Fourth grade teacher by day, ghost hunter by night!
Actually, Allison Jornlin would likely say she’s both teacher and ghost hunter both day and night.
After I presented at the Wisconsin State Reading Association on 2/4/11, Allison (who’d attended one of my talks but whom I did not meet in person) e-mailed me. I’d mentioned my book Detective Notebook: Ghost Hunting Handbook and she wrote, “Your comment about the popularity of ghost hunters also nudged me to use my ghost hunting experiences in my 4th grade classroom a bit more.”
It’s not every day you meet a ghost hunter, and it’s not every decade you meet a ghost hunter/teacher. Since this unusual fusion of pursuits relates to my work, I asked Allison if I could post an interview with her, and she kindly agreed:
Where and what grade do you teach?
I teach 4th grade at a private school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
How long have you been a teacher?
I’ve been teaching for five years.
How long have you been a ghost hunter?
I’ve been ghost hunting for over a decade.
How did you get into ghost hunting?
I’ve been interested in the paranormal since I was in 4th grade, but I’ve only been actively involved in ghost hunting since the late 90s. I began by attending American Ghost Society conferences and then got involved in local groups. Now I run haunted history tours in Milwaukee and arrange private investigations. The team I work with, Paranormal Investigators of Milwaukee, provide investigations free-of-charge to both residential and business clients. We were recently honored to conduct an exclusive investigation for Milwaukee Public Museum.
Does your experience with either teaching or ghost hunting help with the other?
In teaching you meet a wide variety of people of different ages, cultures, and walks of life. Knowledge of people helps you in any pursuit. It has certainly enhanced my empathy for witnesses and informed my approach to paranormal investigation. For example, sometimes during EVP (electronic voice phenomena) sessions it makes more sense to ask questions in languages other than English. A broader understanding of people and their circumstances encourages me to plan investigations with greater cultural sensitivity. My unusual research has also given me a reason to contact museum curators, historians, archaeologists, scientists, and writers. The relationships I’ve developed while ghost hunting sometimes crossover and provide opportunities for classroom visits and Skype interviews that easily connect to the curriculum and fascinate students.
Do your students know about your ghost hunting?
Yes, such news spreads fast in a school. In the past, I kept it quiet, but then I realized I was missing an important opportunity to connect with my students. Students are fascinated and motivated by paranormal topics. Like many of us they seek answers to the eternal questions of life like “Are we alone in the universe?” and “Why are we here?”
If so, please share some of your favorite reactions when they first learned.
My favorite reaction occurred recently. An 8th grader, who was never even my student, stopped me in the hallway just to tell me my website is “pretty cool.” I remember what the middle school experience was like, so for a student who barely knows me to take the time and initiative to say something nice was a big deal.
The most common reaction among students is the question: "Are ghosts real?" I tell my students the truth. I don't know for sure. I also tell them not to believe what they see on TV, but to seek their own answers.
Have any of your students asked to go with you on a ghost hunt?
A better question would be, “Do they ever stop asking me to take them ghost hunting?”
Have you heard from any parents after you mentioned to the kids that you're also a ghost hunter?
I was afraid I’d get negative reactions, but my experience has thus far been quite the opposite. One parent asked me if his daughter could join me as my personal assistant during my tours and investigations. Others have even shared their personal ghost stories with me. No one has expressed any concerns. I think that’s because my approach is skeptical in the truest sense of the word. I don’t jump to conclusions and I don’t promote any particular beliefs. I do my best to model and foster critical thinking both inside and outside the classroom. I don’t know what is out there. I just know there are anomalies that have yet to be explained and I seek answers regardless of what they may be.
What do your fellow teachers and your administrators think of your nocturnal pursuit?
Colleagues have taken my haunted history walking tours. Some have even begun to share the Milwaukee history and folklore from my tours in their classrooms. One administrator invited me to promote my tours in the school newsletter and shared a personal ghost story. I involve administrators in my plans to make sure they understand my intentions. My aim is always to hook students with captivating mysteries and then equip them with the critical thinking tools that will serve them for a lifetime.
Do you ghost-hunt on school nights?
No, teachers need their sleep! My responsibilities at school are almost all-consuming during the school year. Ghost hunting usually requires staying up very late, so during the school year I save it for Fridays and Saturdays.
Have you met anyone else who is a teacher/ghost hunter in one?
We’re rare hybrids, but we are out there. I don’t know any others personally, but the most famous is high school teacher Christopher Balzano. He has written many books about ghost hunting and at least one ghostly lesson plan.
Who do you ghost-hunt with? Do you ever go alone?
Ghost hunters never go out alone. You always need credible witnesses to corroborate whatever strange experiences you might have in the field. I ghost hunt with Paranormal Investigators of Milwaukee. I chose this team because they are tirelessly devoted to self-improvement and because their leader has two M.S. degrees and works as a laboratory scientist by day. It is important to me that the investigators I work with exhibit high standards of professionalism and demonstrate an in-depth understanding of the scientific method.
Do you believe in ghosts?
I’m definitely open to the possibility. I don't deny that I want to believe, but I’m still waiting for that totally undeniable encounter. I'm not interested in fooling myself with wishful thinking, so any ghost up to the challenge will really have to get in my face to convince me. I would classify myself as a researcher rather than a believer.
Have you had any experiences you consider paranormal? If so, please tell me about the most unusual/convincing.
I’ve had many unusual experiences, but one stands out. I witnessed something that seemed unexplainable at a local restaurant with a history of ghostly reports spanning at least the last 20 years. A tray of glasses that I had observed earlier sitting undisturbed suddenly flew off a high shelf. Most of the wait staff seemed shaken by the event, but one experienced employee brushed it off, telling me such things happened all the time. Unfortunately, I wasn’t looking directly at the tray of glasses at that moment. The tray fell farther than one might expect if it had simply slid off an unlevel surface. However, since I didn’t have the presence of mind to take measurements at the time I have no way to prove that. Today I carry a measuring tape in my bag just in case such an opportunity presents itself again. This is a good example for students of how important it is to be prepared to apply your knowledge at any given moment. The paranormal is so fleeting and elusive, you might not get a second chance.
Have you incorporated anything about ghost hunting into your classroom? If so, what? If not, would you like to—and if so, in what way?
Sometimes students don’t see the point of our lessons. It always helps to show them ways they can apply what they’ve learned. I never fail to point out how paranormal investigators need to take accurate measurements, to ask insightful questions, and to write clearly about their findings. My work as a folklorist, researching and developing my haunted history tours, is also a good example for students that writing can take fun and surprising forms. Soon I plan to teach my students how to create successful inquiry circles by allowing them to explore high-interest topics including those of the paranormal variety.
What can we learn from ghost hunters?
Ghost hunters encourage us to fearlessly venture into the unknown. The best of them apply scientific knowledge to aid their research. Ghost hunters like all fortean explorers also realize that science doesn’t have all the answers and it takes human ingenuity to fill in the gaps. If teachers embrace a similar philosophy while harnessing students’ universal desire to answer eternal questions, the wonder they inspire will lead children into a lifetime of learning.
6/27/11 update: After I tweeted and Facebooked this post, Allison told me "I have found a couple more teachers in the last week who share the same interest. I'm contemplating starting a FB group on the subject. I think some great lesson plans will come out of this. : )"