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Home / About MPLS / Judy Beckman




“I never would have made it through 8th grade without Dr. Beckman’s Language Arts class,” wrote Lisa Nieman, a Lab School student looking back years later.

Dr. Judy Beckman taught at the University of Northern Iowa’s Laboratory School from 1969 through 1993.  In 1973, she was given the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Outstanding Teacher Award, and she was recognized as one of the state’s Outstanding Teachers in the 1989-1990 Iowa Board of Education Teacher of the Year Program.  She served as President of the Iowa Council of Teachers of English (ICTE) and membership chair.  She also co-chaired UNI’s Beginning Reading Conference with Lab School colleague Dr. Judy Finkelstein.

 In 1983, Dr. Beckman became chair of the Lab School’s Language Arts Department.  In addition to her Lab School teaching responsibilities she taught university courses in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction including secondary reading, diagnostic teaching of reading and language arts, and creative dramatics. From 1981 to 2002, she taught young adult literature for the UNI Department of English Language and Literature through the Office of Extension.

While studying for her doctorate at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Beckman taught English teaching methods and a course in adolescent literature on the Minneapolis campus.  In 2007, she was given Outstanding Emeritus recognition in the Department of Teaching.

The Start: Reminiscences

In 1969 Dr. Beckman was invited to join the faculty at the Laboratory School to teach seventh and eighth grade Language Arts courses.  “When students move from elementary to junior high school, they are in the middle of a myriad of changes: emotional, physical, psychological, and intellectual,” Dr. Beckman would explain.  “One minute they are still elementary children and the next they are reaching for late adolescence.”

Dr. Beckman took advantage of these multiple changes through activities that blended their preoccupation with peers with their need for academic stimulation.  At the beginning of fall one year, Dr. Beckman and Dr. Jodi Stone, from the Lab School Science Department, took the new seventh graders to Island Park for a student-planned picnic. They all bicycled to Island Park and back. By the time they reached the park the students had used up any excess energy they might have had to do anything but the planned activities. They were content to share their picnic lunch, play games, and shore up their energy for the trek back to the Lab School. They prepared for this trip with a study of road safety.  A highway patrolman came and made a presentation on bicycle safety. The students made safety posters, hung them around the school, and made presentations to the elementary students.

In the seventh and eighth grades the students also began to attend more live theatre performances. These included two trips to the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.  Getting to the Twin Cities was always a challenge. The students were tasked with earning the money to rent buses for 120 kids. They became the queens and kings of bake sales. They may not have had a hundred sales, but it seemed so. They earned the money and off they went, all 120 of them, with Dr. Beckman and two parent chaperons.  Dr. Beckman wished the students to experience an example of outstanding professional theatre.

The students hoofed it to UNI’s Strayer Wood Theatre and took buses to the Cedar Valley Center for the Arts in Waterloo for every appropriate junior high play. They also attended Lab School high school productions.  The trips provided social experiences, but the viewing also facilitated their appreciation of those plays—as well as other dramas they would read during the year.  They began to see drama, not just as words on a page, but also as collaborative performance.

Every year the students studied tombstone poetry as well. They walked to Fairview Cemetery and made rubbings using myriad rolls of shelf paper and cupcake-shaped crayons that they melted and molded from Dr. Finkelstein's Nursery/ Kindergarten’s old, broken colors. Student groups were assigned to make one rubbing, but two or three seemed a much more appealing idea once they began. For a week afterward, Dr. Beckman could look out her kitchen window and see kids crayoning more rubbings. These yearly trips made the many aspects of poetry, including its language, more familiar.

The junior high students also sponsored a cakewalk for the yearly Youth for Understanding (YUF) carnival. This activity resembled musical chairs, but the last student finding a seat won a cake. This event offered an excuse for the young people to get together and create “the cake to end all cakes.” One year, a group of boys created a UNI-Dome cake from the architect's plans. The actual UNI-Dome had not yet been built. They were so enamored with their creation that they couldn’t bear to give it away. They collected $48 among themselves, donated the money to YFU, purchased their own cake, and wolfed it down. This was a perfect activity for students and their preoccupancy with peers.  It also fostered service habits and gave practical life skills.

Eighth Grade Camp

For many, the highlight of these junior high years was eighth grade camp.  Jim Brewer, Lab School class of 1975, has written a vivid description of this event as it was in 1970, the year he attended:

“The Laboratory School was well-known for employing innovative curricula in the classroom, labs, workshops, and playing fields.  A truly unique feature of the eighth-grade year was a week-long outdoor experience at Camp Wahpaton. Developed in 1951 by Dr. Paul Brimm and Dr. Corrine Harper, each academic department was represented by a faculty member who created a mini-course that drew from the natural resources of the setting.  An even more important objective was to foster a sense of camaraderie and teamwork among the students.  This was a novel implementation of John Dewey’s concept of developing the whole child through the richness of shared experiences, in a natural setting without the pressures of the school’s curriculum and activities.

The year I went, Dr. Judy Beckman led the English and Dramatic  Arts segments and organized two activities that I remember: the publication of a daily newsletter, documenting interesting events of the past day; and a capstone variety show consisting mainly of skits, but also with musical numbers and other entertainment.

Our newsletter was called ‘Harper’s Bizarre,’ a play on the name of a popular periodical of the time, but also a nod to Dr. Corrine Harper, who helped develop the concept of the camp some 20 years previously. Largely satirical, it was a loose collection of short articles that highlighted the inevitable gaffes that occurred when assembling a group of tweens in the middle of a forest.  Sadly, no copies of this fine publication exist.

The theatrical revue required everyone’s participation.  Small    groups were formed to ensure full participation and diverse content. Many of the skits were lampoons on current events, parodies of the personalities of the Lab School faculty and staff, or free-form comedic sketches (including stand-up, pantomime, etc.)  The revue was a rousing success, if roaring laughter and cascades of applause are any measure. 

On Friday afternoon, the buses brought us back to the Lab School, where the campers, exhausted but happy, shared with family the learnings and the greater sense of togetherness that Eighth Grade Camp conferred. The impact on me was such that I can remember many of the details of that experience to this day.”

Dr. Beckman and Lab School music teacher James Welch chaired the eighth-grade camp committee for two years.  During those years Dr. Richard Strub, the Lab School guidance counselor, taught canoeing; Kent McIntyre, one of the librarians, taught rifle safety; Dr. James Kelly, from the Science Department, led the students as they dissected an ecology plot; and, Louis Finsand, also from the Science Department, took the students to the quarry to dig for fossils.

 Dr. Beckman and Steve Birum, the Lab School head custodian, took a group of ten 8th graders out into the woods on each of the four days of camp for a survival trip. They made a meal from raw materials. They built two fires on which they cooked their food. On these pyres they roasted six chickens they had killed, defeathered, and cleaned. They roasted pumpkins for pumpkin pudding. Then they roasted squash and potatoes, and they also baked two loaves of home-made bread.

The piece de resistance was the creation of hay hole ice cream. The students dug a hole, lined it with rock salt and hay, mixed up a two batches of ice cream ingredients, poured them into two three-pound coffee cans, and stashed their treasured dessert into the hole, covered it with hay, and waited impatiently. They had to stir the mixture a couple of times during the day so that all the ice cream would set up evenly. This step had to be supervised by Dr. Beckman so that the two cans were stirred, but the spoon was not licked.

The students would not dream of eating this ice cream without topping. They peeled innumerable apples and added sugar and cinnamon. They stirred up a huge batch of apple butter. Two thirds of that apple butter covered the ice cream and was slathered on slices of bread. The remainder went into baby food jars that the students brought with them to camp. These jars of apple butter then traveled back to school.

They were tasted in the cold of February when the students studied the poem, “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle." The jars of apple butter were as much their memory as the watermelon pickles were for the poem's author. When the students opened their jars of apple butter out came the smoky reminders of the cooking fire on which they had created their own savory reminders of eighth grade camp.

Needless to say, the Lab School survival trip students were hungry enough to devour the whole survival meal when it was finally ready. And, they survived.

Looking back, former Lab School student Ann McCalley describes Dr. Beckman as “a highly engaging teacher and personality!”  Another alum, Amy S. Rohrberg, speaks of Dr. Beckman’s “legacy in the fabulous adults that were shaped, in part, by her influence.”

Change to High School

In 1983, Dr. Beckman left the junior high grades to teach high school classes.  She began to teach the class for 12th graders called “Student Planned and Evaluated Learning” (SPEL).  Following the “let them lead" philosophy, the seniors wrote personal objectives describing how they would stretch their reading using journaling, discussing, and participating with teachers in progress conferences at least once every two weeks.  They wrote their own report cards giving themselves two grades. One grade compared their work ethic to other students in the classroom. The other grade described in what ways they were meeting, exceeding, or failing to meet their own written objectives to grow in their reading, writing, and discussion skills.

Years later, former student Tania Lusic writes: “Dr. Beckman taught me to read for pleasure.”  Another former student, Devin McKinney, adds, “I still remember the handwritten reading list Dr. Beckman gave me.  I’ve read most of the books by now, not all.”  In another unsolicited comment, former Lab School senior Stephanie Althof declares: “I so appreciate all the gifts Dr. Beckman shared with me.  She fostered in me a love of writing, and the courage to do it.”

Additionally, Dr. Beckman also supervised three Lab School seniors in Senior Projects where they focused on theatre costume design and production.  Under Dr. Beckman’s mentorship, the students took full responsibility for specific costumes for the Lab School productions of Spoon River Anthology and Mary of Scotland.  First the students consulted with Director Kenneth Butzier regarding his vision for the production and costumes.  Then they measured their actors and found or made appropriate costume patterns.  Next, they purchased the needed fabric and measured their actors again before cutting the cloth and sewing the costumes.

Try-ons followed, shadowed by any needed alterations; then the student costumers labeled the costumes and hung them on the costume rack where the actors could find them.  During dress rehearsals and performances, the student costumers were responsible for their actor’s costumes, which included checking for and completing any repairs, ironing, and re-hanging of the costumes on the rack for future use.  At the end of the last performance, the students washed or dry cleaned the costumes and hung them away clean.  For all this work and real theatre experience, the students earned one credit.

                Former Lab School student Sherie Jones remembers Dr. Beckman as “a beautiful woman/educator—one of my favorite teachers.”

Dr. Beckman also taught the language arts workshop. This special class was planned to assist students who, by ninth grade, still felt uncomfortable as readers and writers. In this language community they were helped to challenge themselves to grow in these areas rather than accept their status as reluctant readers and writers. The constant teacher assistance and the small size of the class helped them mature academically as well as socially.

As Elementary Principal

Dr. Beckman served as the Lab School’s Elementary Principal in 1986-1987 and 1987-1988.   During these years she and the elementary teachers studied and implemented process model writing in the elementary school.  This (now standard) approach helps students see writing as a personal process—from idea to researching to mapping to early drafts and final editing and proofreading—and one that varies from person to person.

Work With Prospective Teachers

Throughout her years in the junior high and high school, Dr. Beckman sought to encourage young and middle adolescents to become critical thinkers, avid readers, and confident writers who grew in their belief that they could discover, clarify, and communicate their thoughts.  While teaching she shared her classrooms, her enthusiasm, and her support with observers, participants, and student teachers at the Lab School and with the UNI partnership.

She knew that student teachers, participants, and observers possessed a wealth of experience with the canon of literature they had studied at the university and beyond. However, to work most effectively with 7-12 students they needed an equivalent trove of titles from young adult or adolescent literature to meet the needs, abilities, and interests of junior and senior high students. Some of the UNI students had taken a single course in young adult literature, but realized, as they worked with the Lab School students, that they needed many more current titles to spark the interests of these young people.  Dr. Beckman urged and modeled for the UNI students the need to be "continuous" readers to best serve their students.

She illustrated this need as an active charter member (1973) of the Junior High Middle School Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English and in the NCTE Adolescent Literature Assembly as well.  She served as a board member of both assemblies and as chair of the Junior High Middle School Assembly and as program chair of the Adolescent Literature Assembly’s nonfiction literature section for the national convention.  From l987-1991, Dr. Beckman co-wrote the monthly column called "Books and the Teenage Reader" for the English Journal, published by the National Council of Teachers of English.

As a Student Teaching Coordinator

In 1993, Dr. Beckman left the Laboratory School to coordinate student teaching in Dean Thomas Switzer's program, the UNI/Janesville Partnership.  As part of this appointment, she took student teacher supervisors from Janesville to the yearly state and national conventions of the Association of Teacher Educators.  Dr. Beckman, two other UNI professors, and one of the Janesville teachers made a panel presentation at the National Council of Teachers of English national convention in Flagstaff, Arizona.  Another time Dr. Beckman and one of the Janesville supervisors participated as recorder responders to research papers presented by teachers and graduate students. 

She also served as coordinator of student teachers in Charles City, Tripoli, Clarksville, Waverly, and Sumner. Each semester she took all of the supervisors to the regular full day partnership "cadre" meetings sponsored by Dean Switzer, Mildred Middleton, and the UNI Department of Teaching.   In 1997, Dr. Beckman even traveled to Japan to supervise student teachers.

Professional Growth

Dr. Beckman’s particular research focus was the secondary reluctant reader. This consuming interest grew out of her teaching a language arts workshop with Dr.  Howard VanderBeek.

Dr. Ross Nielsen, Head of the Department of Teaching and Director of the Lab School, expected his faculty to strive continually to grow professionally.  Dr. Beckman’s growth was enhanced in two ways. First, she grew as a member of the Language Arts Department.  Her colleagues—Kenneth Butzier, Marjorie Vargas, and Dr. VanderBeek—worked closely together. They met regularly to implement and update the 7-12 integrated and vertically articulated program developed in the school’s Language Arts Department Curriculum Guide. They respected each other and her three colleagues brought Dr. Beckman a vast reservoir of knowledge, enthusiasm, and encouragement to succeed in a Lab School teacher’s multiple roles.

The second way she grew was when Dr. VanderBeek and Dr. Judy Finkelstein encouraged her to apply for a year's leave to study at the University of Minnesota.  She was awarded her Ph.D. in 1995. The secondary reluctant reader became her dissertation focus. This dissertation, The Relationship Between the Reluctant Reader's Need for

Social Acceptance and Academic Success and Their Attitude Towards Leisure Reading, Volumes l and 2 again illustrated her passion for meeting the variety of needs of readers at the junior high and high school levels.

                “Dr. Beckman focused on the whole child,” explains Dr. Finkelstein.  “She was concerned about how all students were managing to survive these years of rapid physical and social growth and become confident learners who decided they could ‘do school and graduate’ while challenging them and helping them grow intellectually.” 

                As one of her students, Joanne Norem Koweil, wrote years later: “Judy Beckman was such an amazing teacher and an even better human being.”

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