Presto -- classroom magic from National Teacher of the Year

The magic that great teachers make in the classroom is as mysterious and fascinating as the magic that gets made in a Vegas show.

So of course I wondered what kind of things went on in Rebecca Mieliwocki’s seventh-grade English classroom in Burbank, the work and insight that made her the National Teacher of the Year and the subject of my "Patt Morrison Asks" column.

I had to wonder what sort of unusual assignments she’s come up with that manage to be instructional and memorable.

Turns out she’s a "huge fan" of the Story Corps project on NPR: friends and family members interviewing each other for moving oral histories that wind up in the Library of Congress.

"I told my kids to collect a unique story from a brother, sister, friend, neighbor. Interview them for 45 minutes," using their computers or their smart phones if they could, then "cut it down to the three most riveting minutes you can."

She got a lot more than she expected. They played several of them every day in class, and "I’ve never cried more, never laughed more, never saw my kids this way before."

The very first one was a 12-year-old girl. "Her father died of melanoma when she was 7; she lost part of her leg [to melanoma]; and now I know why she wears boots every day. Her mom was in a car accident two years ago and nearly lost her arm -- it was severed. To hear three minutes of that kind of tragedy and grief, and yet to know her in my class as a sunny, cheerful, positive and happy kid -- it was just a gut punch I wasn’t prepared for."

That kind of exercise is "not a state standard,’’ says Mieliwocki. "That’s not a testable moment, but was it maybe the most important thing that kid did all year? Are they going to remember [the assignment] for the rest of their lives? You bet."

And there was something else, a benefit Mieliwocki hadn’t expected. "The attitude and tone in the classroom changed. They treated each other more respectfully. All my kids are good kids, but it changed, it went deeper, and they saw the humanity of one another."

Paying attention, you grownups?


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