Classroom Spotlight: Dr. Marissa Bulger

Classroom Spotlight: Dr. Marissa Bulger


More About Dr. Bulger

EDUCATION: Villanova University, B.A. in English Literature; University of Notre Dame, M.Ed. in Secondary English Education; Johns Hopkins University, Ed.D. in Mind, Brain, and Teaching
COURSES TAUGHT: 9th grade English; 12th grade English; AP Language & Composition
BEFORE HOLY CHILD: 10th-12th grade English teacher at Ascension Catholic High School in Donaldsonville, LA
NEXT UP: Presenting at South Carolina's Council of Teachers of English Conference in February; Doctoral Student Adviser and Teaching Assistant at Johns Hopkins

As Dr. Marissa Bulger chatted with her AP Language students, she realized that, as teenagers today, they are facing a lot of stress and anxiety in their lives.  They and their friends (at a variety of schools in the area) are staying up late to complete their work, trying to manage their own and their parents’ expectations, managing and curating their social media profiles, attending sports and/or play practice, and balancing work and community service. Despite this reality, teenagers are so often told that they are “just teenagers” and their stress isn’t “real” stress. They are feeling frustrated and overwhelmed.

Being the dedicated and innovative educator that she is, Dr. Bulger wanted to look for current research about how to help reduce adolescent stress and anxiety within her English classroom, but she found there wasn’t enough out there to tackle what she wanted to accomplish. So, Dr. Bulger asked herself, “Why shouldn’t I be the one to do the research?” and enrolled in the doctoral program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education.

Three years later, Ms. Bulger is now Dr. Bulger after completing her course work, conducting research, and successfully defending her dissertation in August 2018. Dr. Bulger developed a program with her Holy Child students in mind. She targeted her study on our ninth grade students, “since transitions can be especially stressful in adolescence.”

Through a needs assessment, which surveyed over 180 students and two key staff members, Dr. Bulger found that “many students experienced stress and anxiety, and were worried about disappointing themselves, their peers, their parents, and their teachers.” Through her research, Dr. Bulger learned about adolescent development and neuroscience. She took her newfound knowledge and made thoughtful, intentional, and innovative updates to her curriculum and instruction.  Her most fruitful research came from working directly with her students. With each curricular and instructional decision she made, Dr. Bulger had students in mind.  She invited their voices into the conversation. Dr. Bulger met with students in focus groups “to understand their reading experiences and [to analyze] their writing to gain insight into their thinking processes.”

With her students’ needs in mind, Dr. Bulger made professional decisions as an educator that she hoped would “reduce students’ stress and anxiety, increase their sense of autonomy, and alleviate their fears of failure.”  In her ninth grade English classes, Dr. Bulger “drew from the research literature of bibliotherapy and reading for pleasure to implement a program in which students read self-selected young adult (YA) novels independently and a teacher-selected YA novel as a class community.  Students processed their reading in large group discussions, small group discussions, and reflective writing.”  Dr. Bulger found her students to be interested, open, and generous in both sharing their thoughts and supporting her work.

As a result of her interventions, Dr. Bulger discovered that “students do not only develop their sense of self as they read, but they take the perspectives of others, a process that develops empathy and understanding of others’ struggles.”  In today’s ever-connected, ever-diversifying world, it seems more important than ever for “students to connect to those who may not look like them, pray like them, or love like them.”  The findings of her study convinced Dr. Bulger that “reading is one way that students understand our shared humanity.”  In reading about diverse experiences, students gain the ability to connect to and respect others’ differences while also valuing their own uniqueness.

Cornelia Connelly would be proud to have such an enlightened and innovative professional as an educator in one of her schools.  Dr. Bulger is an educator who is truly “meeting the wants of the age,” a key tenant of Cornelia Connelly’s educational philosophy.  Dr. Bulger is a devoted professional whose expertise has enhanced the life of each student who has graced her classroom.

Written by Writing Center Specialist and English Teacher Katie Moylan