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Beverly Jonnes, a pioneering elementary school teacher who relied on listening and empathy to lead students and who later authored voluminous poetry about her life and the many children she met, died Oct. 6 at age 87. The cause was bile duct cancer.

Jonnes in 1971 helped create Stonebridge Elementary School in Stillwater, a so-called "free" school that broke with convention to grant students more independence. The K-6 school was largely devoid of classrooms. Students advanced through four colonies at their own pace, while the older students followed contracts designed by Jonnes to pursue their studies. The school's motto was "Where we build bridges instead of walls."

Jonnes, who led the Colony IV group of teachers, taught a wide variety of subjects including math, English, biology, history and anthropology. At times she helped students with independent studies on subjects of their choosing. Occasionally, she dressed as "Joanie Beaver," a character of her own invention meant to teach students empathy.

Jonnes was born Beverly Jean Bonn in Montevideo, Minn., and at Antioch College met her husband, Nelson, in band class. She played piano and oboe. Jonnes left college before graduation to start a family, following Nelson to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for a three-year teaching contract. She had four children before earning her bachelor's of education at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

She was recruited to Stonebridge just as the new school opened with a radical premise: Children learn best in an environment that considers their need for activity. With Principal John Sybrant and other founding teachers, Jonnes put the theory into practice, winning praise for their innovations.

"I think fundamentally, my mother loved children," said Steven Jonnes, one of Beverly's two sons. "She remembered exquisitely well what childhood was like. … That was one of the main reasons she related so well to children."

Education was a serious endeavor under Jonnes, and students knew she expected their best effort; but she could also be big-hearted, bursting into laughter at a student's joke.

Tia Pederson, a Stonebridge graduate, said she even remembers Jonnes teaching disco. "She would dance and take a step, and she would say, 'Disco here, disco there.' "

"If you had problems, she would be an easy teacher to talk to," said Pederson. "She wouldn't make you feel bad or singled out."

Her lessons for 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds were appealing: Punctuation rules were taught as a series of metaphors about trains. Storytelling and writing were encouraged and fostered. Long division became a smooth-as-jazz chant: "Diviiiiide, multiply, subtract and bring down!"

Keldi Peterson, another graduate, said she especially remembers Jonnes using the Joanie Beaver character to teach kindness. "It came off as, 'How do you treat another person?' "

"I don't remember any kids not liking her," said Holly Kasun, a Stonebridge graduate. "The beauty of it was she wasn't trying to be anybody's buddy. She was tough and fair. … She set the bar high and people wanted to reach it, for her."

Jonnes retired in 1987 and turned to writing short stories and poetry. The poems were often observations about her life and teaching, or about children playing.

"To describe her, I would say openhearted," said her friend Sara DeLuca, who knew Jonnes through a monthly writer's circle. DeLuca said Jonnes continued writing even as her illness progressed, turning out pages on a daily basis.

Jonnes' husband died in 2011. In addition to son Steven of Ashburn, Va., she is survived by son Chris Jonnes of Stillwater, daughters Heidi Syropoulos of Wynnewood, Pa., and Sara McDonald of Sacramento, Calif., 12 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. A memorial service will be held Jan. 25 at Bradshaw Celebration of Life Center in Stillwater.

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329 • @_mattmckinney