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Past and Purpose Intersect in the Classroom for a Former Military Kid

Congress designated May as National Military Appreciation Month based on a simple idea that our citizens should have the opportunity to publicly recognize the sacrifices and successes of American service members, past and present. Supporting military families by providing their children with the best possible educational opportunities is an important part of our mission at NMSI. During the month, we are highlighting perspectives of educators, active and retired service members, and members of military families on the intersection of military life, education and cultivating STEM talent. Today, we hear from English teacher Justin Conn, who grew up in a military family and now spends several weekends a year teaching AP study sessions at military-connected schools as a NMSI consultant.
 
My dad is Lieutenant Colonel Roger M. Conn, Jr. (Retired). Before he added that final parenthetical to his moniker, he moved his family around, serving at the pleasure of the U.S. Army. I attended kindergarten in Germany, a few years of grade school in New York, some more in Kansas, and finally came to Colorado to finish up my schooling while my father finished up his military career. Moving every two to three years seems like a daunting task to require of a young child, but my brother and I did not know anything different. In fact, now that we have both found our own homes – mine in San Diego, his in New York City – we both comment about how difficult it is to stay put for many years at a time. We had trained ourselves to limit our connections to our environment and our peers because we knew we would be on to the next location when Dad got his new orders. Since my father retired when I was in 8th grade, I know that I had an experience that was much easier than many military kids out there who spend all of their formative years moving from base to base.
 
I always had a sense I would end up a teacher, not because I had been inspired by any particular teachers, but because I just enjoyed being at school. I was not a stellar student, and I certainly did not sign up for the hardest classes, but I loved the interaction that took place in a good classroom. When I moved in to my first professional position, I ended up in a highly affluent community, where pretty much all of my students have lived for their entire lives. Very few of my students have had the experience of picking up and moving multiple times, around the country and beyond. I have taken on the challenge of helping my students to understand the diversity of people and ideas that exist beyond North County San Diego – an understanding that was fostered in me because of my military upbringing.
 
A couple of years ago, I was pointed in the direction of the National Math and Science Initiative by a colleague I had come to know at the AP English exam scoring that takes place every June. He told me about the opportunity to work with students at student study sessions (SSS), typically held on Saturdays all over the country. I was intrigued by the idea of honing my own teaching skills, working with diverse populations and gaining exposure to quality instructional materials. At the time, I did not know about the connection between the SSSs and students coming from military families.
 
I have led about 20 study sessions over the past two years – working with students in Alaska, Texas and a couple of locations in California. At the first session I led, at Lemoore High School in California’s Central Valley, I realized that many of the students I was working with came from military-connected families. This realization has only furthered my passion for work with NMSI. I have tremendous respect for the academic challenges these young people are tackling. Because of my experience as an AP scorer and my years as an AP teacher, I have an expertise on the subject that I am able to share with the students; however, I was never an AP student myself, which is a bit of irony that is never lost on the kids. I cherish those times at the end of each session when I am able to sit and talk with the students about their experiences, and often see that their lives often reflect my own early years. The work is incredibly rewarding for me because I get to talk about content that I believe in strongly (AP English Language and Composition) with young people I feel passionate about supporting.
 
Next year, I am considering moving into a new administrative role for my district. Quite honestly, one of my biggest hang-ups on making that decision is that I know it will limit the number of times I will be able to get away and work with NMSI students on Saturdays. Regardless of the choice I make, I look forward to as many chances as possible to work with this wonderful program, and terrific kids.
 
Justin Conn is a teacher for the San Dieguito Union High School District in Encinitas, CA and a consultant for the National Math and Science Initiative. He taught AP English Language and Composition for eight years, before most recently moving into an English/Language Arts leadership role for his district. He is also the athletic director at San Dieguito Academy, where he coaches track and field and cross country. He lives with his wife, Jessie, who teaches third grade, and his two children Eliot and Emily.