Melissa knows how it feels to take a 3 a.m. phone call and hear a grade-school student’s voice on the other end of the line. She has looked in the eyes of a child who knows they have been labeled a failure. An education professional with more than a decade of experience in Title 1 schools, Melissa has found teaching to be a way of life. Beyond her work as an educator, she’s also a d.school success story.
In 2007, Melissa was a reading specialist at East Palo Alto Academy working with 7th and 8th graders. Her students were reading at 1st grade to 3rd grade levels. They were considered the “unsuccessful kids”, she said. Melissa came to the d.school for a two-day education bootcamp that year offered by the K-12 Lab. The cohort was assigned the challenge to redesign the night life in Palo Alto. They toured the city and used their observations to make a series of inferences. One man the group never met stood out.
He sat at an outdoor table with his back to a coffee shop. He was surrounded by books and appeared to be deeply absorbed in his work. Melissa’s team made a number of assumptions about him. Were the books armor? Was he an introvert? What was the source of his seeming tension?
That’s when she made a key association: the man was like a character in a book.
The epiphany brought Melissa back to her students, who had no trouble interpreting the world around them. If they could do that, she thought, why not meet the students where they are? She developed a process that essentially took the students from life to page, rather than the other way around, providing the chance to impart one of the most difficult lessons: literary interpretation.
“Teaching interpretation is not concrete, so you can’t ‘teach’ it,” Melissa says. “You can model it, and you can cultivate learning situations that make interpretations of text more likely or possible. But ultimately interpretation, like comprehension, is done in the mind of the student.”
She went back to school the next week and applied the design thinking principles to one of her students’ reading assignments: the fictional story, “X: A Fabulous Child’s Story,” about a child who was raised gender neutral. A debate ensued: does the baby need to love itself for the community to love it, or does the community need to love the baby in order for it to love itself? Melissa was learning the process alongside the kids, battling her own insecurity, but determined to see it through.”I just knew that this methodology was a way to foster deeper learning and critical thinking in kids.”
Six months later, the average reading level among her students rose two grade levels.
“An organic journey,” says Melissa, has brought her back to the d.school where she will spend the next year focused on education. “I really saw coming here as an opportunity to focus as much time as possible on the thing that I love the most, which is using the methodology to create change — to do things better in more exciting and engaging ways.”
Follow Melissa on Twitter at @Mpelochino.
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