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John Kleinwolterink named 2011 Teacher of the Year

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MORRIS - When Morris Area choir director John Kleinwolterink first heard a choral arrangement of "Lamentations of Jeremiah," a musical interpretation of the Book of Lamentations, he didn't like it and didn't think it would work for his students.

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After borrowing the music to try with a group, Kleinwolterink said he's found that students are really drawn to the piece, which challenges them to express emotion through the notes rather than through the lyrics - the piece is written in Latin.

"It's exciting to hear that even I can learn something," said Kleinwolterink. "I'm willing to try anything to see how it will help kids.

Kleinwolterink, a teacher in the Morris Area School District since 1993, received the 2011 Teacher of the Year Award, an annual award given out by his colleagues in the district.

A clarinet player by training and a choir instructor by experience, Kleinwolterink - Mr. K to the more than 300 students he works with each week - said he's just a big kid at heart and works hard to meet his students on their level, whether they're high school singers or elementary students learning to play an instrument for the first time.

Kleinwolterink trained as a clarinet performance major as an undergrad and has a master's degree in clarinet performance from the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.

Although Kleinwolterink's instructor at that time encouraged him to pursue a second degree in vocals, Kleinwolterink said he wanted to "actually make some money." He took a job nearby as a kindergarten through eighth grade general music instructor, primarily so he could keep taking lessons while he worked.

"I had no idea what I was doing," said Kleinwolterink. "I learned really fast - having a concert or a program with little children - I had no idea."

After two years, Kleinwolterink picked up and moved to Minnesota, taking a job in Madison with the Lac qui Parle School District as a kindergarten through sixth grade vocal and instrumental instructor.

"That was a huge job at the time," said Kleinwolterink. "I had way too many students and not enough time to do band." As more staff members were hired, Kleinwolterink shifted to an all-vocal instructor, but each year budget concerns made the job feel insecure.

When the position in Morris opened up three years later, then-principal Mike Martin "gave me a chance," said Kleinwolterink, despite the fact that Kleinwolterink hadn't worked with high school students before.

"I learned really fast again," laughed Kleinwolterink, "but it was not so easy at first. I had to do some catching up. I didn't know what music to pick. I had no idea what kids I would have in my ensembles, I didn't know how to do high school at all."

Over the years, Kleinwolterink said he's learned that you have to motivate high school students - "They don't walk into the room saying, 'Please, let me sing!'"

"You have to meet them on their level," said Kleinwolterink. "I'm a huge child at heart, so I try to relate to them where they're at and hopefully make them better singers in the process."

When staff cuts hit the music department five or six years ago, Kleinwolterink was "drafted back into my old area" to teach elementary school band lessons for woodwind players in fifth through seventh grade.

Although different from working with high school vocal students, Kleinwolterink said working with the beginning musicians is "so fun."

"They see this huge [instrument] and it's bright and shiny and they know that if they do something, something is going to happen with it," said Kleinwolterink. "They don't know exactly what, but to see them make that first sound is really exciting."

But adding back elementary band lessons has limited how much time Kleinwolterink is able to spend with some of his other students. Kleinwolterink said he misses having time for individual voice lessons with high school students.

"I got to know kids more, I thought, and I could help them more," said Kleinwolterink. "At the same time, we don't have that luxury right now so we've got to do the best with what we've got."

Kleinwolterink also emphasized that the community at large is very supportive of the arts, and having an educated community that appreciates the arts is a good thing.

"I have students' parents who are very supportive, even if they don't know anything about music or the arts," said Kleinwolterink. "They want their kid to be involved in it because they can see the benefits, they know that their child is enjoying what they're doing."

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Kim Ukura is the editor of the Morris Sun Tribune. 

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