Burbank Unified teacher earns top state recognition

Rebecca Mieliwocki, an English teacher at Luther Burbank Middle School, is one of California’s 2011 Teachers of the Year and will advance to the national competition, focusing a statewide spotlight on Burbank Unified.

Mieliwocki said she found out about the honor Thursday via a phone message from state Supt. Tom Torlakson, who also told her she was selected from this year’s five state winners to travel to Washington, D.C., and represent California.

“I’m over the moon. I still can’t believe this is happening,” said Mieliwocki, a Glendale resident who has taught seventh-graders the past nine years after starting her 14-year teaching career at John Burroughs High School.

Burbank Unified Supt. Stan Carrizosa said Mieliwocki blends core values, such as not giving up on any student, with flexibility in the ways she engages students.

Years ago, the classroom structure centered on lectures. Today, more teachers, including Mieliwocki, encourage student participation.

During the first 10% of class time, Mieliwocki instructs students about the topic that will be covered for the day. Students then spend the majority of the class working individually, in pairs or small groups, discussing the topic. During the last part of class, everyone reconvenes to review what they talked about and their conclusions.

Mieliwocki said persuasion is part of the state standards for middle school students. To develop their persuasive skills, Mieliwocki’s students take part in a weeklong project each year in which they develop a product that could be sold in the student store.

They craft an argument supporting their product, figure out how to defend it, come up with reasons why customers might not buy the product, and then address customer concerns.

“That’s research and development, right there,” she said.

As students discuss their products in groups, Mieliwocki continues to interact with them.

“I am circulating and peppering them with questions,” she said. “I’m their worst nightmare if I was the customer.”

The students then go before a panel, which includes the school’s principal and other teachers, which then selects the top three products.

One of last year’s winners — locks featuring designs such as camouflage or zebra stripes for student lockers — was so popular, the student store picked up the idea.

“They made a couple dozen of them, and they sold out right away,” Mieliwocki said.

Hands-on experience is the best way to teach students, she said, and a quality education can be a vital tool in forging future successes for students.

“We need to prepare them for the very challenging world out there,” Mieliwocki said. “We want to make sure that that important resource is as strong as it can be.”

Burbank Unified school board member Debbie Kukta, who has visited Mieliwocki’s classroom, said she was impressed by the way she motivates all students to participate.

“She’s pretty captivating as a teacher and a presenter,” she said.

Mieliwocki’s honor, Kukta added, will also bring recognition to the entire school district.

“It’s going to put Burbank on the map,” she said.

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