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A Passion for STEM: Q & A With Teacher Melissa Collins, Ph.D

melissa collins.jpgMelissa Collins is a 2nd grade teacher at John P. Freeman Optional School in Memphis, Tenn. She believes that is imperative to expose young students to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and also works to broaden educators' perspectives about global competencies by speaking and presenting at various venues.

Melissa is a outspoken advocate for public education, and she believes teachers must have a voice in shaping policy and practice.  Her passion has led her to participate in fellowship programs with America Achieves and Teach Plus. She is the recipient of several awards and honors, including the Horace Mann Teacher Excellence Award, Presidential Award for Excellence Mathematics and Science Teaching, the National Science Teaching Association Sylvia Shurgrue Award, and West Tennessee Teacher of the Year. 

Can you think about one practice you love that's relatively new to your classroom?  Why do you love it, and how did you discover it?

The "Flipped Classroom" is a set of practices that I recently discovered while reading Scholastic's Instructor magazine. My students observe a video at home with their parents based on a particular subject, and whenever possible, they read trade books or their text books before I teach a lesson on a particular topic. I also send home an activity sheet that includes questions that parents can ask to assist with stimulating students' cognitive thinking. The following day in class, I briefly discuss the home activity with my students. This method helps the students build background knowledge before the actual lesson. As a result, the students' knowledge bank is boosted because of the prior exposure to content. I am also noticing that my struggling students are gaining confidence to discuss topics where they lacked prior knowledge. In doing this, I can focus more on enrichment activities in the classroom and reduce the amount of time spent on introducing the content.

What excites you about the common core?

As a country, we are attempting to come together to create common goals for our students. This is imperative because all students need an opportunity to be exposed to the same rigorous standards. In reading, my students are exposed to quality texts that permit them to be engaged in productive struggle. Productive struggle is needed so our students can learn how to thinking critically and creatively when collaborating with others verbally or in writing. My primary students are enjoying going to the text to locate and cite evidence. As my students continue to work on this skill throughout their school career, they will have prior knowledge of what it takes to research a topic, once they enroll in higher education courses.

When it comes to math, students are learning how to persevere and use multiple strategies. The standards progress year to year which permits students to be better prepared for algebra in middle school, and early exposure to complex math is key to college readiness.

What aspects of the common core, or other recent olicies make you nervous for the next few years? What's your plan to address those concerns in your classroom?

As a Common Core advocate, I support the standards. Therefore, I am nervous that states will alter or drop the standards after preparing educators, students, and parents for this tremendous change in our educational system. I believe in the common core, and I will continue to implement them in my classroom because my students are learning at a new and different rate. They are thinking more critically and creatively because of the higher standards. I firmly believe am doing what is best for my students!

What do you wish policymakers knew about your classroom?

Usually when people think of an elementary school classroom, they don't envision very young students doing really challenging and exciting STEM work, but that's a big part of my teaching. I want policy makers to know that it's critical to offer all students, even very young ones, an enriched STEM education. You can enter my room and you can observe students working independently to solve challenges through hands-on investigations. This helps them to think critically and to solve complex, real-world problems. I don't know what the career field will look like for my students, but I do know they'll need to problem solve and work collaboratively, and I want them to feel confident enough to enter technical and scientific fields. Also, I would love policymakers to support school systems by providing the needed resources and support to enable schools to incorporate more authentic, rigorous learning experiences around STEM.  

Do you think that people have misperceptions about the reality of teaching and learning?

I believe that some people do not understand how hard teachers must work and have misconceptions about what teachers work year entails. Effective teachers work every day to prepare their students to exceed expectations, including during the summer months. They work late because they want to be prepared for the next day. They take their work home, and they sometimes have to neglect their families. I say this because I give up a lot every day because I want to prepare my students for the future. I am passionate about educating today's students. I work late to plan effective lessons that require my students to think critically to solve real world problems. Also, I work on projects to help make our educational systems better. The best teachers are quite literally working 365 days a year improving their craft for the students they educate.

Can you describe the evolution of your teaching?

I began my teaching career as a literal, safe and, 'by the book' teacher. I now am an educator that thinks outside the box and engages students in creative exploration of concepts that can be applied into various mediums and situations. There are more distractions now than ever, it has become crucial for me to find ways to keep students focused on how the content I present will benefit them beyond just memorizing information without any application or use for it.

What keeps you excited and optimistic?

For so long, educators have not received the respect that they deserve. A teacher can enter the profession with a doctorate and only receive $40,000 as an entry salary. As a result, I have relied on organizations such as Teach Plus, America Achieves, Student Achievement Partners, and the NEA Foundation that afford me opportunities to learn more and share my expertise with other leaders and policymakers. I am optimistic that educational systems are beginning to support teachers and show us the respect that we deserve.

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