Banner Photo: Lucas Howell with his students in Clinton, Louisiana.
Homepage photo: Lucas Howell and Kelly Blikre.
Focused on the Future: Teach for America Offers Grads Fulfillment
Written by Amanda Cairo
Lucas Howell and Kelly Blikre walked across the stage during commencement in 2008 – and then onward to a bright tomorrow with giving back in mind. They each wanted to make a difference in people’s lives; especially the lives of young people.
Howell and Blikre zeroed in on the prestigious Teach for America program and found the program’s competitive nature and solid educational foundation made the elite program a right fit for the Vandals.
“Our first choice was rural Louisiana. We knew it was a place we wouldn’t end up under any other circumstance,” says Howell, a native of Tacoma, Wash. “We both believe deeply in educational equality. While working at the Writing Center at Idaho, we both worked with students who were well behind their peers academically. We saw that we could make an even greater difference if we were to attack this problem in the lower grades.”
With only 12 percent of 43,000 applicants admitted into the Teach for America (TFA) program last year, Howell and Blikre are in good company. Both chose the University of Idaho to receive their MFAs — Howell in poetry and Blikre in fiction — and it changed their lives. Not only did they receive an education, but they also met, fell in love, and married each other
After graduation, they returned to Blikre’s hometown of Gillette, Wyo., where Howell worked as a chemical service hand in the oil fields and Blikre gained experience as a substitute teacher while she concentrated on her novel. Blikre was interested in TFA after earning her undergraduate degree, but was first accepted into the MFA program. The dream was still there, and they weren’t living the life they imagined — so they applied for Teach For America.
“Especially teaching English 90 (at the University), I saw there were so many students coming into college unprepared,” says Blikre. “I realized I could have the biggest impact reaching these students in elementary school, or middle or high school.”
Once they were in, they spent six weeks of intensive training at Arizona State University and teaching at Phoenix public schools. Then they landed in Clinton, La., where Blikre teaches writing and math to third graders at Clinton Elementary School and Howell teaches writing to fourth and fifth graders at Jackson Elementary School in East Feliciana Parish.
With some substitute teaching background, their MFAs and training, Howell and Blikre were excited to begin teaching. They expected it to be hard, but they were amazed at the intensity and difficulty of their experience. Blikre says they had a romantic dream of helping students, but the reality was that they were unfamiliar with the issues and pressures facing their students in rural Louisiana.
“The first year was rough, about 70 hours a week and we were so far away from our home, friends and family,” says Howell. “We experienced situational depression in a different culture, and we felt like we were failing as teachers.”
But, as the spring came round, they began to reach their students and warmed up to their new environs. This year, they couldn’t wait to get back in the classroom. They are even planning to stay at least another year to see the projects they’ve worked on develop.
“I absolutely love my life. I love going to school to teach my students,” says Blikre. “This year has been great, and the students have made a big impact on me.”
While it is hard work, Howell and Blikre say their work in the Writing Center at the University of Idaho helped give them a foundation on which to build. Howell uses his poetry skills to encourage his students to express themselves, posting videos of their work online.
“They’re a lot of fun,” says Howell. “Children are smarter and more intuitive than I previously thought. I never intended to work with children, but it’s been a great experience.”
Long-term, Blikre is working to finish her novel. Howell’s book is in the submission stage and he looks to teaching at the college level, perhaps running an MFA program. It’s possible that one of his former students from Louisiana could become a student of his again.