- Callahan is a science teacher at London Elementary School (Laurel County).
- Kaufmann is a high school English teacher at Marion C. Moore School (Jefferson County).
By Mike Marsee
Creativity is a successful means to an end for two of Kentucky’s Teachers of the Year.
In Laurel County, Melanie Callahan uses her and her students’ creative nature to teach science in one of the few classrooms where you might see both a megalodon and a mandolin.
In Jefferson County, Matt Kaufmann helps his students put their creative works on display in an effort to transform both them and their community.
Callahan, a 4th-grade science teacher at London Elementary School (Laurel County), was named the 2020 Elementary School Teacher of the Year by Valvoline and the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE). Kaufman, a high school English teacher at Marion C. Moore School (Jefferson County), was named the 2020 High School Teacher of the Year.
They were chosen from among 24 educators who received Valvoline Teacher Achievement Awards in a program co-sponsored by Valvoline and KDE.
Here is a closer look at the two honorees:
London Elementary School (Laurel County)
Melanie Callahan sings with her students because Cindy Baker sang with hers.
Callahan starts her science classes with a song that she said helps her students remember the lesson at hand.
“I do a mantra every single day before we start class, a positive poem we recite to ourselves, and then we sing a song,” Callahan said. “If it has something to do with the content, I feel like the kids really respond to that. Every kid loves music, and they love it when it helps them remember. They remember that melody.”
And the music doesn’t stop there.
“We are constantly singing, dancing. Movement is so important in my classroom,” Callahan said. “We’ve gotten away from the creative aspect of learning, especially in recent years, and I’m so excited every day to get to do that. Creative expression has probably been the cornerstone of my life.
Some of the seeds of Callahan’s creative expression were planted by Baker, her 2nd-grade teacher.
“She really introduced me to music at an early age,” Callahan said. “She would roll out this old church piano that was on caster wheels, and at the end of the day we would sing. That was such a beautiful gift. I take a lot of things from her during the day when I’m remembering my childhood.”
Callahan’s certifications are in areas such as theater, dance and visual art, and she has designed and led professional development sessions in visual and performing arts and world language and global competencies. She wrote and illustrated “Creative Spanish,” a dual-language curriculum merging the arts and language learning that elementary teachers could use to implement world language standards. The curriculum spread from her school throughout the district and beyond.
She taught creative and performing arts at another Laurel County school for the past four years before her position was altered and she came to London Elementary to teach 4th-grade science at the start of the 2018-2019 school year in the same classroom where she was a 4th-grade student.
“When you become a teacher, you think, ‘These are attributes that I have been using my whole life,’” she said. “I have to use this skill set, and I think my students have started to mirror that. They come into my classroom and say, ‘What are we going to do today that’s awesome?’”
As part of one recent unit called “Mysterious Creatures of Science,” the answer was build a Loch Ness Monster to one-third scale – about 27 feet long. During “Shark Week,” one of Callahan’s favorite units, teams of students built giant models of sharks that hung on the classroom walls.
“It’s just a fun, fun time. The kids do all the investigative work, and the construction part of it is super fun. It’s just super, duper fun to watch the process,” she said. “What they’ve learned is through actually building something, they’ve seen the external and internal structures. It’s things like that, I think, that kids will remember.”
Those units are part of the STEAM curriculum that teaches science standards with ample doses of technology, engineering, mathematics and of course, plenty of arts and music.
“I think it’s really important that the arts are incorporated across the curriculum,” Callahan said. “I think that we forget how young people learn. When we started out in life, we learned letters and numbers through poems and song, and when we get to elementary school, I don’t think students at that level are ready to set those techniques aside.”
London Elementary Principal Tracie Smith said Callahan makes learning fun for her students.
“It’s a joy to visit her classroom. Her students always have a song, a scientific illustration or an experiment they want to share with me,” Smith said. “The students in her class are actively engaged in learning as an experience and not as an exercise from a book or workbook. Melanie does an excellent job of integrating the arts and academics. In her classroom, the two really lean on each other and make learning come alive.”
Callahan took a serious interest in drama as a student, and got to make an acceptance speech of sorts at the teacher of the year recognition luncheon.
“I told the group, ‘This is my Tony,’” she said.
Marion C. Moore School (Jefferson County)
It isn’t enough for Matthew Kaufmann’s students to write or present their work in front of the class.
Kaufmann empowers his students to use their writing as a way to give them a greater voice in their community. His students are pushed to perform their work on stage or present it at a community event in support of a cause about which they are passionate.
“When students are passionate about the work they’re doing, they’re closer to defining their purpose,” Kaufmann said.
One of the ways Kaufmann helps his students define their purpose is through the deeper learning exhibitions that he led at Oldham County and that he established at Marion C. Moore soon after he came to that school in 2014. The semiannual exhibitions are student showcases that are part of a larger, deeper initiative.
“We’ve built a bit of a movement at our school where school is not just about the test, it’s about transformational work for our school and the community. And it isn’t just the kids who are transformed when they’re on stage sharing their work; the audience is transformed, too,” he said.
Kaufmann leads a group of four teachers in recruiting students from all grades – Marion C. Moore is a 6-12 school – to be part of what became the exhibitions, which he said can contain elements of theater, writing, set design, costume design and marketing in presentations that cross content areas. Those presentations can be in the form of poetry, spoken word, analysis or even TED Talks.
“People who are 6th-graders are presenting right next to seniors, and it’s interdisciplinary,” he said.
About 200 people came to the first “Taste of Deeper Learning” event, in which the team of teachers presented on what deeper learning is and why it was important for students to have a larger audience at the exhibitions. Culinary students prepared and served a meal for the guests, and a few students shared a “taste” of their projects. The first full exhibition showcased more than 100 students and attracted more than 600 parents and others. The November 2018 event, which replaced the school’s traditional open house, drew more than 200 participating students and 1,000 audience members, including legislators and community leaders.
“They’re coming and seeing how their kids are becoming leaders in the community,” Kaufmann said.
Kaufmann also helps get his students on other stages, and he is always on the lookout for partners in the community who can help make that happen. His students regularly enter the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s New Voices Playwrights Festival, and one of them has been among the eight winners in each of the past two years. Students’ plays are published in the school’s literary magazine and produced by the drama department.
Students also have taken their work to stages at the Festival of Faiths, the Louisville Women’s March, a Fairness Campaign event in Frankfort, a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration and other venues.
“Schools don’t exist in a vacuum, they exist within the larger world. They can’t vote, but the deeper learning exhibition is a way they can have a voice,” Kaufman said.
Principal Rob Fulk said Kaufmann, who is working toward becoming a principal, has been a vital part of the turnaround at the Marion C. Moore, a Title I school at which some 45 diverse cultures are represented and where 77 percent of the students are categorized as economically disadvantaged.
“Matt is one of the bedrocks of our school,” Fulk said. “One of the things Matt does better than most teachers I have encountered in my career is he builds an environment of inclusivity for his students. He manages to balance several different countries, ethnicities, racial origins, socioeconomic statuses and blend them in an environment where they feel included and challenged. Matt has never met a kid that he will not push to that next step.”
Kauffmann said he told his Marion C. Moore colleagues in an email that he shares his award with all of them.
“I don’t view this as just my award; it’s their award,” he said. “Mr. Fulk allows me to push the envelope. We need to be brave and we need to be bold, and our kids need to see that.”
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