Alumna earns What’s Right with the Region honor for work in Normandy schools

by | May 10, 2019

Focus St. Louis is recognizing Inda Schaenen and her nonprofit, Project Lab St. Louis, in the Improving Equity and Inclusion category.
Inda Schaenen

Since 2015, UMSL alumna Inda Schaenen (MEd 2007, MFA 2009, PhD 2010) has been using her Normandy 7th-8th Grade Center English language arts classroom as a proving ground for the innovative education initiatives of Project Lab St. Louis, a nonprofit she founded that designs and implements interdisciplinary, student-centered projects in public schools. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Inda Schaenen has noticed something about herself throughout her career, whether in her work as a writer or as a teacher.

“I do love making things,” Schaenen said. “Teaching is a very creative profession: the energy in the room and the challenge to figure out what somebody is going to be interested in and how they can have fun learning. That mixture of writer, teacher, researcher – that’s my sweet spot. If there’s ever any one of those three demands that I don’t feel I’m tapping, I feel sort of out of balance.”

Schaenen has lived in St. Louis since 1991 and was already an active freelance writer and published author when she returned to school to earn three degrees from the University of Missouri–St. Louis: an MEd in 2007, MFA in 2009 and a PhD in education in 2010.

Since 2013, she has been working as an English language arts teacher with the Normandy Schools Collaborative, and a local civic leadership group is rewarding Schaenen for her brand of constant creativity. Focus St. Louis recently announced that Schaenen will be one of the recipients of its annual What’s Right with the Region Awards in the Improving Equity and Inclusion category. Schaenen will be honored along with the other 19 awardees at a May 16 event at Sheldon Concert Hall.

Schaenen is the founder and executive director of Project Lab St. Louis, a nonprofit organization that designs and implements interdisciplinary, student-centered projects in public schools. She started Project Lab in the summer of 2015 and has been using her Normandy classroom as a proving ground ever since.

“We’ve been trying to innovate from inside the district and develop practices and projects that are designed with and for our students,” Schaenen said. “That’s what makes this recognition especially gratifying. This isn’t one teacher doing something, not one nonprofit. It means that the whole system is finding a way. Not without bumps, but finding a way.”

More than 320 students have taken part in Project Lab programs since its inception. Schaenen and her students created a school newspaper, The Viking Times, and a literary journal, The View From Here, published in collaboration with John Burroughs School and Wydown Middle School in Clayton. Additionally, her students’ responses to a writing prompt about gun violence will be included in a published work of voices from the city, “The St. Louis Anthology,” this June.

Project Lab has also spearheaded such experiential initiatives as Normandy Crosscurrents, which gives schools from around the region the chance to meet and discuss their experiences.

Schaenen said UMSL has been a generous supporter of the nonprofit’s efforts. Last spring, Project Lab held two events in the ED Collabitat on South Campus: a Day of Dialogue between Normandy students and police officers as well as a youth summit in which seventh- and eighth-graders from across the region gathered to share the efforts their schools had undertaken in student leadership.

After three years working solely with middle schoolers, Project Lab expanded to Normandy High School this past fall.

“On the whole, we’ve gotten really positive feedback from students, but we also try to make adjustments if we’re doing something that they don’t like or that just isn’t working,” Schaenen said. “I regularly ask students for feedback. To that extent, students feel empowered to shape what it is they’re learning in school. All with an understanding that’s grounded in research. When students are engaged, reading for a purpose and writing for an audience, then academic skills and knowledge of content are right there.”

According to the organization’s 2018 annual report, 91 percent of Project Lab eighth-graders at Normandy improved in reading over the past two years, with 41 percent jumping at least two grade levels. It’s empirical evidence to back up the anecdotal experiences she gathered working at Springboard to Learning, a private-public partnership that places academic and cultural literacy programs in St. Louis Public Schools, starting in 2002.

There, she came into contact with E. Wendy Saul, the UMSL Allen B. and Helen S. Shopmaker Endowed Professor of Education and International Studies who was an advisor to Springboard.

After a professional development session, Schaenen approached Saul with questions.

Saul said her line of thinking sounded like a dissertation topic, so Schaenen went ahead and began the research. She studied the multiliteracies that developed among her writing workshop students. Now, Project Lab carries on the drive to reach and teach students while looking for ways to expand by utilizing partnerships with community entities and neighboring public and private schools.

“How do you develop project-based curriculum that is interesting, engaging and meaningful?” Schaenen said. “How do you do that work and also make sure that skills, practices and content knowledge are coming along? You have to take the time that we have and make the most of it so students flourish, so that their well-being, curiosity and creativity are nourished in school.”

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