Witteman’s Fourth-Graders Become Her Students Again

For two first-year students, it’s the second time around taking a class with Dr. Barb Witteman – she also taught them in fourth grade.

Nine years ago, education professor Dr. Barbara Witteman headed back to elementary school. She took her sabbatical from Concordia and went to work full time filling in for a fourth-grade teacher who was on leave at Kennedy Elementary in Fargo. She knew it would be a great experience to once again use concepts in her own classroom that she was teaching to future educators. Witteman had no idea that two of her bright, young 9-year-olds would return to her as college students because of a practice near and dear to her heart: service-learning. 

“We never just sat in the classroom,” says Innocent Nsengiyumva ’22, who is now one of Witteman’s first-year college students. “We were making blankets and going on field trips [to help in our community].”  

When Nsengiyumva was accepted to Concordia, he had to sign up for an Inquiry Seminar. “There was one called ‘Hungry!’ so I clicked on it and her name popped up. I couldn’t believe it!” he says. Unfortunately, the class was already full. Undeterred, he sent Witteman an email and asked if he could still be added to the class. Witteman and the Registrar’s Office worked it out and Nsengiyumva was in. Soon, another former fourth-grader, Kiara Stroh ‘22, was also in the class.

Stroh also remembers the importance of doing service-learning in fourth grade. Their class in 2009 was an energetic bunch. Witteman said she knew she had to give them reasons beyond their own learning for coming to class each day. She embarked on service projects to encourage them to think beyond themselves and hopefully learn differently. When the students struggled with learning division, Witteman had them participate in a soap drive. The fourth-grade students were disappointed because they hadn’t collected as many bars of soap as another larger group of students at Fargo North, but that’s when Witteman’s sly tactics took over.

“I told them it was too bad we didn’t know how to do per capita,” Witteman says. “That’s how I conned them into learning long division.”

By looking at how many bars of soap per person had been collected, they discovered using per capita they had done better than the other class at Fargo North. “I never called it division again that year.” she says. “It was always per capita ... and they learned to do division!”

Soap wasn’t the only project. Another big service opportunity for the fourth-graders was packing beans for the Salvation Army’s food distribution. That’s a project that Witteman still does. The beans, now donated by Cobber Bryan Boll ’96 and sent to the Emergency Food Pantry, are packed by fourth-graders at Washington Elementary in Fargo along with Witteman’s two sections of Inquiry students during Hands for Change, the first service-learning community project for new Concordia students.

“I guess this project has come full circle,” Witteman says as her college students headed back into a fourth-grade class to do service.

The students say their transition into college has been easier with a familiar, trusted face as their professor. And with a swell of pride Witteman says she is so honored to get to teach these students one more time and to have Innocent as one of her advisees this year.

“It is so exciting to see them grown up,” Witteman says. “They are both highly successful. I just love having them in class.”