“Stories matter. Teaching Language Arts is important because we make sense of our world through story—both by reading the stories of others and narrating our own.”
I said these words to a group of enthusiastic teachers in Brazil in 2018 where I was helping lead an educational conference with my Mizzou Academy colleagues. Mizzou Academy is a nationally accredited, global school housed within the University of Missouri’s College of Education and Human Development. Using online, blended, and co-teach methods, Mizzou Academy currently serves over 7,000 K-12 students in all 50 U.S. states and more than 40 countries. I have taught there since 2016 and serve as the Composition and Literature Lead Teacher for high school students in our Dual Diploma program in Brazil. In this innovative program, we work with 37 partner schools and over 3,500 students to help prepare Brazilian students for college and their careers. These hard-working students earn both a Brazilian Ensino Médio diploma from their Brazilian school as well as a U.S. high school diploma from the University of Missouri.
Photo: Jill Clingan and her fellow teachers for the Mizzou Academy in Brazil, February 2020.
As I work with students and teachers thousands of miles away, I am reminded every day that stories do matter, and I love introducing students to stories as well as reading their stories. I have always loved stories. I read voraciously when I was growing up. I not only immersed myself in the stories I read, but I also wanted to become the characters in those stories. I pretended to be Jo from Little Women and Anne from Anne of Green Gables. After reading The Story of My Life, I closed my eyes and felt my way around my room pretending to be Helen Keller.
My dream was to be a high school English teacher, but one day my science teacher discouraged me from this path, and, since I deeply valued her opinion, I completely changed my life course. On a walk with my dog one frosty, dark morning several years later, after moving to California to start graduate school, dropping out, and then moving back to Kansas, I remembered that dream, and shortly after that early morning epiphany I decided I wanted to earn a master’s degree in English at K-State.
I will never forget the day I drove to Manhattan and first stepped foot on the K-State campus. I will never forget how nervous I was. I will never forget how I could not find a place to park. (I will never forget how I was so nervous that I completely forgot where I had parked and spent who-knows-how-long wandering the parking lots of K-State until I finally found my car again.) I will also never forget anxiously walking into the office of Greg Eiselein, who was the Director of Graduate Studies at that time. I hadn’t even filled out my application yet, so all the information he had about me was that I wanted to earn a graduate degree in English but had only taken Comp and Lit 1 and 2 in college. Yet, he took a chance on me. I was provisionally accepted into the program for a semester and then fully accepted after Jerry Dees recommended me with something like, “Yes, she’ll be fine,” which, according to Greg, was Jerry’s version of a glowing recommendation.
And so began my tenure as a grad student in English at K State. I remember sitting in Greg’s American Lit seminar one day during a particularly lively and thoughtful class discussion and thinking to myself, “There is absolutely no place in the world I would rather be right now than sitting here in this class participating in this discussion.” I felt that way in so many of my classes. I never knew I loved Renaissance lit until I had Jerry Dees as a professor and, despite the fact that for a long time he scared me to death, I ended up taking almost every class that he taught. I felt that way in Karin Westman’s Bloomsbury class. I felt that way in Phil Nel’s Don DeLillo class. I felt that way working with Deborah Murray in the Writing Center. Every class was a new experience, a new challenge, a new story to immerse myself in.
As an educator and a writer, I also want to give young people stories that tell them they matter. I am excited to be currently co-authoring a book (with Kathryn Fishman-Weaver) on teaching Women’s and Gender studies in the middle and high school classroom. Through the stories in our upcoming book, we hope our students see the importance of the stories that they are narrating in their own lives.
If not for my time at K-State, I would be living a completely different story. Now, I pass that gift of story on to students thousands of miles away. Together, we navigate our worlds through the stories we tell and the stories we read. As one of my students said a few months ago, “There is something magical that literature can bring to us.” I love being part of the magic of story.
— Jill Clingan (MA ’03)