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Windham educator earns Lowell Milken Center fellowship

WINDHAM — A Windham High School biology teacher who was recently named her district’s science director is the first New Hampshire educator to earn a Lowell Milken Center fellowship.

Bethany Bernasconi recently returned from a week-long conference held at the Lowell Milken Center (LMC) for Unsung Heroes in Fort Scott, Kan., where she joined forces with five other educators from around the United States, as well as Europe.

The merit-based fellowship is granted to educators who have distinguished themselves in teaching respect and understanding through project-based learning, according to LMC executive director Norm Conard.

“These are educators that draw from a variety of disciplines,” Conard said. “In collaborating on projects they help students discover, develop and communicate the stories of unsung heroes in history.”

Bernasconi, who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from Boston University, began working at Windham High School when it opened in 2009.

Over her 11 years teaching biology to students of all ages, Bernasconi has engaged classrooms in all environments, ranging from the New England Aquarium to more conventional settings.

In 2012 she was named New Hampshire Teacher of the Year and currently serves as an ambassador for educators on matters of state and national policy, professional learning and teacher effectiveness.

She learned she’d been selected for the fellowship earlier this spring.

“I was thrilled and honored when I got that call,” she said.

On June 15, Bernasconi arrived in Kansas for a week of collaboration with LMC officials and networking with some of the other fellows.

“We did a lot of work towards the LMC’s mission of bringing history’s unsung heroes to life,” she said. “Most of us don’t know who they are, but bringing their stories to light in the classroom really shows us how one person can make a difference.”

Bernasconi said a meeting with former students from Uniontown High School in Bourbon City, Kan., was especially memorable.

In 1999, the then-high school students embarked on a year-long National History Day project, inspired by a story they’d read about Irena Sendler, who reportedly saved 2,500 children from the Warsaw ghetto during World War II.

Delving into the story deeper, the students researched and wrote a 4,000-page account of Sendler’s life, which culminated in their original play, “Life in a Jar.” Since then, the now-grown students have shared Sendler’s story around the nation and beyond, with “Life in a Jar” performed more than 300 times.

“These students, literally, brought Irena’s story to life,” Bernasconi said. “Without their efforts, her story would have remained untold.”

The Windham teacher said she’s looking forward to sharing the skills she’s gained in Kansas with her students back home, particularly when it comes to encouraging young women to pursue studies in science and engineering.

“If you ask any student, they know the basics of history,” she said. “But behind each well-known figure there’s a team of individuals who led the way.”

“She brings to the classroom the recognition that she, too, must find a way to make this living world personal and meaningful to each student so that they fall in love with the ideas of complexity, beauty and preservation,” Conard said. “Her measure of success is the education of students, as well as her ability to inspire them.”

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