An Interview with Melody Arabo, Michigan’s 2014 Teacher of the Year

Melody Arabo, Michigan Teacher of the Year 2014-15
Melody Arabo, Michigan Teacher of the Year 2014-15

“I did not intend to be a teacher.”

Believe it or not, Michigan’s 2014 Teacher of the Year, Melody Arabo, 3rd grade teacher at Keith Elementary in Walled Lake, had different plans when she began her studies at Michigan State University.

“When I was in college to get a marketing degree, I learned about a position at an elementary school for an ESL para and I was lucky enough to be hired,” says Arabo. “I instantly fell in love with the kids and the elementary atmosphere and I changed my major.”

A strong advocate for children’s literacy, she fully embraces the reading and writing workshop approach in her classroom. Ralph Fletcher, a popular author of children’s books and professional books for teachers, is one of her favorites. She has adapted one of his lessons into a favorite activity that connects her classroom to the community.

“My favorite writing assignment is when my third graders interview a grandparent or someone from that generation and then they compare/contrast their experiences growing up,” Arabo explains. “Kids learn so much about the important people in their lives and how different yet similar their childhoods are.“

Arabo’s award-winning approach includes project-based learning and technology integration as well. Her advice for any teacher, especially those entering the profession, is simple: “Focus on making connections with others and building relationships with students, colleagues, and parents. They are all your greatest resources for support and growth.“

And, as much as she enjoys these activities — both inside and outside her classroom — this year, Arabo’s work has taken a different turn as Michigan’s Teacher of the Year. Her list of duties is impressive: “traveling around the state and country to work with other teachers, visit schools and classrooms, attend and present at conferences and workshops, speak at events, and attend State Board Meetings,” are all part of the job, says Arabo.

Moreover, she is able to share her interests as the author of a children’s book called Diary of a Real Bully. She shares the impetus behind her book:

Diary of a Real BullyThe lessons in this book are inspired by over a decade of classroom experience. Most of the bullying I faced as a student occurred in middle school, so I was shocked to see it happen with my third graders.

The most surprising part, however, was when I realized which students were doing the bullying. Some of my sweetest, smartest, and most seemingly innocent kids are often the ones that do the most harm. I see the same trends and patterns with every class. One thing these kids all have in common is that they do not see themselves as bullies.

When kids think of bullying, they imagine the exaggerated characters they see on TV and in movies. But the bully stereotypes of the big, dumb, mean guy or the self-absorbed, air-headed, mean girl do not exist in real life. No one is a bully all the time, but this misconception makes it hard to understand what real bullying looks like. Because kids do not identify themselves with their perception of bullies, they refuse to accept their actions as bully behavior.

This problem is what inspired me to write Diary of a Real Bully, uniquely told from the bully’s perspective.

This approach has garnered her a great deal of attention, including stories from Michigan Radio and the Detroit Free Press. As Arabo continues to teach, write, and lead, we know that she will work to amplify student and teacher voices, even without having to leave her classroom.

Once her tenure as Michigan’s Teacher of the Year ends, Arabo will return to her classroom. Yet, her influence on our profession will remain strong. She invites teachers to follow her blog and Twitter, describing the “importance of using social media to connect and collaborate with educators beyond your school and classroom.”

#michedAdditionally, she recommends following and connecting with teachers involved in the #miched community.  “The #miched movement is so valuable and a wonderful way to expand on teacher leadership and amplify teacher voice.”

Finally, she recommends a classic text in teacher education as a “must read” for anyone entering the classroom: Harry K. Wong and Rosemary T. Wong’s The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher.

We can certainly see how Arabo may have never intended to be a teacher, yet we are fortunate to have her in our profession and look forward to the many more years of innovation and leadership that she will provide.

Liz BrockmanElizabeth Brockman is a founding co-director of the Chippewa River Writing Project.  A former middle and high school English teacher, Elizabeth is currently a professor in the English Department at CMU, where she teaches composition and composition methods courses.

Troy Hicks (@hickstro) is the Director of the Chippewa River Writing Project. He is a former middle grades teacher, now associate professor of English at Central Michigan University where he focuses his work on the teaching of writing, literacy and technology.

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Elizabeth Brockman
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