

Be it Vietnam or Picasso, Ms. Blegen helps her students believe they have valuable thoughts to express and write. That helps them learn about themselves and begin their own walk through life, she says.

``We teachers are here to serve the needs of the students, not awaken our students to our own truths,″ Ms. Blegen says. ``We need to ask `What are kids taking from our classroom into their world?‴

Ms. Blegen, 52, was born in Chamberlain, S.D., and graduated from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., in 1965. She started teaching in January 1966. She did substitute work for several years while raising three children, then resumed teaching full-time at Worthington High School in rural southwestern Minnesota more than 15 years ago.

Students in Ms. Blegen’s history, literature, humanities and writing classes sit in desks arranged in the shape of a U. The room is filled with stacks of papers and piles of books in disarray.

Every inch of wall space is plastered with snapshots of students and posters featuring Martin Luther King Jr. and Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue. There are prints of soft-colored van Gogh paintings and an action poster of Olympic bobsledders.

If her students aren’t engaged in what’s going on in class, maybe they’ll thoughtfully ponder something that intrigues them on the wall, she muses.

She tells herself each year that she’ll better organize her papers and shelves, but then spends time interacting with the 600 students at the school in the Minnesota community of 10,000.

``I believe very much in the power of teaching and the power of listening to children’s voices,″ she says.

Instead of lecturing students on writing well, she asks them to point out examples of good writing. Then she asks them to tell her why it’s good.

Writing assignments begin with ``vomiting on paper,″ she says. Papers are revised, rewritten and then rewritten again. Final drafts are read aloud.

``That’s strong stuff when they hear each other,″ she says.

Students can’t remember what they’ve learned from a multiple choice test, but they can recite the main points of a letter they write to Hitler, she says.

As Teacher of the Year, Ms. Blegen will leave her classroom for a year to be a spokeswoman for education. She hopes to learn more about when and why students begin to dislike reading. She also hopes to persuade more teachers to improve their listening skills to better connect with their students.

A committee representing 14 education organizations selected Ms. Blegen from a pool of 54 teachers of the year across the United States and its territories. The Teacher of the Year program, in its 45th year, is sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and Scholastic Inc.

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