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Participants - 2013

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Jenny Abbott

Jenny Abbott has been the school librarian at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired for four years where they serve ages 3-22. Before coming to ISBVI, she was a school librarian at a rural high school, suburban elementary, and small town junior high. Ms. Abbott also serves on the Eliot Rosewater Committee which oversees nominations for a state-wide young adult book award program.

Jenny Billings

Greetings!  I grew up and attended college in Madison, Wisconsin and will forever be a Green Bay Packers fan.  Following graduation, I packed up and made my way through much of the South Pacific, developing a love for exploration and travel.  Following this adventure, I spent several years working in the outdoors, leading international trips for high school students during the summer and working as an environmental educator on the central California coast during the school year.  Eight years ago, I decided to pursue the more lucrative career of classroom teaching and moved to Santa Cruz (about an hour north of Monterey).  I currently teach fifth grade, and in addition teach first and sixth grade science, at a small elementary school. 

In addition to working with children, I enjoy reading, gardening, cooking (especially while listening to Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me and This American Life), and eating delicious food.  I also take joy in a variety of outdoor activities, especially surfing, hiking, and skiing.   I live in a wonderful cooperative home near the ocean with my husband and several other friends. 

Lily Bullard

I grew up in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, a peculiar mountain town surrounded by water with an incredible art scene and not a single stoplight. I moved to Fayetteville to attend the University of Arkansas, and haven’t been able to leave since. I have fallen in love with this city, and I feel lucky to have found a job here that makes me so happy. In addition to eighth- and ninth-grade English, I also teach AP English Literature and Composition to seniors at Haas Hall Academy, a small public open-enrollment charter school. I work with a supportive and encouraging faculty, and my students make me laugh every day. These kids are at the root of why I love my job. I enjoy reading (duh), sewing, Razorback basketball, working with my hands, cooking, being outside on a nice day in the Ozarks, and generally doing my best to not take myself too seriously. I’m still in shock that I get to be a part of the 2013 Steinbeck Institute; I can’t wait to get to Monterey and meet you all!

Daniel Clare

A native of Boulder, Colorado, I grew up as the son of a United States Marine Corps officer. My father’s vocation afforded our family the opportunity to gather experiences as “far east” as Okinawa, Japan and as “far west” as San Diego, California. We ultimately kicked off our shoes, hung up our hats, and put down meaningful roots in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.

After taking a BA in English from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, I spent five years in the fine wine industry. As a Washington, D.C.-based distributor sales representative, I met people from virtually every walk of life. From droves of jittery lottery enthusiasts in grimy bulletproof city liquor stores to the pristine authoritarian kitchens of the St. Regis and Willard Hotels, my heart was filled with sights, sounds, stories, and an enduring sense of emptiness.

In 2009, feeling drained and disenchanted, I returned to graduate school to obtain my M.Ed. from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. 2013 finds me feeling rejuvenated and teaching Pre-AP 9th, 11th, and 12th grade English in Manassas City, Virginia. In my spare time, I play guitar in a jazz trio and take long walks with my wife Anastasia and our 10 month old daughter, Erin.

Justin Czarka

I teach English as a Second Language (ESL) at P.S. 48, an elementary school in New York City’s South Bronx. In addition to teaching, I am studying to earn a M.S. in Geographic Information Science (GISc), hopefully with a focus in the environmental sciences. I am a kid at heart who enjoys being outdoors, traveling, reading, running, and exploring the natural world. I am always seeking to learn new insight wherever I may be. I look forward to meeting and collaborating with each of you this summer during the Steinbeck Institute!

Amber Damm

I grew up on a small plot of land nestled between woods and cornfields where Wisconsin and Illinois meet, but the city beckoned and off I went to Minneapolis.  Having lived in Minneapolis for almost twenty years now, I consider it home.  I have taught in the Minneapolis Public Schools for thirteen years, one in high school and the last twelve at the middle school level at Barton Open.  Here I’ve fallen in love with progressive education and the power that comes with authentic community and socialized intelligence. I am passionate about the classes I have created and teach: a two-year language arts course focused on issues of racial and economic injustice, Holocaust Studies, and The History of the Art of Film.

Last year I welcomed a devilishly sweet daughter, Ava Grace, into the world and am now balancing the joys and challenges of parenting and teaching with my dashing, bike riding husband Jeff, and my book-loving seventeen year old step-daughter, Mahalia. 

Being lifelong residents of the Midwest, my husband and I relish opportunities to venture west to the mountains and ocean.  In the summers we like to traipse through the backcountry on the Olympic Peninsula, at Glacier, or in our own state’s Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area with a skinny Steinbeck novel in our packs. We also relish the hike out and a great latte and tasty meal in places like Portland, Seattle, or Grand Marais.   

Jamie Doak

I grew up in a small, rural Texas town which has stereotypically instilled a love of sweet tea, cowboy boots and country music. I graduated from The University of Texas with a B.A. in Women and Gender Studies and Plan II Honors. I worked with Breakthrough Collaborative for several years in college which inspired me to join Teach for America upon graduation. I taught high school English in the Mississippi Delta for two years before moving to New York. I'm currently teaching middle school writing at a charter school in Harlem. I love teaching ELA, mostly for the fun discussions my students have about literature and learning from their fresh perspectives. (And maybe getting to see my girls' reaction to Marlon Brando in the movie after we read A Streetcar Named Desire. Apparently, his hotness transcends time and place!) I love being outside, hiking, reading, and traveling to new places. I'm excited to be a part of the Steinbeck Institute and can't wait to meet everyone.

Courtney Fuson

I was born and raised in Nashville , TN before moving to the small town of Jackson, TN to pursue my B.A. in English. I graduated from Lambuth University in 2010 and began teaching immediately after college. Shortly thereafter, I moved to east Tennessee in order to pursue my passion for the outdoors. What better place to explore nature than the Great Smoky Mountain National Park?

I am currently a resident of Knoxville, TN where I teach English at Carter High School. In my free time, I enjoy spending time with my dog, Scout, as well as doing anything outdoors—camping, hiking, and canoeing are particular favorites. A true “English nerd,” I love reading and writing, and I have found a great deal of inspiration in the works of John Steinbeck. I look forward to having the opportunity to work with you all and to delve into the depths of Steinbeck’s pages!

Sharon Harris

I am from Kentucky but have made Cincinnati my home and I love my hometown’s devotion to the arts and their sports teams! Before I became a teacher, I was a bench microbiologist for a variety of academic institutions (Univ. of Oklahoma, Southern Illinois Univ., Univ. of Kentucky) and a Federal EPA contractor. I have been at Mother of Mercy High School, an all-girls school, for 17 years. My teaching duties change from year to year. In the 2013 – 2014 school year I will teach AP Biology, Honors Biology and Anatomy & Physiology. I also teach Microbiology, Anatomy & Physiology, and Human Genetics at the college level. Being a teacher has afforded me the opportunity to explore parts of the world I thought inaccessible to me. In 1999, I was chosen as a member of a research expedition to Antarctica! I spent 6 weeks ‘on the ice’ looking at bacteria in a permanently ice-covered Antarctic lake. Last year, I traveled to Ukraine and studied their culture, history, and education system. I lived in a small Ukraine village, Novoukrainka, and toured the major cities of Kyiv and Odesa (Ukrainian spellings).

Most people would consider the expedition to Antarctica or the immersion into a foreign culture as true adventure, but for me, participating in a program not directly related to education or science is the real adventure, forcing me outside my comfort zone! Since I read The Red Pony at the age of 10 and secretly (my Mother would have been outraged) read The Grapes of Wrath as an 8th grader, John Steinbeck has been my favorite author. I am so excited to have the opportunity to engage in discussions about Steinbeck’s works and explore the Monterey area.

I love to read, watch TV and films, attend Cincinnati Shakespeare Company productions (that’s where my son works), hike and enjoy the outdoors.

Diane Hofsess

Diane Hofsess is the English Department Chair at Southfield (Michigan) High School. She advises the school news staff of The Southfield Jay ( and teaches Advanced Placement English Literature and Senior Composition and Literature. In 2011 she received an Excellence in Education Award from the Michigan Association of School Boards. She earned a bachelor's degree in British Literature and a master's degree in Journalism from the University of Michigan, as well as a certificate in French Language proficiency from The Sorbonne, in Paris. Before teaching high school, she was a columnist and features writer for The Detroit News. She is married and has two sons.

Jacob Jaskowiak

I have been teaching high school English in the small town of Aitkin in north central Minnesota for the past thirteen years. Three of our four children have left the house in the past two years so life has a way of slowing down but time still escapes before I can get hold of it. I spend most of my time away from the classroom in solitary pursuits both outdoors and in, biking, camping, cooking (I make a mean egg roll), reading, writing, watching movies and attempting to restore an ancient wood and canvas canoe in my garage. Friendships are few and strong and my wife and I are always planning the next adventure—even if it is just a lazy kayak ride on an old reclaimed mine pit lake or taking a walk around town. I try to appreciate the small stuff. Just now, a robin landed on a tree outside my office window while everything is covered in late season snow. Sweet. Spring is here, everything is temporary, and I look forward to my time in Monterey.

Amber Jensen

If you can't find me in my classroom teaching or on a lacrosse field refereeing or out to eat with friends at a local Thai or French restaurant, I am probably on an airplane going somewhere. I love to travel, and I have the airline miles and passport stamps to prove it; my wanderlust has taken me to far-off places like El Salvador, India, and Uganda for my summers off, as well as destinations a little closer to home. I'm certain that Monterey will hit the spot this summer, and I can't wait to learn from and with the other participants of the Steinbeck Institute.

I surprise even myself that I have stayed in Northern Virginia as long as I have, but it turns out I love it here. Edison High School is a great fit for me; over the past 7 school years, I have taught English 9 and 10, IB English Literature, and Advanced Composition, a course I developed to support the student-led writing center that I founded and currently direct (check it out at I have also coached and refereed girls' lacrosse, sponsored student government, and tripped in front of my students on more than one occasion. I love the unexpected moments that come along with teaching, which I expect will keep me in the classroom for a long while. I have also deeply appreciated the leadership and collaboration opportunities that have afforded me the chance to reconsider my teaching practice with colleagues through the Northern Virginia Writing Project and National Board Certification, and I would expect my time with you all in Monterey to be no different.

I'm also really excited to talk about Steinbeck, who wrote East of Eden, the book I most frequently recommend to friends looking for something to read that will change their lives.

Maureen Kavanaugh

I was born and raised in a suburb of Boston, graduated from the College of the Holy Cross (MA) in 2003, and worked at a law firm for a year to save money for graduate school. When it came time to apply, I sent my applications to every region of the country (and Canada!), knowing that it was time to go someplace new. With luck, I got into Stanford, completed my Master’s degree in literature, then moved up to San Francisco and signed a lease…jobless…with some friends. I spent the next four years teaching English at a private school and playing in the Bay Area. My family, particularly my nephews, drew me back East, although I second-guess that decision every winter!

For the past three years, I’ve been living in Boston and teaching 10th grade world literature and 11th grade American literature at Newton North High School. The junior curriculum is shockingly absent of any Steinbeck texts, something I’m looking forward to changing next year after our studies in Monterey this summer. Outside of school and grading, I’m an avid runner, cyclist, Patriots fan, and wine connoisseur (well, I just like it a lot). I am beyond thrilled to get back to California this summer and to spend three weeks at the Steinbeck Institute.

Alison Kreiss

Born and educated in the formally grungy now cosmopolitan Emerald City, I have been a Montana transplant for sixteen years. My adventures include an experiment in natural living long on hubris and short on practical skills that involved dwelling in a yurt in the Yaak while earning a meager income as a semi-professional soapmaker. Not quite Walden, it more resembled the Book of Job meets “Deliverance.” After the birth of my son, I was prompted to get a “real job” (along with running water and electricity), so somewhat reluctantly followed in the educator footsteps of my parents. I’m in my sixth year at the high school in Choteau, a small town on the spectacular Rocky Mountain Front, what the Blackfeet call “the backbone of the world.” My beautiful students enlighten me daily on the finer points of cattle insemination and gopher hunting while I attempt to instill in them how literature teaches us the “lesions of life” and aspire to live by Steinbeck’s motto “Ad Astra Per Alia Porci.”

Teresa Marceaux

I live in the rural area around Lake Charles, Louisiana; out past where the sidewalk ends, so to speak. I am currently finishing my 20th year teaching, 12 at my current position at a very fine, very small preK-12 public school in the farming community of Bell City, Louisiana. This year, my schedule includes AP Lang/Comp, Dual Enrollment Eng. 101/102, Eng. III, and Advanced Eng. II. Oh, and, I forgot ... I also have one section of Fine Arts Survey.

I've had the honor of being chosen as part of the State of Louisiana's planning committee for our End-of-Course standardized testing for English III, and I serve as our school's English Department Head, Advanced Placement Coordinator, and Vertical Alignment Chairman.

When away from school I enjoy reading, gardening, fishing, traveling, writing; I’ve begun a novel and have written a few short stories and essays (none published as yet). I can be quite creative and enjoy refinishing and refurbishing old furniture, making jewelry, purses, curtains and custom window dressings. My greatest joy, though, is spending time with my family; my husband of over 30 years and our two sons and one grandson.

I've visited some of the largest and most beautiful cities in the world, and while I've enjoyed my travels, it is to the country that I always return. Big city life is invigorating, but I enjoy my home where traffic means you're about to have company. I’d rather be outdoors than in, so I’m something of an anomaly; on the one hand, a “girly-girl” who loves to shop and dress up, on the other, a “tom-boy” who’s not afraid of getting dirty working in the yard and around the farm, fishing, riding horses and four-wheelers and wrestling with livestock. So it is with barely-contained anticipation that I look toward July and to spending time in Monterey. Steinbeck's writing has had a profound impact on my life since I read "The Red Pony" as a child, so I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to study his works in his own environment. I look forward with great enthusiasm to meeting and getting to know the rest of the participants.

Mark Miazga

My name is Mark Miazga, and I'm in my 12th year teaching English at Baltimore City College High School, a large urban public school in Baltimore that happens to be the 3rd old public high school in the U.S. Over the last several years, I have been teaching 9th grade English (MYP English I) and 12th grade English (IB English IV); this year, I was also given a section of IB Drama II, my first time teaching Drama. I like teaching our youngest students who need the most help (our 9th graders), plus the ones who really keep me on my toes with how sharp they are, the IB Seniors. I've had a good time teaching East of Eden to those seniors and Of Mice and Men to 9th graders.

I'm the Varsity Baseball Coach at my school, a job I love even though it turns most days into 14-hour marathons in the spring. Speaking of marathons, I've never ran one, but someday I would like to; fitness is a passion of mine -- weight lifting, cardio, outdoors stuff, and sports, especially the multiple softball teams I play on in the summer that will have to make their way without me for a few weeks while I'm in Monterey. I love baseball, watching my beloved Detroit Tigers (I'm originally from Michigan, growing up partially in Detroit and partially near Kalamazoo) nearly every day in the summer; I'm also a big Orioles fan, a Ravens fan, and follow Michigan State's (my alma mater) football and basketball seasons religiously. I also consider myself a movie junkie and an eclectic music lover, from Aretha to Janis to Bruce to Tracy to Kanye to Lupe. As an English teacher, I of course love reading (Murakami, Baldwin, Winton are a few favorites), and just got my first literature tattoo last week: a quote from Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon.

I'm really looking forward to this summer; five years ago, I was lucky enough to be part of the Teaching Shakespeare Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, and it was a life-changing experience from which I still draw in my classroom. The only thing I'm worried about is missing out on some summer time with my 2-year old nephew in Grand Rapids and about what I'll do with my geriatric dog for the three weeks, but Holden (yes, after The Catcher in the Rye protagonist) should be fine somewhere. I'm looking forward to meeting you all, going to California for the first time, and learning lots about one of my favorite writers so I can teach his works better.

Tracy Miller

I currently live and teach English at the Webb Schools, a boarding school in Claremont, California, about 30 miles from Los Angeles. Prior to coming to Webb three years ago I lived in New York City, where I attended graduate school at New York University. My dissertation examined the relationship between place, memory and history in Victorian literature and culture, a project that came from my longstanding fascination with architecture, memorials, practices of literary tourism and visual culture. I was drawn to Webb, and to teaching high school, because I adore the energy, enthusiasm and community that comes from working with students and the permeable boundaries of the classroom that a boarding school affords. To that end, I have sought to integrate Los Angeles fiction, architecture and culture into my classroom, and to help my students recognize and celebrate the rich history and resources that surround them. Originally from outside of Boston, I received my BA from Mount Holyoke College and still long for New England every now and then (but never in the winter). I'm looking forward to a wonderful 3 weeks in Monterey!

Rebecca Oberg

Writing this bio from Minneapolis as the snow falls in mid-April, it may not surprise you that I’m counting down the days until sunny Monterey! Fortunately, Minnesota weather is perfect for settling in and reading some Steinbeck as I wait desperately for any signs of a late impending spring. I grew up in Minnesota and Wisconsin, just outside the Twin Cities, and I’m now in my fourth year teaching 9th grade English at Roosevelt High School in south Minneapolis. I also lead the journalism program and act as Arts Coordinator at my school. I find that with my 9th graders, teaching Of Mice and Men is a real highlight of the year for us all. There’s so much to discuss, and they particularly latch onto the complexities in the relationship between George and Lennie. I earned my B.A. in English with a focus on geography and European studies as well as my Masters of Education from the University of Minnesota, and I’m still involved with the Department of Education at the U. This summer, I’m looking forward to learning ways to incorporate more Steinbeck into my curriculum and spending time collaborating and sharing resources with colleagues. In my spare time, I enjoy exploring the Twin Cities, spending time with friends while encountering new restaurants, baking, reading, and traveling, particularly to the Pacific Northwest. I love meeting new people, visiting new places, and having quality conversations about literature, so I couldn’t be more thrilled about the adventures of this summer!

Trish (Patricia) O’Connor

I grew up in rural Wisconsin and went to school in Chicago and Boston. I now live in Danbury, CT, about an hour outside of New York City. Danbury was once known as the “Hatting Capital of the World,” and the high school mascot here is still the Hatter. There was a local ailment called the Danbury Shake, caused from the mercury and other chemicals used in the hatting process. (We’d better watch it or there will be a new viral “shake” craze to compete with Harlem!) As you can tell, I like learning about the history of places.

 I find it interesting that so many of us start our bio’s with references to location…so suitable for an institute exploring Steinbeck’s sense of place, but I think this also speaks to how important our connections to geography really are.    

I have a busy husband and  two wonderful sons who are both fully launched now, so I have time in the summer to check some items off my bucket list and explore areas of academic interest.  For almost twenty years I have taught AP Language and Composition and a variety of levels of high school English. A few summers ago I participated in the CT Writing Project Summer Institute and I am hopeful that this summer’s Steinbeck Institute will be equally inspiring. 

I look forward to reading, listening, talking, learning, and writing with all of you this July in beautiful Monterey. Eating, drinking, exploring, and laughing are also good.

Susan Pellecchia

I am a high school history teacher. I grew up in New Jersey, but I moved to New York after college and I have been living here ever since. I did my undergraduate work at Brown University, where I majored in Sociology and Italian Studies. Once in New York, I continued my education at Fordham University, where I received a MST in Adolescent Social Studies (7-12). I am currently pursuing a doctorate in Fordham’s Language, Literacy, and Learning program. My dissertation research pertains to how social studies teachers use primary source texts in their classrooms. I look forward to learning more about Steinbeck and to meeting other people who are enthusiastic about his life and his work.

Rebecca Price

First of all, I prefer Beccie (pronounced Becky). My mother blessed me with the spelling.

I am a veteran teacher who loves teaching. I cannot imagine doing anything else. I currently teach grades 7, 8, 9. and 11. I have taught most language arts classes from seventh grade through honors English IV. I have taught several of Steinbeck’s works but look forward to new ideas about teaching more of his works on a more consistent basis.

I teach in a small, rural school in far southeast Oklahoma (about 15 miles from Texas and 25 miles from Arkansas). Most of my students have at least one grandparent or great-grandparent who migrated to California during the Great Depression to find work. Every day, many of my students cross at least one bridge built by the WPA or CCC. My classroom is in a rock building built by the WPA. John Steinbeck and the Great Depression are very real to my students. Even so, I am excited about incorporating Steinbeck’s other literary works into my curriculum.

I am married with three children and three grandchildren. My two oldest are college graduates, and the youngest is currently a sophomore in college. My husband and I live on a ranch where we raise beef cattle and bucking bulls.

I am excited about participating in the John Steinbeck Institute. Exchanging ideas about his works and incorporating those new ideas into my classroom will benefit both me and my students.

Jim Quinlan

Whenever I'm travelling and I tell people that I'm from New York, a common response is "It must be nice to get away from all the tall buildings and busy streets!" Truth be told, the silo in my backyard is the tallest structure within eyesight, and Walden Pond has more gridlock than the roads near me. It's incredible to think that one of the largest and most culturally diverse cities in the world is only 60 miles south. In that respect, I'm truly lucky to live in the beautiful Hudson Valley (where the city folk come to relax) and be able to travel into the city on a whim if life here starts to feel mundane.

I have been teaching English at the middle school level for six years now. I am constantly receiving condolence pats on the back when I say I teach seventh and eighth grade, but, while it is indeed exhausting, it is refreshing to be around students who are so honest, eager, and off-the-wall. They're kids- and they're fun.

My interest in teaching began when I travelled for two years after high school. I met so many people on a daily basis, young and old and from a multitude of cultural backgrounds. Teachable moments were abound- with me as the student, that is. My love for learning swelled during that time (as did my love for quality literature since 20+ hour bus rides in Alaska during pre-iPad days can force the most illiterate of us to give reading a shot). While it’s not quite a “downhill battle,” I try to instill that strong desire to learn into my students- perhaps this way they won’t have to wait until after high school to experience the satisfaction that comes with knowledge.

I also enjoy the after-school-activity life, and get involved where and when I can- typically in the theater department as a piano player or as the coach of a creative thinking team called “Odyssey of the Mind.”

One thing that makes me cranky: A day without completing a crossword puzzle.

J. Michael Thornton

English teacher at an art school, archivist of lost and found pet posters, landscape designer, English Speaking Union board member, Pedal the Plains bicyclist, music of all types aficionado, founder of a Denver performance art space, I want to examine Steinbeck and explore his country with eclectic exuberance. Forgive me, I’m ecstatic about the Institute.

Jamie Vermaat

You can say I have always been teaching just as I have always been learning. As a girl growing up in Haddonfield, NJ, I would invite my younger sisters and the neighborhood kids over to my classroom basement, where I would teach anything--science, history, languages, reading, writing--using whatever resources I had at hand. While attending the University of Delaware, where I majored in English, French, and Philosophy, I tutored and worked as a Writing Fellow. In the summer of 1999, I had a chance to go on a road-trip across the USA before embarking on a study abroad experience that started in Paris, but ended up taking me across most of Europe. After receiving my MA at Boston University, I taught college writing and worked in bookstores, but craved the community and the stimulation of working at a high school. So my adventure brought me right back where I started: Haddonfield Memorial High School. For seven years, I have been honored to be a member of their English Department, and I currently teach American Literature and AP English Language and Composition. Every morning I wake up and cannot wait to greet the students and to share in another day of discussion, improvement, and learning. When I’m not grading essays and planning lessons, I enjoy running, cooking feasts for friends, reading, writing, and exploring all that the nearby cities (Philadelphia, NYC, and DC) have to offer. I am excited to be a part of the 2013 Steinbeck Institute, and I look forward to meeting colleagues who are just as excited about discovery and Steinbeck as I am.