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Melissa Fleming Gets A View Through Their Eyes

There is a Chinese saying: Try fail, try fail, try succeed! Melissa Fleming, Innovations High School (formerly Bronzeville Academic Center) dedicated world literature teacher does not know Chinese but she knows her students. And she realizes they are full of untapped potential, if only we find the way to turn on the spigot.

Image of Melissa Fleming

“I often consider abandoning a text after a failed first run. My first year teaching The Alchemist was no exception. I had about five students out of thirty five who thoroughly connected with, understood, and enjoyed the novel. I had about ten more who made it about halfway to that point…The remaining majority made just enough effort to “get through” the book. But, “this book is boring” and “this book ain’t got nothin’ to do with me,” were all too common.

The previous year’s experience gave her a determination to not “dumb” down but to challenge herself and her students even more, to perhaps, “cover less content but to do it better, to hit more skills”, she said. She found the way with a video artist, Saya Hillman from Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education (CAPE) who participated in class twice a week (block scheduling) for five weeks. Even though she had never done a literature-based project with her students, Melissa plunged ahead, took the risk and searched for the creativity that would motivate her classes.

Saya and Melissa decided to have each class create a film based on the themes in the novel. Melissa’s first concern was would they work together? As she recalled, “Most of the time when I’ve put kids into groups, they argue, act out, work against each other.” But the combination of two confident teachers combining two arts and an approach that put student engagement as the first priority changed everything. “This was the first time I’ve seen students work so well together”, Melissa declared. “I couldn’t believe how well it worked. The project was setup so that each student could give input – everyone had a role and that was huge.”

One class did a documentary about motivation and goals. The class conducted student interviews where fellow classmates talked their desire to make their families proud of them. They talked about their values and the people who want them to succeed. The other class did a creative Bronzville-style version film trailer for an imagined movie of the novel. In both projects, different students experienced different roles.

Image of Melissa Fleming

The film-making was the trigger for many different lessons for both students and teacher. The students’ engagement increased dramatically as they got deeper into the film-making process. “Students were challenged to understand the novel at deeper levels”, Melissa wrote in her academic evaluation. “With the video project, students desperately wanted to get it right, so they probed deeper into the novel to find answers and develop their own interpretations of the novel.” And student leadership became the “secret weapon”, as students helped each other.

Melissa summed it up her experience best. “I am more aware now – I’ve changed the way I think about the importance way students are able to see themselves in the literature. Sometimes, we tend to blame the kids, parents, elementary schools. Now I feel more confidence in myself and the kids.”

Last update: September 20, 2012

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