Spotlight: Jessica Kavitz (WY '22)January 23, 2023
Kindergarten teacher Jessica Kavitz (WY ’22) incorporates a lot of physical activity into her class to keep her young students engaged and ready to learn: “Everybody is happier when they’re moving and dancing!” She received Wyoming’s 2022-23 Milken Educator Award at Buffalo’s Meadowlark Elementary on November 29, 2022.
Milken Family Foundation: How did you end up in education?
Jessica Kavitz (WY ’22): I ended up in education because I love learning. I loved school from the get-go and had my mom as an amazing role model. She was a compensatory aide when I was in elementary school, and then when I was in middle school she completed her teaching degree and taught for many years. She was an amazing teacher — she loved her students and put in so much time and effort to create engaging learning activities and attend sporting events. She was a role model and mentor to so many teachers around her.
MFF: What do you like about working with elementary students?
Jessica: I love working with kindergarteners (little learners) because they are excited to learn and love being at school. I want to create a learning environment where they will love learning and continue to love being at school as they grow.
MFF: You incorporate a lot of physical activity into your classroom. How does this enhance your students’ learning?
Jessica: The brain needs movement, and so do kindergarten attention spans. Physical activity and movement make students more alert and keep them ready to learn. Everybody is happier when they’re moving and dancing!
MFF: In addition to your mother, who are your role models?
Jessica: My fifth and sixth grade teacher Mrs. Mills (she looped with us), and my third grade teacher Mrs. Hupfauf. They stick in my mind because they were really good at building classroom communities. They loved us and helped us grow and love learning together.
MFF: How was your first year of teaching?
Jessica: That year was full of blessings. I was 22 and was ready to change the world. Fortunately, I was surrounded by people who helped me learn, grow, and do just that. My kindergarten team was phenomenal and so supportive. My principal was also phenomenal and supported and trusted me as a new educator. The school housed the Multi Ability program for students with severe special needs and an ESL program with a large number of English learners. It was a Title I school supporting a large number of families on the free and reduced lunch program.
This mix of students brought so many challenges, blessings, and learning experiences that I wouldn’t trade for anything. The year I started teaching the school had just been built. The staff moved into a new building and expanded, so there were a lot of new faces and changes. A couple dozen of us got to go to a PLC (Professional Learning Community) summit the summer before I started teaching, where we built relationships and shared knowledge that made our school an extra special place.
MFF: How do you involve parents in your classroom?
Jessica: I am working on getting back to more parent involvement after the pandemic, but I really value celebrating student learning and parent support through readers theater performances and celebrations where students can show off their learning. I work hard to keep my classroom website updated with pictures so parents feel like they can see what’s happening in our world, and I use SeeSaw to send videos, pictures, and other updates. I am always looking for volunteers to help with centers and support classroom activities because there are never enough hands in a kindergarten classroom. Kids learn so much from interactions with other adults, and they thrive with the attention of any big person that walks through the classroom door.
I have also hosted “camps,” where parents learn to support their students. They’ll come in for half an hour while I lead students through a learning activity to model different strategies or activities, and then the students practice with their parents. We’ve done how to read with a kindergartener, how to write with a kindergartener, etc. This gives students a platform to shine and provides parents the opportunity to see what we do and how they can support their learner at home.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Jessica: I remember knowing right away that something was going on, and it wasn’t just a student of the month assembly. I had never heard of the Milken Family Foundation, so it was interesting and exciting to hear [MEA Senior Program Director] Greg Gallagher talk about the foundation’s goals and desire to recognize teachers and the hard work that we do. As the assembly progressed I was just waiting for the announcement of someone else’s name. You never expect to hear your own name!
I remember seeing one of my squirrely friends who had made his way to the very front of the crowd of kids, and wondering how that had happened. I was going through the normal motions of monitoring my class and helping them to be respectful learners.
The moment I heard my name was when “normal” ended. I couldn’t believe it. I started shaking and then remember zeroing in on some of the little faces in the crowd, my current and past students. They kept me grounded as I floated through the rest of the assembly. There were three first graders in particular in the front row who were my students last year. Their faces smiling up at me was just the best!
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Jessica: I’m not sure how much my kindergarteners really understood, but the recognition and notes from their parents have meant a lot. I received a handwritten note delivered by a sibling of one of my past students, and that was very special. For a few days there was quite a buzz through the halls about what I might spend the money on, including a request from a first grader that I buy her a butterscotch milkshake from Dash-In.
MFF: Any plans for your $25,000 Award?
Jessica: This has been the hardest question of all. My go-to response: I’ll spend some, save some, and share some. Of course, my knee-jerk thought was to buy pencils for my classroom (and cupcakes for my staff). I spend a lot of money on materials for my classroom, things to make a math lesson more hands-on, or items at the dollar store for sound mapping. I do love Hawaii though, so you may find me spending some of my Award on a trip to the beach!
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Jessica: For me, it’s having a classroom where students feel loved and love learning. My students are successful if they are happy learners who want to be at school, and they are continuously learning and growing their brains, bodies, minds, and souls.
MFF: What do you hope students remember from their time with you?
Jessica: That they were loved and had lots of fun. Learning and fun can be synonymous, and sometimes they forget they’re even learning because they’re having so much fun!
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