Kate Stephensen (BS11) First Northwestern Grad to Win James Madison Fellowship

Kate Stephensen (BS11) First Northwestern Grad to Win James Madison Fellowship

Kate Stephensen

Kate Stephensen, a history major who received her teacher training at SESP, is the first Northwestern alumnus to win a James Madison Graduate Fellowship. The fellowship provides her with two years of graduate school in return for her commitment to teach the U.S. Constitution at the secondary level throughout her career.

As a James Madison Fellow, Stephensen will pursue a master’s degree in curriculum and teaching with an emphasis in social studies instruction at the University of Virginia. She will focus her studies on how to create accessible, applicable curriculum on the U.S. Constitution that will enable students of many backgrounds to become strong, active citizens.

After graduating from Northwestern, Stephensen first worked as the program associate for AIM High, an after-school mentoring program for low-income African American students in Chicago. In that role she was a teacher, mentor and college counselor. “The highlight of my time with AIM High was taking our juniors on a college bus tour in Indiana and Ohio. For these kids it was the first time they realized college was a reality not just an unrealistic dream,” says Stephensen. 

Afterward, she worked as an aide for English language learners at Evanston Township High School, tutoring on a range of subjects from chemistry to Russian history. “The students I worked with came from all around the globe: Nigeria, Haiti, Taiwan, Mexico, China, Ecuador and Sudan. These students were inspiring because of their determination to overcome not only the language barrier but also by serving as surrogate parents for their siblings, working part-time jobs and overcoming the mental shock of moving to America,” she notes.

“While the students from AIM High and ETHS varied greatly in their cultural backgrounds, I realized that they shared in a poor understanding of their rights and responsibilities as Americans. Both groups of students have a strong sense of civic responsibility and determination to attend college; however, because of their poor educational backgrounds and poor understanding of the Constitution, they are at a disadvantage to their more privileged peers. I hope to focus my time at the University of Virginia on how to best help these students become active, strong American citizens,” says Stephensen.

Stephensen applied for the Madison Fellowship because she was inspired by the stories of her students. She says, “I realized that before I am at the helm of my own classroom I need to further my knowledge of how to work with such a range of different ability and cultural backgrounds."

The students she worked with as an after-school coordinator in three Chicago public high schools were low-income African Americans who hoped to be the first member of their families to attend college and prepare for careers to support their community and family. “Even though these students possess true civic responsibility, they confided in me that they did not feel prepared for college because their high school civics courses were boring and unrelated to their goals. While they are motivated to aid their local communities, they do not have the understanding of our government that will be necessary for them to pursue their fields. That realization inspired my dream to become a high school American government teacher so I can return to Chicago and empower students to pursue their goals.”

Stephensen’s work at SESP led her to apply for the James Madison Fellowship. As a student at SESP, she focused on differentiated instruction (DI) and the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson of University of Virginia, which emphasizes creating a classroom that welcomes students of all backgrounds and meets the needs of each student’s learning style. “My interest in DI began while student teaching at Evanston Township High School, where I found my mixed-ability, ethnically diverse classroom simultaneously thrilling and terrifying,” says Stephensen. “My five classes included students who ranged from college-ready to those with extensive Individualized Education Programs and third grade reading levels. In addition to the academic spread, my classroom included first-generation Americans from Ireland, Mexico, Pakistan, and Senegal.”

One approach she found successful was having her students work cooperatively on projects and group discussions. “Increasing student interaction would utilize their diverse cultural and academic backgrounds and allow the students to learn from one another in addition to granting me freedom to work individually with every class member,” she says, noting that her most successful lesson was a fictitious weeklong election of Chinese leaders that incorporated group work, class discussion and competition. As a result of positive feedback, “I realized the significance of creating cooperative, applied learning projects that engage students through competition and personal investment.”

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 9/11/12