Puppets, theater and clay aren't what come to mind when most think of an eighth-grade social studies classroom, but they're just some of the things that have filled Dennis Schreiber's room during his 44-year teaching career.

After teaching his last class of middle school students at St. Francis of Assisi last week, he'll head into retirement. But his teaching approach — one that encouraged creativity, but kept the real world within view — is what will stick with students because he taught them how to develop the skills they needed to wade through it all.

"They have to be at the center of their learning — not me," Schreiber said of his students. "I give them the framework, the guidelines, help them out, coach them, manage them, but they're the ones that have to struggle with the learning, deal with the learning."

His classroom doubled as a stage and could be halved for performances with a homemade theater curtain at a moment's notice. Students used their creativity and to put on original shows, or to react to test questions with small performances using the dozens of puppets housed in his room.

At the other end of the classroom are boxes of multicolored clay. Sometimes, instead of answering test questions with a pencil and paper — or online, the format so many tests have evolved to — he'll have students form an answer out of clay.

He posted newspaper clippings outside his door and pulled current events into the classroom with discussions of the latest news, tying those lessons to history. Most recently, a discussion of the Walker Art Center's gallows-like structure, "Scaffold," which reminded protesters of the mass hanging of 38 Dakota men in 1862.

In the classroom

Schreiber's classroom is the accumulation of 41 years of students, learning and education initiatives.

Plastered throughout his room — one that's been his home since he took a job at St. Francis — are his many philosophies on life, which he says are "begged, borrowed and stolen," and have been copied onto colorful handmade posters and strung about in cutout letters.

His students refer to the quirky quotes and aphorisms as "Schreiberisms," even compiling a 26-page list of them throughout the school year and presenting it to him at eighth-grade graduation.

But the belief that belies them all for Schreiber is the "Rubber Band Theory" — the idea that success is attainable through the stretching of students' many talents, according to one poster that hangs at the head of his classroom.

Because he's spent 41 years in the same classroom at St. Francis, everything that's been accumulated or saved is tied to a student and has its own story.

Many items spark memories of students, current and former, whose whereabouts he knows, even today. Other former students have moved in down the hall from him at St. Francis, and are now considered colleagues.

Building confidence in students

In what can often be rocky middle-school years, his students said the biggest thing he's inspired in them is confidence.

"He's the teacher who lifts you up, and finds the best in you and makes you work harder," said Eileen Kennedy-Warrington, a parent who has worked closely with Schreiber as students competed in the Future City competition, a national competition which tasks students with designing a sustainable city of the future.

On every test students take, they are required to write "I can do this" at the top, a step which if skipped will cost them a point or two. At other times, he makes his students look in the mirror and say "I'm beautiful," said students in his last eighth grade class last week.

"He not only teaches, he teaches us how to apply," said eighth-grade student Emily Wetzel.

At the Catholic school, faith is also at the center of the lessons. Each day, students much plan and fill out a prayer sheet, recording what they're going to pray for and why, to make sure students are intentional about everything they, including their faith. They're also required to fill out a time card each day, recording what they've accomplished and when they worked on it.

While time spent in the classroom is important, he wants to show students that there's a lot outside it. He cites field trips to Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center in Lanesboro, and student involvement in outside projects such as Future City and the History Day competition as key to his students' success.

And he's seen success with both, with two trips to the national Future City competition in Washington D.C., and multiple trips to the national History Day competition.

Becoming a 'real teacher'

Schreiber never felt drawn to education growing up, and wasn't sure what career he'd pursue, but after a student teaching experience in British Columbia, Canada, he thought he'd give the profession a try.

Despite the early exposure, he said he didn't become a "real teacher" until years later when he went back for his master's degree at Winona State University. The seven-year endeavor, from 1977-85, was "what really made me a teacher," he said, and was where he learned concepts like "whole brain learning" and "multiple intelligences."

Before that his approach was "more working to feed it into their brain," he said. After his time at WSU, that changed. He began to put the students at the center of their own learning.

"Students are not just an IQ test," he said. "We're so much more."

He's seen classroom walls come down, in favor of open learning environments, overhead projectors have been replaced with SMART boards, and paper tests have been replaced with Google Forms.

"We always seem to go through the flavor of the month, but what I like to do is pick up then what's the strength," he said. "You've got to keep reinventing yourself."

And that focus on improvement has been key. Even as he heads into retirement, he acknowledges he doesn't have it all figured out.

"I used to think I was a master teacher after 30 years, my phrase is now: 'I am a master learner, in the process of becoming a master teacher,' " he said. "Even at my retirement, I'm going to be learning new things."

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