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Marlene Bergstrom named Teacher of the Year finalist
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Marlene Bergstrom instructs her Medeiros Elementary fourth grade class in character during her interactive Day in the Life of 1870s America.

Anyone entering Marlene Bergstrom’s classroom at Medeiros Elementary on Tuesday afternoon witnessed an uncommon scene: some students were wearing bonnets, others were writing with quills, there were slates on each desk and Bergstrom was instructing students about the importance of penmanship on a mock chalkboard. What looked like a ‘blast from the past’ to an outsider was actually a typical day in Bergstrom’s fourth grade class.

Bergstrom's classroom was transformed into a Day in the Life of 1870’s America, an activity that allows students to not only dress in period clothing but adhere to the classroom rules that were in place in the late 19 century. This themed day is just one of the many interactive activities that students in Bergstrom’s class complete each year and her students' cooperative  behavior was a testament to the respect they have for their teacher.

“My favorite thing about Mrs. B is that she has a teacher side, but she has a fun side too,” said fourth grader Bella Kern. “We like the activities she plans because we learn but we also have fun too, and that’s the best way to learn I think.”

Bergstrom has not only had a positive effect on her students, but on her colleagues as well evident by her nomination by Medeiros Elementary Principal Jennifer Yacoub for the 2014 Stanislaus County Teacher of the Year. The 87 nominations were whittled down to the top 12 finalists, of which Bergstrom is the one and only teacher representing Turlock Unified School District. However, according to her, the nomination is a reflection of the work she does each and every day with her fellow teachers.

“It’s a huge honor and very humbling to be nominated, but I feel uncomfortable taking the credit. I work with such a high caliber of colleagues and staff and I don’t know one who doesn’t work hard to teach their best for kids every day. I really accept the nomination in honor of my colleagues,” said Bergstrom.

Bergstrom’s positive teaching has touched more than her students and colleagues at Medeiros Elementary as it has reached beyond the classroom to touch parents as well. Michelle Gilbreth’s daughter is currently in Bergstrom’s class this year and her son was taught by her last year. According to Gilbreth, Bergstrom’s commitment to her craft of teaching, as well as taking an innovative approach to learning, has contributed to students' success in the classroom.

“She is amazing, it is something new every year that she does and the kids want to learn because it's fun,” said Gilbreth. “The thing is that the kids love her so much that they don’t want to disappoint her. They want to impress her just as much as she wants them to learn.”

The students' respect for their teacher is cultivated through the daily activities that they learn in her classroom, such as managing a checking and savings account. Each month students are “paid” with a check and they must pay “rent” for their desk and chair, pay taxes once a year, as well as tickets that are given by the “police”. These activities are ways that Bergstrom aims to develop students not only academically but to equip them with life skills as well. 

“It teaches us responsibility and respect for our parents, too, because we’re lucky they pay for us to have a place to live,” said student Aniston Flowers.

The interactive activities such as 1870’s America Day are also ways for students to gain perspective on modern day life. This year students have been able to participate in a variety of events including a Titanic Day and simulated Gold Rush Day where students rotate between activities such as panning for gold and making candles. In a few weeks they will experience the  Environmental Living Program where they will stay in Yosemite for three days as 1890’s characters, in period clothing and housing accommodations, as they learn about their characters' integral roles in the development of the national park.

“My main objective through these interactive activities is to engage the kids as much as possible, that is a part of my teaching style. I believe students engage and learn the most when they are living and breathing history and this is a way to give them a firsthand experience,” said Bergstrom. 

For the past 24 years, Bergstrom has modified and enhanced her curriculum to cater to each class' needs and her positive approach has done more than earn her a nomination as Teacher of the Year as it has changed the lives of students for the better.

“I’m very passionate about fourth grade curriculum and my students and my motto is that each year is a new year that you can do bigger, better and beyond,” said Bergstrom. “Teaching is not about curriculum or technology or attending a professional conference. It’s about what you can do in that moment to better a student’s life.”