Thomas Paine Elementary

After attending the University of Illinois on a suggestion from her high school orchestra conductor, Jackie Martin thought she would become a music teacher. She quickly changed courses, and 25 years into her career in the Urbana school district, she’s exclusively taught fourth and fifth grades.

Throughout the year, Martin brings creative, interactive lessons to her classroom, including her space unit in which the students make papier-mâché planets and learn how comets are made, a unit where her students witness a baby chick and duckling hatch, and lessons in which they build a bat cave or “bubble hut” that teaches them about the ocean.

My favorite/most unique lesson that I teach is ... my own version of a science fair. I either pick a topic or let the students choose one. They ask questions and research a sub-topic. Then we work together to create an interactive presentation that my class can give to the rest of the school. Some of my favorites are health topics, such as walk-through digestive and circulatory systems. I have also done variations on the bat cave several different years as well as recycling, oceans, weather and space.

I keep students engaged by ... incorporating hands-on manipulatives and projects, allowing students agency to help select topics that they are interested in, and differentiating instruction so students are working at an appropriate level.

My most fulfilling moments on the job are when ... During the last week of school last May, I asked students what they learned during the one or two years they were with me. I was blown away by the many responses that referenced the social-emotional skills we had spent so much time on. Now, more than ever, these are skills students need to navigate society successfully. I love running into former students in town and being surprised when they stop by to visit. I am so proud of them and their accomplishments.

I find my work important because ... I estimate that I have touched the lives of about 750 kids so far. I tell them, “Once my student, always my student.” It is such an awesome privilege to be a teacher. As our former Thomas Paine principal, Sandy Cooper, used to say, “It’s all about the kids!”

Something else I’m passionate about is ... the environment. I started a recycling club in my classroom last year that created recycling boxes for all the classrooms. Students researched which items can be recycled in our school’s program and made labels for the recycling cans. Then I had a few students that had the responsibility of collecting recycling around the building and checking the cans for items appearing that were not recyclable. Students also chose to clean up the schoolyard on several occasions, putting recycling and trash where it belonged.

If I weren’t a teacher, I would be ... an imagineer. That is the term Walt Disney coined for engineers that create the magic of Disney. I love the way our modern amusement parks have combined education and entertainment in immersive experiences. Since I missed my call on that one, I do my best to bring some piece of that to the classroom when my students engineer something awesome such as a black-light cave or a crawl-through heart.