In a classroom where every concept coincides with an action or a tune, a conversation about adjectives spurs Melanie Wheeler, pictured in center, to lead her students in a song, complete with hand motions. — The Holyoke Enterprise | Johnson Publications
Outside the Box: Wheeler gets the wheels turning with innovative classroom setting
Wobble stools, pillows and exercise balls.
A soft, fuzzy rug.
Physical activity, songs, actions and movement.
An ordinary table with the legs shortened.
A bass guitar.
And a bearded dragon named Spyro.
All of these things can be found in Melanie Wheeler’s third- and fourth-grade language arts classroom on a typical day.
And it’s the reason why she is being recognized as the Innovator of the Year at Holyoke School District’s Emerald Awards.
“Her enthusiasm and ability to think outside of the box to reach ALL learners is what makes her an excellent candidate,” said nominator Yesenia Bencomo, a fellow educator at Holyoke Elementary School.
Some of Wheeler’s inspiration comes from her own ninth- and 10th-grade English teacher. He was not only giving his students a good education, but he also gave his classroom a homey feeling through the physical setting as well as love, laughter and compassion. “He was willing to be weird and crazy, too,” said Wheeler.
When Wheeler’s first teaching job took her to an eighth-grade English position, she knew her classroom felt stoic and stiff. It didn’t have that homey feeling, and she wasn’t given the freedom to develop her own “weird and crazy” teaching style.
After taking a year off, she realized how much she missed the kids. Although she was trained in secondary education, Wheeler took a strong look at the third- and fourth-grade language arts position in Holyoke.
She knew it would be a good place to work when employees told her they wouldn’t want to work anywhere else. And on top of that, then-Principal Kyle Stumpf encouraged her to bring her upper-level writing instruction to the elementary classroom.
Wheeler worked all summer on a creative way to explain writing styles — with some of her own creations blended with those of others.
Baking became the theme of her first elementary classroom, and it set a fun tone for the years to come. The acronym OREO helped explain opinion writing, CHOC stood for narrative, and a SPICE cake was used for the informative style.
Wheeler’s passion for writing is evident when she explains the process to students, said Bencomo. Her students can easily explain the writing process because their leader has created a way that is easy for them to remember it. “She is helping her students to develop a love of writing by making this process FUN!”
“Passionate teachers teach kids who are passionate,” said Wheeler. As a self-professed “grammar geek,” she is excited to see the students’ desire to learn it. “They’re hungry for it,” she said (no pun intended!), and it’s a testament to strategies that work.
She’s found that third and fourth grade is a good age for her and her personality, noting it’s good to have students who can embrace a teacher for who they are. “If I’m weird, they’re totally weird with me!”