Kristin Leffler always wanted to tell stories. Combining her interests – an affinity for journalism and a passion for working with young people – is her latest mission.
“I’ve always kind of felt that I need to follow one path,” the Lyman Moore Middle School teacher said, “and I’m now just realizing that a lot of my interests can be combined in incredible ways.”
That mission has become even more possible now that she’s been selected to join the Washington, D.C.-based, Pulitzer Center’s education team for its 2021-2022 fellowship program.
Leffler, 29, began teaching at Lyman Moore in 2019 and was able to enjoy just a few months of normalcy before pandemic learning took over the majority of her experience as an educator.
She studied journalism at Ithaca College in central New York, where she also developed a love for documentaries. “Following Flame,” a documentary she made in college, won a College Television Award in 2014.
From there, she traveled around the U.S., including Alaska, where she was a radio reporter, and Chicago, where she interned at Kartemquin Films, a nonprofit producer of documentaries. She was living in New York City when she decided to try life on the coast of Maine for a summer in 2016.
Her job at the Criterion Theater in Bar Harbor turned into a three-year gig that she used as an opportunity to reflect and choose the next steps in her career. She moved to Portland in 2018, enrolled in the University of Southern Maine’s Extended Teacher Education Program, and received her K-8 teaching certification that year.
Leffler said that everywhere she went, she was always seeking out schools and young people to work with. The community that can be built in a classroom attracted her to teaching, and now she’s part of an online community that connects educators and journalists.
She said she regularly integrates her journalism background into her eighth-grade social studies classes, hoping to inspire students’ curiosity, asking questions, and searching for answers.
“As a journalist, if you want to get the facts across, you have to lead with the heart – that’s what people connect with,” Leffler said. “And I think it’s the same thing with teaching, especially kids – to build that empathy, to learn the world through stories.”
Leffler is one of the Pulitzer Center’s 26 fellows in the country, and one of only 12 in the national cohort; the rest are all based in Chicago.
She described her colleagues as an “incredible group of educators,” and said she is the least experienced in teaching – but she’s learning from other teachers, much like she hopes her students can learn.
The purpose of the Pulitzer Center fellowship is to connect these educators with active journalists, Leffler said. Fellows will then create their own units with Pulitzer Center materials to fit with the program theme: “Journalism and Justice: Elevating Underreported Stories in the Classroom.”
Leffler said she wants to construct her unit around incarceration and what justice means, teaching students about civics and government. They would also write their own opinion piece, sharing their own conclusions about prison reform, or what they think the world must do to keep people out of prison.
“My job as a teacher is not to tell them what to think, but it’s to help them nurture and grow these tools of critical thinking for themselves,” she said.
Her students appear hungrier for more authentic learning and for the connection to their community, Leffler said – they’ve been more engaged, more curious, and have been thinking more critically as a result of not just living through a pandemic, but from living through a time when racial inequity is being addressed.
She said the pandemic has slowed her teaching progress a bit, but she still has time to develop her ideas. She’d like to get her students out in the community to learn from people and to pair their learning with narrative and human interaction.
Being a teacher takes up a lot of time, but Leffler said her involvement in the fellowship has reminded her of her love for journalism. She still has ideas for documentaries and unfinished projects she’d like to pick up again, including manuscripts she’s been working on for middle school-aged kids, but teaching remains her primary mission.
Leffler said journalism taught her that she wanted a job where she was continuously learning, growing, and being challenged, and that’s where teaching comes in.
“I’m learning so much from my students,” she said, “especially here in the Portland district, from the way that they think and see the world.”