Now the aspiring teacher and spring graduate in history has won a national fellowship that will teach her more about the history and principles of the Constitution so she can inspire her own students.
Burke, Montana's only recipient of a James Madison Fellowship this year, will receive up to $24,000 over two years to support her while she earns a master's degree in education at The University of Montana, attends a summer institute next year in Washington D.C. and meets 56 other recipients of the same fellowship.
The fellowship named for the fourth president of the United States - also known as the Father of the Constitution and Bill of Rights -- goes to one person a year in each state, as well as the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the nation's island and trust territories. Senior fellowships go to current teachers of American government, American history and social studies. Junior fellowships go to future teachers, like Burke.
"The James Madison Fellowship carries the name of one of the founders of the American republic, a statesman and a president who lived long enough to decry the stupidity and dangers of secessionist movement in the 1830s," Rydell said. "The fellowship that bears Madison's name is one of the most prestigious fellowships offered to a prospective teacher.
"Jena earned this fellowship through the force of her ability to think through the importance of 'civics' for the future of the American republic," Rydell continued. "I am so pleased for Jena, and I am grateful to the Madison Foundation for its ongoing efforts to educate Americans about our history and government."
Burke said she grew up in a family of teachers and originally thought she might teach math, like her father, Maurice Burke. He is a long-time professor in MSU's Department of Mathematical Sciences. Jena Burke realized that her favorite classes were in history, however, so she decided in her junior year at MSU to major in history, with an emphasis on U.S. history.
Burke said she had a string of "awesome" teachers at Bozeman High School and MSU, but Rydell was the one who got her enthused about the Constitution.
"He has a way of making seemingly boring things very important," she said.
Rydell's class on the intellectual history of the United States got her thinking about "what a big deal" the Constitution is and how it affects Americans on a daily basis, Burke said. Supreme Court decisions are based on the Constitution, for example, and deal with relevant issues like civil rights and education.
Burke said she will be thrilled if her fellowship helps her make the Constitution come alive for her future students. The Madison Fellowship requires her to teach two years, and she said that won't be a problem.
"I wanted to teach even before I ever knew what I wanted to teach," Burke said.
She added that volunteering with the Child Advancement Project (CAP) for the last two years helped her become more confident that teaching was a good career choice for her.
Montana teachers who received the fellowship in previous years said it provided invaluable opportunities.
Joanne Anibaldi-Berry, for one, attended the James Madison Summer Institute at Georgetown this year. A 2009 recipient of the James Madison Fellowship, 1984 MSU graduate and teacher in Moore, Mont., Anibaldi-Berry said the summer course was intensive, requiring her to research and write several papers while in Washington, D.C. The institute also allowed her to visit the Supreme Court, the Smithsonian Institution, homes of early American presidents and other historic sites. She will be able to share those experiences and her newly acquired knowledge with her students at Moore High School, Anibaldi-Berry said.
Bruce Guthrie from Kalispell said the Madison fellowship "made a huge difference in what I was able to bring back into the classroom. I have since become a very, very strong proponent of teachers being able to go back and earn higher degrees."
Guthrie teaches history and government at Flathead High School. He received a five-year senior fellowship in 2004, and then received an extension. He is currently using his Madison fellowship to finish up his master's degree in education.
"It's a tremendous opportunity," Guthrie continued. "The influence of what something like this means, once you multiply it, is impossible to measure."
Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or firstname.lastname@example.org