by Jim Mulligan
Once upon a time, long, long ago, before most of us had ever heard of Zoom, I made a visit to Grant Middle School in Reedley, home of the Grizzlies, to check out the controlled chaos that middle school often is. Anyone in K-12 education knows what I mean; the transformation that kids make from childhood to adolescence during the middle school years tests even the most dedicated, seasoned teachers. What I found during my visit was surprisingly more subdued than the organized bedlam I was expecting. In fact, I found students busily focused on their lessons. The most interesting thing I found was, in a few classrooms, that the learning space had been converted into an educational wonderland, reminiscent of a Disney façade, that metaphorically transported students to places that enticed even the squirmiest of teens into the pursuit of scholarship.As I entered the classroom of Ms. Kiana Mello, who was teaching English Language Arts and Social Studies at the time, I had a sense I wasn’t in Reedley anymore. The walls of the room had been artistically adorned with butcher paper mimicking red brick and wood paneling creating the cozy feeling of sitting in a coffee shop in New York City. In addition to desks, there were bistro tables and couches where students could find a comfortable place to read or collaborate with classmates on a project. The atmosphere was so tranquil and inviting. Was I really in a middle school classroom? Students were participating in a lot of self-directed learning. Yes, middle school students were partaking in learning activities, mostly without the lurking eyes of a helicopter teacher. Ms. Mello had set the tone for serious, yet fun and inviting learning. In the on-line environment, Ms. Mello has taken to creating TikTok-style videos to share content with her students, captivating them with a medium with which they are very familiar.
Ms. Mello didn’t always know she wanted to be a teacher. It was during her senior year at Immanuel High that she was an intern with the Reedley College Upward Bound program. The internship had her working at an after-school program at Jefferson School. It was then that she realized she wanted to teach. On her last day as an intern she made a promise to that group of Jefferson students, that she would go to college and come back to be their teacher. Mello kept her word. She played tennis and studied at Tabor College in Hillsborough, Kansas. As you might guess, Mello was very occupied at Tabor, serving as Senior Class President, and was active in student programs. She finished her degree and credential and was offered a job with Kings Canyon Unified in the August after her graduation. Mello recalled, “It wasn’t until after I started teaching I found a picture of that group of students. And they were the same group of students at Grant during my first year of teaching.”
As if a New York coffee shop on the Grant campus wasn’t surprising enough, I was told that surgery was taking place in Ms. Katy Mendoza’s math class, in another wing of the school. Surgery in a math class? I needed to get over there and see what was happening, stat! I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t been there myself. The entire classroom had been turned into operating rooms, complete with curtains draped from the ceilings and spotlights, focused on the task at hand. I even heard the blip-blip of heart monitors in each operating stall. Mrs. Mendoza and all of her students were decked out in doctor’s gowns and other normal medical garb, such as caps and surgical masks. But who or what were their patients and what was their prognosis?Rather than human patients on the operating table, Ms. Mendoza and her grade level partner, teacher Natalie Blackman, had concocted an elaborate puzzle of math problems. Math problems? Student surgeons were tasked with solving the labyrinth of numbers using—wait for it—the mathematical order of operations. Get it? Every student surgeon was absorbed in the moment; the tension of the operating room was palpable. Students were working in teams to solve their math problems with surgical precision. Every student was engaged and I doubt they will ever forget the experience. When asked why she goes to such lengths to transform her classroom for what, in other classrooms, is a simple memorization task, Ms. Mendoza said, “Classroom transformations like this engage students by switching things up. Ms. Blackman and I are always looking for ways to make math exciting and break away from the usual routine. Kids begin to trust us and look forward to what we are going to learn next.”
Ms. Mendoza is also a hometown product and second generation Reedley teacher. Her father, Dan Deibert, also taught at Grant Middle School before moving on to teach Physics and Biology at RHS for over twenty years. Mendoza graduated from Reedley High School in 2005 and continued her education at Fresno Pacific University, earning her BA and teaching credential. She has since earned her MA in Educational Leadership and Administration from Fresno State.
As the 21st century of the modern era is burgeoning, it is plain to see that education is making great strides in curriculum delivery, all for the better. Conversely, students today seem to be bombarded with a multitude of distractions that my children didn’t face as youngsters. Teachers like Ms. Mello and Ms. Mendoza serve as catalysts for positive change in our education system. They are examples of teachers who know how to keep standards high and at the forefront of their teaching, all the while tapping into the psychology of the middle schooler’s mind, marketing knowledge to them like never before. Yes, let us not forget the wrench that has been thrown into the well-oiled cogs of our local schools by COVID 19. It is just a hiccup. Our great teachers will persist and continue with amazing teaching during and after the pandemic.