My childhood education experiences pretty much consisted of compliance, competition, and completion. Knowing what I know now, I wish I had been pushed toward curiosity, collaboration, and comprehension instead. I wanted straight As and the praise of my teachers. I was quiet and went largely unnoticed until 10th grade when my history teacher pulled me aside and told me to audition for my high school’s nationally recognized speech team. I was stunned. I asked him, “Why would you think I could be good at speaking in front of people?  I am shy.”  He said, “You can write. You have a voice on paper that should be heard out loud.” This was the first time I recall a teacher pointing out a strength I didn’t know I had. I did audition for the team. My speech career in high school wasn’t award-winning, but it was successful. I developed poise, confidence, and leadership skills. I also began to understand the value of collaboration.

This is what sparked a passion for helping others discover their strengths!

I went on to study secondary English education, speech, and theater at Minnesota State University in Moorhead. I had a more successful collegiate speech career and continued to develop a love for a co-curricular activity that I knew would change the identity of high schoolers as it had for me. When I graduated, my goal was to be a head speech coach for a team like my high school. I taught at a few Minnesota schools before landing at Eastview High School in Apple Valley.

For a decade, I taught English and head coached the Lightning speech team. Traveling to Fort Lauderdale, Boston, and Arizona with highly motivated speakers and performers was incredibly rewarding. I loved watching the growth, creativity, and talent of these young people. In that decade, I also got my master’s degree in teaching and learning. I was transformed (in the late ‘90s) by the likes of Alfie Kohn, the Six Traits of Writing, constructivism, and more. 

But one very memorable day in my English/Speech 10 course, everything changed.

One of my students was a complete mystery to me. He “hated” English class and let me know it every day. A wise peer mentor encouraged me to have him read aloud to me, away from his peers, of course. That one experience changed the trajectory of my career. This 15-year-old could barely get through a page of Of Mice and Men. No wonder he hated my class! I panicked. I didn’t know how to teach reading! I went to school to teach literature, rhetoric, speaking, and composition.  

So, I went back to school. I got my K-12 reading license and began to work on my doctorate. I was now curious. How many more students are like this one? How are these students finding ways to mask and cope with literacy skills not yet obtained? What can we do to show that it is never too late to learn? How can the identities of students who don’t see themselves as readers or scholars be shifted? And quickly? What can I learn from my brilliant elementary colleagues who teach littles how to read? How can I transform those ideas and lessons to fit the big kids I work with? 

Born from that curiosity was my doctoral research.

I spent the next almost decade of my career devoted to researching and implementing the science of engagement and motivation with my sophomores as well as in a well-designed intervention course for ninth graders.  

The hard work paid off. Eastview’s Academic Literacy program was recognized by the Minnesota Reading Association and the International Literacy Association as a top high school literacy program. If you are interested in more about what we did and how we did it, please read my Ed Leadership Article, Baiting the Reading Hook.

I reluctantly left the classroom—I loved working with adolescents—to lead this transformation across the district. That was really hard. If you want to have coffee someday, I can share why. I spent five years at the district level working with middle and high schools to identify striving readers and then implement engaging intervention to accelerate their growth. I also worked on district initiatives like writing multi-million-dollar federal grants (which we won. . .because I am competitive), developing Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), writing inquiry-based curriculum for science, social studies, and English, and more. While this was rewarding and successful work, I craved a new challenge. I found there was a disconnect between what research the universities were sharing to meet students’ literacy needs, what teachers needed to successfully implement said research, and what for-profit education companies were providing to support students and teachers—which often wasn’t aligned to any university research.

That is what brought me to Mackin—a dream of braiding research, practical application, and partnership with a for-purpose company all aligned to the same mission: advancing student engagement and achievement. 

And for those who like to know the more personal stuff. . .

My husband is a seventh-grade American studies teacher, U.S. Navy veteran, San Diego Padres fan, and National Center of Fathering “Father of the Year” runner-up (our daughter Ainsley nominated him when she was a fifth grader). He really is an amazing dad and my best friend.

My daughter is on the Eastview speech team; in choir, musicals, and church youth group; and helps to lead her FCA chapter. In her free time, with her friends, she makes TikTok videos like every other adolescent on the planet.

My son is a Husker (Go Big Red!) and in the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC). He discovered Harry Potter for the first time last summer and geeked out with his sister who has been waiting for a family member to truly care about all things Hogwarts.

Our dog, Teddy (Theodore Roosevelt), is a Velcro dog. . .glued to my lap whenever I am home.

My Areas of Focus

My Workshops

Jen’s Blogs

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