Kathryn Dennen ’15: A Fulbright Scholar Finds Inspiration in Greece

Kathryn Dennen ’15: A Fulbright Scholar Finds Inspiration in Greece

To say Kathryn Dennen has been busy the last two years is a bit of an understatement.

In May 2015, she walked across the patio at Bellarmine Hall, accepting her bachelor’s degree in English with a double minor in Spanish and educational studies. Just 15 months later, she earned her master’s in elementary education from Fairfield, giving her just enough time to pack her things and head off to a Hellenic odyssey as a Fulbright scholar in Greece.

“I felt called to it,” she said of the Mediterranean country where she knew no one and couldn’t speak a word of the native tongue. “The rich history, the culture, the food, and especially the art!”

Dennen had also read a lot about the Greek education system and thought immersing herself in foreign methods might enhance her own teaching career once she was back in the States.

“They really have a holistic view of education,” she said, “and I thought I could learn from it and bring those strategies back to the U.S.”
True to her determined nature, Dennen jumped in as soon as she got to Kantza, the suburb of Athens where she taught.

Each morning, she’d board a school bus and head to Latsio Elementary School, which is part of Psychico College. Once there, she spent her day helping youngsters improve their English skills.

Since she was free to plan her own lessons, Dennen, who was president of Fairfield’s Dance Ensemble, was able to incorporate some of her passion for the arts.

She choreographed, co-directed and stage-managed the fourth grade and sixth grade Thanksgiving musicals as well as the third grade end-of-the-year musical.

She also made a point of weaving an emphasis on poetry into her daily lessons with both skilled English speakers and those who needed a little encouragement.

“I was honored to spearhead a project at the elementary school to incorporate poetry into its curriculum as a medium for children to practice, read and ‘play with’ the English language,” she said. “A sixth grade class even put on its own version of a Poetry Out Loud performance by presenting dramatic readings of their poems written from animal perspectives.”

Working so closely with the two languages helped Dennen in her own goal of becoming conversant in Greek, a daunting task for which she had to learn an entirely new alphabet. Her Spanish studies and a natural affinity for languages helped, but her sunny optimism enabled her to travel outside her comfort zone to perfect her skills.

Though she hadn’t expected to have time to travel during her Fulbright year, Dennen found herself traipsing about Greece and much of Europe with exhilarating stops in England, Germany, and Austria, just to name a few countries.

Her adventurous spirit had her wandering royal gardens in Warsaw, kayaking in the pristine Aegean Sea, and completing a seven-hour hike through massive Vikos Gorge in northern Greece.

“I am no longer the same person because my eyes have seen such wonders as these,” she wrote of her travels.

Dennen timed her Fulbright year well: She learned of a TESOL Greece convention happening in February in Athens and was invited to co-present with a co-worker on the topic of mindfulness in the classroom.

When the school year was over, Dennen spent a few weeks as an English teacher and counselor at Athens College English Summer Camp, engaging a lively group of kindergarteners and encouraging their English skills.

Some of her most enriching memories of her time in Greece are the small moments. She remembered when a little boy drew a picture of a man on a page, pointed to the man’s upper lip and his own and said, “moustaki.”

“It was the first time I learned from a child,” she said with a smile, “and the word was moustache!”

Dennen said she loved her time learning at Fairfield, an experience she shares with her mother, the former Kathryn Aiksnoras ’83, MA’86, P’19,’15 and her younger sister Anne ’19, who will be a junior this fall. But instructing in a classroom all day has given her a real-world feel for what it takes to be a successful teacher.

“First, you set the bar high,” she said. “You help them along — and then you let them fly.” ●F