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JSD grieves loss of dynamic teacher

Posted: October 18, 2011 - 12:03am
Juneau-Douglas High School teacher Ali McKenna, seen in this undated photo with her children, died Saturday at her home. The cause of death is undetermined, but a police report said it is not suspicious.  Provided by Molly Box
Provided by Molly Box
Juneau-Douglas High School teacher Ali McKenna, seen in this undated photo with her children, died Saturday at her home. The cause of death is undetermined, but a police report said it is not suspicious.

Juneau-Douglas High School lost a creative mind and well-loved teacher on Saturday, and staff spent time on Monday grieving together.

Alison McKenna, 42, died Saturday at her home. The cause of death is undetermined, and the police report says it is not suspicious. McKenna had two children, ages 11 and 9.

McKenna taught with the district for 15 years. She has impacted the lives of young children, adult learners and ages in between.

McKenna worked with young students at fine arts camps during the summers. She also worked with older students going through the Master of Arts in teaching program at the University of Alaska Southeast.

At Juneau-Douglas, McKenna taught a number of English classes over the years, but was most well known for her creative writing class. As she took over the course, which was formerly known as Writing for Publication, she developed a student-written publication called Ego. Students would write factual news for the Ego but also had an opportunity to write satire on the opposite side, known as Alter Ego. The publication has been going for 4-5 years, after the school newspaper fell to the wayside.

This year she also was teaching 10th-grade honors English.

“Ali definitely has the respect of her students,” said Principal Ryan Alsup. “Students who signed up for creative writing did so because they know she’s ‘the’ teacher.”

Alsup said on Monday JDHS opened its doors to staff and students. Staff from both JDHS and Thunder Mountain High School showed up to support one another over the loss of their friend and colleague. Monday and Tuesday are no-school days for students, and in-service days for staff.

“Ali was a great person,” Alsup said. “She was a great teacher. She cares a lot about kids. She was a fantastic person, her loss, it’s tough.”

He said staff is having a mixed response between “really, really upset” and very quiet.

“Having everybody here together was a great move,” Alsup said, since McKenna was close to staff both at JDHS and those who had moved on to Thunder Mountain when the schools split.

He said staff shared memories and talked about how they would move forward.

Alsup said there haven’t been a lot of students showing up yet. He knows students have been passing the word via social media. The school did send out a phone message Sunday evening, though Alsup said there were problem with the messaging and everyone may not have understood it or received it.

The school will again be open for staff and students to grieve on Tuesday, though Alsup expects Wednesday to be most impactful for students. Alsup said the school will be open beginning at 8 a.m., and help will be available as long as it is needed.

“Our teachers will work with our students the best they can,” Alsup said.

Meanwhile, retired teacher Clay Good will come back to fill in.

Good was once a neighbor of McKenna’s when she first arrived and appreciated her style of teaching.

“Ali came from a philosophy of education that is not conventional,” he said.

Good said she followed Ted Sizer’s approach, where education focuses on inspiration. That inspirational teaching was evident in McKenna’s classroom, with notable quotes focusing on that subject.

“She was so not cut from a traditional cloth as teaching goes, bringing new ideas to education,” Good said. “I think it fits her legacy.”

One particular quote was from Albert Einstein on how imagination is more important than knowledge, because knowledge is limited.

“She understood education was about inspiration, touching the hearts first,” Good said.

JDHS teacher Kristy Germain said the student council will host a student remembrance in honor of McKenna.

While details of the event are still being worked out, Germain said there will be opportunities for people to share their stories of McKenna and there will be a reception.

The tentative time is 4:15 p.m. Thursday in the JDHS auditorium.

Germain said because writing was such a passion of McKenna’s, that will be infused into the remembrance ceremony.

“Ali taught a number of students to write,” Germain said. “There are a lot of students who learned to love writing because of her.”

Starting on Wednesday, students can take bright pieces of paper — normally used as covers on the Ego — and write messages either about or to McKenna.

Germain knew McKenna as both a friend and colleague. She said another event McKenna put on that was met with a lot of student popularity was the Trashin’ Fashion show. It was similar to the Wearable Art Show, but it was all about students.

Germain recalls McKenna’s signature outfit for the event was a black trash bag with covers of the Ego taped all around. She said they will look into hosting the event again this year, but no details are available yet.

Jonathan Smith, a science teacher at JDHS, said two years ago he was in a teaching team with McKenna. He said it was the first time he had been in such a team and it was a rewarding experience getting close to two other teachers. Smith said often teachers stick to their own rooms or departments. From that experience, Smith also got to know McKenna on a more personal level.

Smith said there are two parts of grief to this — students and staff. He said it’s been hard for staff.

“Her reach was wide,” Smith said. “She reached a lot of teachers and students. She had great insights, often bringing things to the table and seeing things in students others wouldn’t see. She was well liked by her students and her colleagues.”

The district has information on grief for students and staff on its website, located at bit.ly/n3aR1Z. A memorial page also has been created on Facebook for McKenna at on.fb.me/nI3FUM.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.

Editor's note: The photograph appearing with his story was provided by Molly Box. The provider was incorrectly attributed originally.

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