Lavon Dean-Null's travel experiences slide easily into daily lessons in her classroom.
Middle-schoolers can be a bundle of energy, but Dean-Null matches them in that department. She moves smoothly through the classroom, asking for volunteers to preview the day's assignment, then joining groups at individual tables to participate in brainstorming sessions.
"Middle school is my passion," says Dean-Null, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Discovery Middle School who recently was named Teacher of the Year in the Penn-Harris-Madison School Corp.
Growing up in Brown City, Mich., she always wanted to be a teacher. She was inspired by her mother, a teacher for 34 years, and other family members who were teachers. "It just kind of came naturally," says Dean-Null, 31, a South Bend resident.
She graduated from Bethel College in 2003 with an elementary education degree. She served as a student teacher at Discovery, and returned to the school right after graduation to teach language arts, physical education and other classes. She's been teaching exclusively seventh-grade social studies there since 2006.
Seventh-grade social studies focuses on world history, primarily in the Eastern hemisphere. So Dean-Null's love of travel goes hand-in-hand with her daily work.
As an undergraduate, she participated in short cultural study abroad experiences in Italy and Northern Ireland.
She and her husband, Derrick Null, an employee of Bethel College, took leaves of absence and spent 2008-2009 teaching English to students in South Korea. It was an outstanding experience, allowing the couple to teach children from kindergarten through high school.
It also allowed the couple to do extensive travel, including visiting China and other parts of Asia.
She draws on those travel experiences while teaching her students about the past and present of Eastern countries and cultures. For example, she visited the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a strip of land that serves as a buffer between North and South Korea, and is able to show photos and tell students first-hand what the experience is like.
"I discuss the difference between north and south (Korea). I take it as a real privilege to be able to do that," she says.
Her classroom window sills are covered with framed photos taken during her travels.
The couple last summer visited Mongolia for three weeks to help build housing as part of a humanitarian effort.
On this particular day, her students are learning about international human rights, and analyzing human rights records of various Asian countries.
Dean-Null's classes have textbooks, but she relies mostly on primary texts. Technology is integrated in her classroom. Students use computer tablets to research the history and human rights records of nations they are studying, at the same time learning how to analyze the accuracy and credibility of various web sites.
Dean-Null also plans interactive experiences, including role-playing. While studying China, the students took on the roles of a Chinese emperor and provincial chancellors, acting out their duties.
"Discovery is a fabulous place to work. The people are so collaborative and open," she says.
While working full time, Dean-Null has continued her education. This month, she completed a master's degree in secondary education at Indiana University South Bend, along with earning an administration and school leadership license.
This summer, Dean-Null and her husband hope to travel to Costa Rica.
And her dream trip? "I'd love to go to India. I've never been there," she says.
Staff writer Margaret Fosmoe: