Sandra Kowalczyk's creative approach to helping students read is evident when you walk into her classroom at Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie.

Kowalczyk, who has traveled to 55 countries in five continents, decorated her room with a variety of artifacts such as wood carvings and masks from Ghana, batik sarongs from Malaysia and Indonesia, mud paintings from the Ivory Coast, mola cloth from Panama, puppets from India and books from around the world.

"My philosophy is build interest, give them background," said Kowalczyk, who was named the Wisconsin Middle/Junior High School Teacher of the Year.

As Teacher of the Year, she received $3,000 from Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., through the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation. She was recognized by state Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster along with the other three 2008-09 Teachers of the Year during the recent State of Education speech and awards ceremony at the Capitol.

A panel of educators, parents and community leaders selected the four Teachers of the Year from a pool of 86 Kohl Teacher Fellows who were named in spring 2008. Each Kohl Teacher Fellow receives a $1,000 award and the fellow's school receives a $1,000 grant.

Lori Neurohr, a second-grade teacher at Kohler Elementary School, is the Wisconsin Elementary Teacher of the Year.

The Wisconsin High School Teacher of the Year is Lucas Siebert, who teaches technology education to seventh- through 12th-graders at Oostburg High School.

Sharon Gilbert was chosen as the Wisconsin Special Services Teacher of the Year. She was nominated as a music teacher at Alexander Middle School in Nekoosa and is currently a music teacher at Humke Elementary School in Nekoosa.

This fall, one Teacher of the Year will be chosen to represent Wisconsin in the National Teacher of the Year program and will receive an additional $6,000 award from the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation.

Kowalczyk, who teaches sixth- through eighth-graders, has earned a number of awards, including the Patterson PageTurner Award for inspiring a love of reading and books. She also has been involved in a number of educational programs abroad.

But it is testimonials from her students that might be the most insightful.

Eighth-grader Jalyia Kimble said she didn't like to read. But that was before she met Kowalczyk last school year. "She was, like, amazing," Kimble said. "She taught me to read better, faster. Now I read almost every night. She inspired me to do that."

Eighth-grader Jaylynn Butler said Kowalczyk deserved the honor "because she pushed us and never gave up on us."

"She's really, like, devoted. She likes to help people," said eighth-grader Aaron Torgerson. "She likes what she does here."

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