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February 13, 2013

Overcoming ‘anomalies’

Indiana's 2012 Teacher of the Year speaks at Highland Middle School

ANDERSON, Ind. — You can’t change your past, but you are in charge of your own future and what you do with it.

That was the message 2012 Indiana Teacher of the Year Melanie Parks gave to eighth grade students in David Renz’s U.S. History classes at Highland Middle School Tuesday.

The Indiana Department of Education chooses one teacher, in accordance with National Teacher of the Year guidelines, annually to represent Indiana at the national level. Park has taken a yearlong sabbatical from Riverview Middle School in Huntington to serve as teacher in residence this year and focus on statewide educator outreach initiatives.

“The decisions you’re making now might decide a path for you, a mission,” she told the students who will soon be facing high school and the “real world” shortly thereafter.

Dressed as an astronaut, Park used experiences from space camp in Huntsville, Ala., with teachers across the nation, along with personal and student stories, to discuss the overcoming of “anomalies.”

Some people act out because it’s easier to be silly than seem stupid when struggling, she said, or have tough home lives.

But there shouldn’t be any excuses, she added. Students should develop mission options for life and identify events, choices and people who can help accomplish those missions.

At space camp, for example, she said there was a simulation in which the teachers were supposed to prepare to reenter the atmosphere but, unexpectedly, the lights went out instead and they had to work together to accomplish the goal of landing safely.

“If you prepare yourself for anomalies, when they occur, they’re not nearly as bad as you’d thought they’d be,” she said.

Park herself lived out of a tent as a child with her financially struggling mother for a time, and had a stepfather who’d dropped out of school and couldn’t read a favorite bedtime story to her. He told her shortly before he died, while she was in college, to ensure she never let a student leave school without that ability, she said.

Park added she works to ensure her middle school students leave her class at an eighth grade reading level.

She also had a speech teacher who, despite her shyness, told Park there was no excuse not to use her full potential. He also gave her strategies she still uses today.

Just because students are young doesn’t mean they’re helpless, she said. She had a group of students who were hyperactive and wanted exercise bikes in the classroom so they could burn energy while they read.

She didn’t have that kind of money to spend, so Park had them write grants and they were awarded them.

“You have power. Kids have power,” she said. “You just have to tap into that power.”

Eighth grader Jess Valley said Park made him think about the future and helping people who have tougher lives.

“It’s encouraging people could go through something like that” and do what Park is doing now, eighth grader Deondra Sutton added. She said she wants to help others out and encourage them not to give up.

Renz said he’s “very fortunate to have some very good students already,” but that it was great to have Park in his class and that he appreciated “a lot of what she said.”

“It got their attention, it got me,” he said.

Find Dani Palmer on Facebook and @DaniPalmer_THB on Twitter, or call 640-4847.

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