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SD Department of Education Nov. 2015  

Janet Wagner: A homegrown teacher, growing young thinkers

Janet Wagner is a middle and high school science teacher in the Bon Homme School District. This past July, she received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

Wagner and her husband Ron are also emergency medical technicians. They both grew up in the Tyndall area, and she says, “When we get a street address, we can often say who used to live there. It helps if the 911 dispatcher is from the area, too.” Just about anyone who grew up in a small town can identify with this phenomenon.

11111 555th Street. Let’s see, it’s just south of Norwegian Hill, where Mr. Johnson used to live.

We’re on our way!

An emergency call starts with an address. Without context, though, it’s just numbers. Of course EMTs also use maps to get where they need to go, but a built-in mental map is faster than any Google search. And it goes without saying that EMTs don’t have time to wait for their smartphones to load the results of an Internet search for “how to stabilize a crash victim.”

Wagner wants her students to develop this kind of skill—not necessarily the ability to know who lived in that white farmhouse on the edge of town 30 years ago—but the ability to reason through a problem without relying entirely on technology.

“The most important thing we can teach students is the ability to think. Too often they rely on computers for superficial answers,” Wagner says. “I want students to apply what they learn. For instance, my 8th grade earth science students are building wind turbine blades. I have no problem with them going online to research how many blades to use, what width and length. But then they have to do something with that information. They have to build the blades to learn for themselves what works best.”

Wind Turbine Project

Beyond that, Wagner wants students to learn how to communicate and present an argument. “We’re studying renewable energy in 8th grade right now. We have one wind farm in the area already and may have another in the future. Are they in favor of another wind farm, and why?” she asks. “They need to learn to gather data and analyze it. Some of these students may end up with jobs working on those turbines. These topics matter to their lives.”

After 42 years of teaching, Wagner will retire at the end of the 2015-16 school year. “It’s like the icing on the cake, because it’s my final year of teaching,” she says of earning the PAEMST. “There’s no higher honor than a Presidential award.”

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