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Future teacher earns national Honors fellowship for world language teaching research

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Jesselyn Nadolny, a junior with a major in Spanish teaching and a minor in history teaching, has won a national Honors fellowship award that will fund her newest research project, which builds on work she has already completed as a Blugold Fellow. The future teacher’s passion for languages and cultures — and her curiosity about the creative practices of world language teachers — inspires her research that focuses on creativity in world language classrooms.

Jesselyn Nadolny knew since she was a young girl that she wanted to be a teacher. A high school trip to Nicaragua, where she fell in love with Central American culture and its language, helped the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire junior find her niche within the education profession.

“I decided I want to help others to have an opportunity to connect with other cultures and I could do that by teaching a language,” says Nadolny, now a junior Honors student with a major in Spanish teaching and a minor in history teaching. “When I studied abroad in Costa Rica in college, it solidified my decision to study Spanish and made me even more passionate to earn my degree in Spanish teaching so I could share this knowledge with high schoolers.”

The Peshtigo native’s passion for languages and cultures — and her curiosity about the creative practices of world language teachers — now has earned her a national Honors fellowship award that will fund her newest research, which builds on work she already has completed as a UW-Eau Claire Blugold Fellow.

National Honors research fellowship

Nadolny has been awarded the National Collegiate Honors Council’s Portz Interdisciplinary Fellowship, a highly competitive national program for Honors students who pursue research that crosses disciplines.

Every U.S. college and university with a participating Honors program in the National Collegiate Honors Council can select one student to apply to the Portz program each year. Nadolny was UW-Eau Claire’s nominee this year.

“I am incredibly honored to be selected for this research award,” says Nadolny, who will graduate in May 2022 after she completes a social and environmental justice immersion program in Guatemala and a semester of student teaching. “When our Honors program director said she wanted me to apply for this award, I was blown away by the opportunity. I had no clue if my research would be considered interdisciplinary or if it would be of enough interest to gain me a spot in a national fellowship program. Even to just be selected to be UWEC’s nominee was an incredible honor and opportunity.”

To craft her research proposal for the fellowship application, Nadolny worked with her faculty research mentor, Dr. Anne Hlas, professor of languages and Latin American and Latinx studies. Together they brainstormed ideas, eventually settling on a proposed project that builds on Nadolny’s earlier research focusing on creativity in world language classrooms.

“I drafted a 35-page proposal where I outlined my previous research and proposed research and how I planned to accomplish it, as well as what made it interdisciplinary,” Nadolny says. “Now that I have been selected, the program will fund my research, and I will provide them with updates on the progress of my research. I became very invested in the potential project we proposed, and now I am thrilled that I get to actually carry it out.”

Nadolny’s project contains elements from the fields of foreign language education and educational psychology, meeting the program’s requirement that she pursue research that is based in more than one content area.

It was Nadolny’s hard work and passion for research and teaching that earned her the prestigious fellowship from the national organization of honors programs and colleges, says Dr. Heather Fielding, director of UW-Eau Claire’s Honors Program.

“I was thrilled to nominate her project because her sustained work over several years has allowed her to develop a rich, deep understanding of creativity in world language teaching,” Fielding says. “Her project is particularly exciting because of its interdisciplinarity, which is at the heart of what Honors is all about. We aim to bring students and faculty from across the university together to explore topics beyond disciplinary boundaries. Jesselyn’s work is a great example of that interdisciplinary energy.”

Creativity in world language classrooms

UW-Eau Claire’s Blugold Fellowship program pairs incoming students with faculty research mentors beginning their freshman year, immersing students in the program from their first days on campus. As a Blugold Fellow, Nadolny, with support from Hlas, completed two research projects, both studying creativity in world language classrooms.

Prior to COVID-19, Nadolny created a survey asking world language teachers to share creative and uncreative artifacts from their classroom. A creative artifact is anything teachers use in their classroom, such as videos, photos or learning activities, that they feel allows them to be creative as teachers. Uncreative artifacts are items teachers use that they feel are not original or do not promote student creativity.

For that project, Nadolny collected 24 survey responses and 23 pairs of artifacts from K-12 language teachers and completed 13 interviews with world language educators about creativity. She then analyzed survey responses, artifacts and interviews to assess the teachers’ views of creativity.

“Preliminary analysis suggests that language teachers at all levels integrate creativity in the classroom, however, many define creativity differently,” Nadolny says.

For example, elementary teachers often define creativity as assignments that require students to use their imagination to create projects while high school teachers describe creative assignments as those giving students choices in how to complete their work, Nadolny says. Her data also suggest there are differences in how new and experienced teachers view creativity, she says.

Nadolny and Hlas presented their research at a Wisconsin Association for Language Teachers conference and Nadolny presented it at a National Conference on Undergraduate Research.

When COVID-19 closed schools and pushed teaching and learning online, Nadolny decided to do a second study, this time to determine the pandemic’s impact on creativity in world language classrooms.

“During the pandemic, it seemed valuable to document this interesting time in teaching when teachers were asked to suddenly pivot and teach online,” Nadolny says. “So, I repeated the original study to see how creativity is defined within the synchronous or asynchronous online teaching of world languages.”

For the second study, Nadolny modified her survey to reflect the pandemic-related changes to the teaching field, again asking educators to submit creative and uncreative artifacts from their classrooms. She collected 28 survey responses and 27 pairs of artifacts from K-12 teachers. She also conducted 23 follow-up interviews.

“Teachers found creativity to be essential in the time of virtual teaching, and many teachers mentioned they use creativity in their classrooms to keep students engaged,” Nadolny says. “Teachers still found ways to be creative, even though they used many more virtual tools than in the first study, obviously a result of teaching virtually. These teachers were very flexible, changing teaching contexts multiple times, and continued to include creativity.”

As a Portz fellow, Nadolny will investigate changes in creativity within K-12 language classrooms by examining teacher artifacts from throughout the U.S. prior to and during the pandemic.

“I will attempt to draw conclusions on the creativity trends of the creative and uncreative artifacts from each set of data,” Nadolny says. “Then, I will work to determine the effect of the pandemic on creativity in the K-12 world language classroom.”

Hlas says she is impressed with Nadolny’s ability to continue her research during the ongoing world health crisis.

“I am impressed with Jess and her growth as our creativity project has taken on new challenges and scope,” Hlas says. “She was able to pivot quickly when asked to repeat our original study on a short timeline to capture teaching during the pandemic. Her professional conduct was evident as she interviewed 36 teachers in the field with confidence and ease. Her proposed project on creativity captures the heart of this national fellowship, which is focused on innovation and novelty.”

While he admires Nadolny and her research, Dr. Matt Evans, director of UW-Eau Claire’s Blugold Fellowship program, also credits Hlas for her work mentoring Nadolny and other young scholars.

“Dr. Hlas has given her steppingstones, going from helping write the first abstract submissions to presenting at conferences to now just proofreading Jesselyn’s abstracts,” Evans says. “She has vast experience in taking students from passengers to drivers and has set Jesselyn up for success by giving her the tools to take on new paths in their research through her supportive tutelage.”

Bringing research to life

While the research itself is interesting, it also has taught her valuable lessons about the teaching profession that she could not have learned in a classroom, Nadolny says. For example, she discovered just how connected teachers are to one another and how important those connections are to their teaching.

“Especially in my project on the virtual classroom, many teachers mentioned they reach out to colleagues and friends from high school, social media and conferences to find inspiration for creativity,” Nadolny says.

After interviewing more than 30 educators, she also already has formed professional connections that will be helpful to her in her teaching career, Nadolny says, adding that her relationship with Hlas also is invaluable.

Nadolny says it was inspiring to see the many different things teachers classify as creative. Of the 50 creative artifacts shared with her, there were only a few similar projects or activities, and none were the same, she says.

“Every teacher had something to submit and they all believed in creativity and implemented it in a different way,” Nadolny says.

Many of the creative artifacts and projects are items she may be able to use in her own classroom someday, says Nadolny, who also learned through the project about new technologies she can someday use in her teaching.

Thanks to her research, for the first time, Nadolny also is now beginning to think of herself as creative.

“Prior to my research experiences, I did not classify myself as a creative individual, nor consider how I could incorporate creativity into my own classroom,” Nadolny says. “I looked up to my foreign language teachers in high school and admired their creative activities and lessons, but never believed that I could achieve that myself.

“I related creativity to people who could paint or draw and included that in their classrooms in some way. Throughout this project, I realized that creativity was more than just the stereotypical artists.”

Finding her place as a Blugold and Honors student

Nadolny came to UW-Eau Claire for its education and foreign language programs, as well as its study abroad opportunities. The research she’s done is an unexpected though welcome bonus, she says.

“I valued the opportunity to study abroad, a requirement for my major, in a country other than Spain or Mexico, and UWEC has many programs to choose from for my study abroad experience,” says Nadolny, who studied in Costa Rica during spring 2020. “Coming here, I knew UWEC also provided opportunities for undergraduate student research, but I was not sure how or if I would become involved in it.”

Being selected as a Blugold Fellow put her on a research path that she did not expect but one she has fully embraced, Nadolny says. The fellowship program has enhanced her college experience in multiple ways, including by making her part of a community of researchers from the start of her college career.

“I am also just incredibly blessed to have this opportunity and I never would have dreamed that when I set foot on this campus as a freshman and barely understood what the Blugold Fellowship was, that it would take me this far,” Nadolny says.

The University Honors Program also has added value and opportunities to her studies, Nadolny says. Through Honors, she has taken classes outside of topics that would be typical of her degree program.

“For example, I am taking a class on cultivating creativity — not in an educational perspective — and I took a class based on self-reflection, which was a needed break from my more rigorous academic classes,” Nadolny says. “Additionally, I have been able to take regular general education classes that I need through the Honors program, gaining both Honors and liberal education credits.

“I have also learned valuable skills for getting a job after college through the Honors Senior Seminar, and I have met many friends through Honors classes.”

Both the Blugold Fellowship and Honors programs have taken Nadolny outside her comfort zone, allowing her grow in ways that will help her be a more successful teacher, Evans says.

“She came to UWEC to learn to teach, but she found that by expanding her horizons she also has become a researcher, sharing her new-found knowledge and techniques with those she aspires to be,” Evans says. “This ability to see herself differently, as she grew from her experiences, has also allowed her to see teaching not just as a profession, but as a creative outlet.”