At English Professor's Core is Research and Love of Learning

At English Professor's Core is Research and Love of Learning

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Gail Fensom works in a laboratory. But, instead of pouring over beakers of bubbling concoctions, her experiments are human.

"I would consider myself a teacher-researcher," says Fensom, assistant professor of English and director of the first-year writing program at UNH Manchester. "So my research basically is my students. My classrooms are my research labs and my students are my subjects."

Fensom has used what she's learned in her classrooms at UNH Manchester to help college students pick up the writing and reading fundamentals they may have missed along the way. Her passion for her craft has led her to spread this mission of helping students to be prepared for college and careers throughout the state and nationally.

Fensom started teaching at the University of New Hampshire in 1986 and is presently the director of the college’s first year writing program. Throughout the years, she's used her classes as research to figure out what made students unprepared time after time.

Out of this concern, she took to area high schools, meeting with teachers and administrators to see what she could learn about how students were learning before they ever got to her classes.

In 2009 she volunteered to work with the New England Consortium of Secondary Schools on issues of college readiness. It was here she learned about the Common Core State Standards.

Distributed in the summer of 2010, Common Core is set of language arts and mathematics standards that will be used to design curriculum and instruction. The standards are guides to develop academic skills with the ultimate goal of producing students prepared for college and career.

"Common Core came along and I thought, if students can do this, I think we’ll be all set," Fensom says.

In 2010 she worked with the NH State Education Department and the New England Consortium of Secondary Schools to conduct two workshops for K-20 teachers and administrators introducing them to the standards. This later led to her joining the NH State Education Department’s Implementing the Common Core State Standards team. Fensom is one of the very few representatives of higher education on any state team in the nation. In this role, she attends national meetings where the implementation teams share ideas and strategies.

Today, she is a consultant for the state who will be working on a $100,000 grant to assist NH school districts with Common Core. She visits K-12 schools around the state to help teachers “unpack” the standards and revise their teaching, she says.

"I tell them, 'I’m not coming here to tell you what to do or that you’ve been doing a bad job,’” she says. “’Your student in Grade 6 will someday be MY student. Let’s see what we can do together to help that student succeed.'"

She's even included a Common Core perspective in her pre-service teacher course, Teaching Writing, a course for prospective English teachers.

"I want UNH Manchester to be seen as a resource for educators across the state as they begin to unpack and use the (Common Core)," Fensom says. "I am so proud that UNH Manchester believes that all learners are worth caring about." 

By Melanie Plenda