“I feel a great sense of urgency because I made a promise to the parents at parent-teacher conferences. I said, ‘All of you are making an investment in Catholic education, and I’m going to do my best to give you your money’s worth.’”
From the day he started teaching as a member of ACE 27, Brandon Borgemenke took his commitment to teaching fourth-grade students at St. Philip and St. Augustine Catholic Academy in Dallas seriously.
Brandon works with students in reading, spelling, and social studies. Helping his students improve their reading skills is a great responsibility and one that Brandon handles with care. Last year, his first class increased their reading percentile scores by 74 percent. So far this year, his class has increased their reading percentile scores by 67 percent as of April.
Dianne Brungardt, the principal of St. Philip and St. Augustine, says that Brandon and Maria Cruz, his teaching partner, have worked well together to support their students.
“Fourth grade has made significant progress this year because of the community and relationships that have been created by Brandon and Maria,” Dianne says. “The students are comfortable with each other and act as one big family. This enables students to take risks in the classroom and really push themselves to learn more – and to support each other through their individual learning experiences. It's fantastic to witness!”
What steps does a new teacher take to support students in such significant growth over the course of a year?
“I don’t choose books that are longer than 100 or 120 pages max. That allows us to read a book every two to three weeks,” Brandon says. “In the beginning of the year we start with read-alouds as a way to settle down after special classes or recess. As the year progresses, we get into novel studies so that by October the kids have their own copies of the book. They learn how to annotate and we work on reading comprehension.”
Monica Kowalski, a member of ACE Teaching Fellows’ faculty of supervision and instruction, supervises Brandon and has seen firsthand the thoughtfulness Brandon uses in lesson-planning.
“Brandon is very intentional about planning for instruction and utilizing his curriculum effectively,” Monica says. “He provides his students with multiple opportunities to engage with texts and guides them through a variety of whole class, small group, and individual lessons in reading and writing. It is wonderful to see his hard work paying off with such visible student success.”
For Brandon, working with his students is an opportunity to tap into his own younger self. “In fourth grade, I read the entire Hardy Boy series and I was reading two or three books a week,” Brandon says. “Now that I get to teach fourth grade, I’ve fallen in love again with a lot of books that I read as a kid.”
Brandon has found that teaching fourth grade is a lot of fun. “I love the fleeting moments when kids are absorbed in their books, sitting in lawn chairs and on pillows spread out all over the classroom. It’s just fun. If you’re not having fun teaching fourth grade, you’re doing it wrong.”
While Brandon enjoys reading some of his favorite books with his students, not every book is necessarily light-hearted. Brandon selects books that will create a space for students to reflect on and discuss topics that may be deeply personal to them.
“We recently read Bridge to Terabithia, and it was a shocking day for the students when one of the characters died,” Brandon says. “I chose this book intentionally because four boys in my class have lost their dads this year. I chose this book to open up a conversation about death so that we could talk about it in a structured way.”
Talking about death also provided an opportunity to bring in faith and talk to students about what the Catholic Church teaches about eternal life. “I told my students that there’s no correct way to respond to death in a book,” Brandon says. “I told them, ‘There are different reasons why this might be hitting home for you. Maybe you have experienced loss in your life, or maybe you haven’t but this character was really meaningful to you.’”
“‘The thing for us to realize is that we’re not made for this world,” Brandon told his students. “Any relationships that we have, our own lives, these things are not forever. As part of our lives here on earth, we have to pick up the pieces and learn how to carry on. It doesn’t mean that we’re not allowed to be sad and it doesn’t mean that we can’t feel whatever we’re feeling.’
“After we had a conversation, I had them go and journal and then we talked about their reflections. I’ve found that students relate to books in which they identify with the characters.”