Grignon named state’s Teacher of the Year

MIHS teacher recognized for cultural efforts
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Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski - Menominee Indian High School teacher Benjamin Grignon, left, reacts with surprise on the stage at the high school after learning he was Wisconsin’s High School Teacher of the Year on Monday. Standing next to Grignon is Tony Evers, state superintendent of public instruction, who presented the art teacher with the honor.

Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski - Corey Sanapaw, a member of the Menominee Indian High School Singers and Dancers, performs a dance in honor of MIHS teacher Benjamin Grignon on Monday at the Teacher of the Year ceremony.

Menominee Indian High School teacher Benjamin Grignon received a surprise in April when he learned that he was receiving a Herb Kohl fellowship.

That surprise was nothing to the one he received Monday in front of the entire school.

Grignon’s eyes widened when state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers announced that the traditional arts and crafts teacher was named Wisconsin’s High School Teacher of the Year. Grignon was selected from hundreds of nominees, according to Evers.

“At some point in our lives, a teacher has done some extraordinary things for you,” Evers said. “I’m here today because we have lots of great teachers in our audience, but we also have an excellent teacher in our audience. Each year, thanks to the generosity of former Sen. Herb Kohl and his foundation, we recognize teachers who go the extra mile for their kids, and we call them teachers of the year.”

Evers noted that there are 2,000 schools in Wisconsin, with over 60,000 teachers coming to school daily to educate students, so to be picked from such a diverse field is special.

Grignon, known to his people as Waqnahwew (the lightning you see off in the distance), started his career at MIHS 10 years ago as the school’s librarian. About five years ago, the position for the traditional arts teacher opened up, and he got the job.

Grignon teaches beadwork — he has beginning, intermediate and advanced classes. A new class he introduced this year is described as “wood, stone and bone,” an experimental archaeology class.

There is also a traditional pottery class, and Grignon shows students how to make the clay the way their ancestors did it, using pit firing to harden the clay. He also teaches basketry and weaving, and he shows how to use plant materials to re-create the textiles needed for the baskets.

Grignon has a film class during which he showcases films of indigenous peoples and discusses how accurately they’re portrayed.

Grignon also co-sponsors a language club at the school with Jennifer Gauthier, Menominee County University of Wisconsin-Extension community, natural resources and economic development coordinator. Although the club incorporates 4-H traditions, it mainly immerses students in the Menominee language.

Grignon was still a little shellshocked when he took the stage and accepted the plaque from Evers.

“Wow. You guys really kept this a surprise. I don’t even know what to say,” Grignon said. “I’m glad I washed off all the clay and stuff before I came down here.”

He added later on that he couldn’t accept full credit for influencing MIHS students, as he is part of a team of strong teachers working to implement not only what the state requires but also what is needed to keep the Menominee culture alive.

“We all care about each and every one of you guys,” Grignon said. “We really strive to create a wonderful program for all of you.”

Evers said after the ceremony that the state tries to reward teachers who are not only innovative in the classroom but also in the communities they serve.

“He has taken the Menominee culture and language, and he uses art to make sure those things are respected,” Evers said.

MIHS Principal Jim Reif, who nominated Grignon for the fellowship, said the teacher creates a classroom atmosphere of peace and respect. Reif said the students feel welcome in Grignon’s classroom, and Reif often slips away to the class himself to “get a little positive energy,” he said.

“There are a lot of good things that go on at Menominee Indian High School, and as Ben said from the stage, it is a team effort,” Reif said. “We’re building a good cohort of teachers who care about our kids and who want to be here every day, but it’s a great honor to have somebody as unique as Ben who really cares about the kids.”

Besides the plaque, Grignon will also receive $3,000 from the Herb Kohl Foundation, which is on top of the $12,000 he received for the fellowship — half for the school and half for himself.

Before teaching at MIHS, Grignon taught Menominee language classes at Menominee Tribal School for kindergarten through eighth grade.

“All the education I’ve received, it was to come back and share with you,” Grignon told his students. “I hope you take what we all teach you and share it with people in the future.”

After the ceremony, Grignon said he hoped he could be an example of how Menominee people can succeed in the world.

“I want them to know they can do it, too,” Grignon said.