NEW ULM - When I think of Marlene Wendler, I think of trumpeter swans.
During the first quarter of the school year, Wendler's third and fourth-graders completed reports on this topic, and, having twins in her classrooms, I looked at two of these finished products.
The children had studied several sources, extracting information on sub-topics with the help of a graphic organizer. They seemed to have internalized the information, restating it in their own words. A chapter was devoted to each sub-topic. The booklets contained introductions, conclusions and correctly formatted front and back matter.
Staff photo by Kremena Spengler
Marlene Wendler is retiring from teaching after more than three decades in the profession. She has taught grades three and four at St. Paul’s Lutheran Elementary School in New Ulm since 1982.
I was able to reconstruct the process and identify specific reading, writing, research and critical-thinking skills the children had been taught. They had learned a procedure that they can apply to any and all research.
The twins' reports were similar, yet different. The reports covered similar ground but presented the information differently, reflecting each child's personality. My son's report was fact-rich and matter-of-fact; my daughter's vivid and full of color; and not just because she had illustrated each chapter with her drawings, but also because of her language.
It is hardly surprising that Wendler's students achieve substantial growth in literacy and work ethic during their year with her - she has a special interest in, and focus on, these pre-requisites for life-long learning.
Wendler, a third and fourth-grade teacher at St. Paul's Lutheran School, is retiring this year, after 32 years at the school.
"Don't look at what children can't do," says Wendler. "Look at what they can do and take them from there. Develop their full potential in a child-centered curriculum. All children can learn. Build on their strengths. Turn them on to reading, to learning."
Wendler's students are active all day. They are on the floor reading with a partner or on their own. They are working on projects or experiments. She models and then gives support as they are reading, writing and learning.
"Students need to be life-long learners," says Wendler. "I immerse them in books. I have 2,000 personal books and another 2,000 books in my room in our resource boxes for our different units of study. Know your students and know your books. Give them time to read. Immerse them in different genres of reading and writing to broaden their interests. To read fiction books, I teach my students the basic comprehension reading strategies that they use when they are reading any fiction book. My reading responses practice those strategies of following a story map, creating a mental image, predicting what is going to happen, and drawing conclusions in some parts they read."
There has been an explosion of non-fiction books available to students, notes Wendler. They are colorful, interesting, and on any topic.
"Third and fourth-graders are the perfect age to read for research or just read in the areas of their interests."
Students learn by making connections, continues Wendler. "I integrate literature into social studies and science wherever I can. A social studies book just tells the basic information that a teacher might want all students to know. Literature gives a much broader background of the setting and the people. Literature makes facts come to life."
Wendler also tries to model a work ethic for the students. They know their work will be corrected each night. "If something is missing, I will know," says Wendler. "If I return their work right away, I expect them to hand it in on time. For some students it is difficult to figure out how to start a task, stick with it, and finish it in a satisfactory amount of time. I encourage parents to have chores for their children that focus on time management and a job well done. I emphasized with my own children that they should never do half a job. They have been successful in life and that is the same as I want for all my students. Students should work hard and God will bless their efforts."
Wendler was born in Brookings, S.D., and grew up with two older brothers and two younger sisters. She attended the same one-room country elementary school as her father.
"When I grew up, the two big choices for young girls were to become a nurse or to become a teacher," remembers Wendler. "My two sisters became a nurse, but I followed in the steps of my older brother... [becoming] a teacher."
Wendler attended Dr. Martin Luther High School in New Ulm and earned her bachelor of science degree in education at Dr. Martin Luther College. She attended additional classes at Mankato State University, Hamline University, DMLC summer classes and any workshops offered, especially in the area of reading. Wendler is a member of the Southwest Minnesota Reading Association.
She met her future husband, now Dr. David Wendler, a professor at Martin Luther College, at a freshman mixer during the first week of classes at DMLC. The couple has two sons and a daughter, all married, and five grandchildren.
Wendler graduated from college on June 5, 1970, married on June 6, and started a new position in Appleton, Wis., on June 15. She taught kindergarten for two years and substitute-taught for eight years in Appleton. She was the head organist at her church and gave piano lessons to 43 students.
In 1980, she returned to New Ulm as her husband began teaching at DMLC. She took nine credits of accounting at Mankato State thinking she would work in that field. Instead, she was asked to teach at St. Paul's in 1982. In addition to teaching, she directed a junior choir for 11 years, accompanied this choir for another 21 years, accompanied K-4 choirs, taught music and supervised student teachers.
Wendler has had a special interest in curriculum development and served on the St. Paul's School curriculum development committee and the Minnesota Valley Lutheran High School curriculum committee.
The Wendlers have traveled in the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Europe, China and the Island of St. Lucia, and still keep up with educational leaders in these countries. She was able to enrich her lessons with pictures and personal stories of the places visited. She gathered books and resources from these locations to make learning interesting.
Wendler's focus on literacy was especially inspired by visits to New Zealand, which has one the highest literacy rates in the world. The Wenders led three educational tours there, with one of the years also to Australia. During the tours, groups of U.S. teachers observed schools to see how reading was taught and what made the educational systems observed so successful in international comparisons.
At the request of the Ministry of Education, Wendler led a workshop for 45 teachers on St. Lucia and stayed a month to help with their reading program.
Over two summers, Wendler helped her husband teach a course in teaching reading. She has presented at workshops at Hamline University and teacher conferences in California, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and written several articles published in "Educational Psychology," a college textbook.
Some of her most memorable moments also include teaching her own children and their friends, notes Wendler. When she began teaching in New Ulm, her children were in elementary grades, and her husband was traveling to supervise teachers, remembers Wendler. It was difficult to juggle the responsibilities of family and career.
Teaching just got to be more and more fun - without the guilt - as she was dedicated her time to her classroom, smiles Wendler. "Each year is a new group of children with new interests to spark."
She loves watching her students mature and grow.
Her advice to new teachers?
"Enjoy what you are doing. Enjoy your students and experience the thrill of watching them progress academically and socially. Experience the thrill of seeing them choose to read, knowing that they are on their way to becoming a life-long learner. Set standards of excellence and help students meet those standards. Finally, look at learning and children holistically."