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Teaching Students to Read the World

The 2017 Minnesota Teacher of the Year argues for this "noble work"
June 12, 2017

2017 Minnesota Teacher of the Year Corey Bulman

2017 Minnesota Teacher of the Year Corey Bulman
2017 Minnesota Teacher of the Year Corey Bulman (Janet Hostetter/Education Minnesota via AP)

For the second time in just four years, an English alumnus was named the Minnesota Teacher of the Year. One of 11 finalists, Corey Bulman (BA 1999; CEHD MEd 2006) heard his name called at a May 7 celebration hosted by Education Minnesota, the award sponsor. In his acceptance speech, Bulman said that he struggled to keep up as an elementary school child, receiving special services in English. Now he teaches high school advanced placement language arts at Mounds Westonka High School. "I love to teach because it is the most immediate way that that I can give back to society," Bulman told us. "I have always loved to read. I believe that stories connect us. Books force us to make moral choices; they challenge our convictions and build our empathy.

"I have also always believed that teaching students how to write and communicate provides them with a valuable lifelong skill," he continues. "I get the honor of living this belief every single day."

Bulman will spend the year traveling around Minnesota, talking with other teachers and teacher candidates. He'll also enjoy some "interesting perks": attendance at a Harvard University week-long class, NASA Space Camp (!), and, with a guest, the 2019 Bowl Championship Series Football National Title Game (his dad is already on board). [Tom Rademacher, BA 2004, CEHD MEd 2007, was the 2014 Minnesota Teacher of the Year.]

In your Teacher of the Year portfolio, you wrote: "I was fortunate enough to have teachers who helped foster my curiosity and sense of wonder. I have tried to provide this for my students as well." How do you do that?

By showing my students that I am a learner too. When we talk about complex themes such as love, war, violence, I don't claim to be an expert. Instead, I am committed to constructing meaning with, not for, my students. My students are free to share their ideas, but are taught how to back these ideas up with evidence and conviction.  

Visitors to my classroom would notice that my students are constantly collaborating with one another. They would notice a relaxed atmosphere but also one where there are high expectations about the type of writing and discussions taking place in the room. They would notice that students are asked to back up their literary inquiry with evidence, strong thesis development, and well-constructed prose.

What was your favorite work to teach this year?

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. My seniors are always so surprised that the narrative unfolds differently than how it has been shaped by pop culture. It is a complex novel that delves into philosophy, bioethics, religion, and human emotions. This 200-year-old book is a wonderful jumping-off point for discussing very cutting-edge, 21st-century issues.   

As Minnesota Teacher of the Year, what challenges to the profession do you hope to address?

As I said in my acceptance speech, teaching is hard, but it is noble work. Part of my message will be to remind both teachers and those outside of the profession of the importance that education and educators play in the fabric of society. A quality education cannot be distilled down to a test score or a funding formula. We are teaching young people how to read the world, recognize facts, and articulate their thoughts. 

What University of Minnesota English classes or professors do you most remember?

I took several of Professor Art Geffen's novel courses in the 1990s. Professor Geffen had one expectation: come prepared and be ready to speak. He taught me to defend my ideas, to understand the writer's craft, and to articulate my ideas in a scholarly fashion. Professor Josephine Lee, in Modern Drama, was exciting, passionate, and committed to her craft. She was open to our ideas and provided us with interesting assignments that pushed my thinking forward. Even though these classes occurred almost 20 years ago, I can still feel the energy of that lecture room. She provided me with a wonderful model of what a classroom teacher could and should look like for his/her students. And I am not the world's finest fiction writer or poet, but I was captivated with Professor Michael Dennis Browne's Intro to Poetry Writing class. He created the most welcoming community in any course I ever took at the U of M. He was scholarly, funny, and human. He made me think about poetry and the writing practice in ways I still hold dear to this day. He touched lives, and that is a gift I have never forgotten.

What have you read lately that you think is great?

George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo: I had a chance to see Saunders speak about this book when he was in Minneapolis in March. It was wonderful hearing him discuss writing approach and philosophy. He plays with form and convention in exciting ways. He is also able to capture the feelings that accompany grief and loss in ways I haven't seen before.

Colson Whitehead, Underground Railroad: Whitehead masterfully mixed realism and fantasy in this novel that made me see and understand slavery in new ways. I thought it was brilliant.

Emil Ferris, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters: How to explain this book? Ferris' graphic novel is a murder mystery, a coming-of-age story, and gorgeous pieces of art all rolled into one. It is a book that defies description, and for this reason, I highly recommend picking it up and experiencing it for yourself.