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Melissa Stephens: Being the Person You Needed When You Were Younger

Nuggets From Melissa Stephens's Call

Last Saturday, we had the privilege of hosting Awakin Call with Melissa Stephens.

Melissa Stephens is a spirited elementary and middle school teacher with 24 years of classroom experience, a wife, and mother of three children. At Kent Middle School in Kentfield, California, she created a groundbreaking Service Innovation class based on research of how service learning can cultivate student leaders. In 2015, she received the Golden Bell Award on behalf of her school district, for their work with this class. An author, poet, and actress, Melissa produced and starred in a one-woman show, based on her journey of healing through abuse experienced as a young child. She authored Little Miss and Spirit Bear's Kiss, a children's book about rediscovering one's light after walking through darkness. She reflects, "My journey here has been one filled with self-discovery and healing which guides me to live my educational philosophy: 'Be the person you needed when you were younger.'"

We'll post the transcript of the call soon, but till then, some of the nuggets that stood out from the call ...

  • How do you create a safe space for your students? "Something I learned (from John Malloy!) was one time, we were all in a circle, and he looked at every single person and said, "I see you." I decided to take roll call that way. I make eye contact and say "I see you." They say, "I'm here." The next day, they will say, "I see you," and I'll say, "I'm here." Everyday we have mindfulness. When they leave, I stand at the door and give them a high-five. I think it's just those listening to them, and truly respecting them."
  • "I made "Multiple Forms of Capital" a whole week topic in the class. I teach in a really affluent area, and there's so much emphasis on financial capital, and I want them to be aware of other forms of capital. One of the questions they ask their parents is: "What form of capital do you use most often in your line of work and how? What form of capital would you like to use in your line of work and why?" The kids have to explain it to their parents, and it's a way for the kids to teach something to their parents in the meantime. One of my favorite activities is that the kids put on skits on multiple forms of capital. On a middle school level, it's like: 'Oh, you don't know how to shoot a free throw? If you can help me with my math, I'll help you shoot a free throw.'" :)
  • What is an experience of when a student's been your teacher? "Everyday. I learn so much from them. They also have to do a service project -- but whatever they want to do, they have to have a one-on-one connection. A group of boys wanted to do a bake sale. Bake sales are great, but they don't foster that deeper connection. And this was a group of three 12-year-old boys, two days before the project was due. :) But, they did all the baking -- which was amazing! (They didn't ask their parents to make or buy it.) Then, at their bake sale, they created cards that asked strangers deeper questions, like: "If you could still accomplish one thing, what would it be?" Each person that came to buy a treat had to pick a card and answer a question. So they were engaging with strangers and building community. Some people walked by, and then turned around and went back to the table -- not for a baked good -- but just to pick a card and answer a question!"
  • How do you see social media with your students today? "It's so interesting -- on one hand, I can't stand how mean it can be to be on social media -- how easy it is to fire off a put-down .. the negative consequences of social media is for sure ... but I will tell you, it is an incredible way for them to spread the word and to connect... I follow a lot of my students on instagram... even to track if anyone is being mean in the comments. The other day, I saw one of my students posted a picture that said: "Gift Ecology bake sale. Give us a smile we'll give you a treat." If we're going to be mass-spreading communication, what a great way to communicate about service!"
  • Attitude Lessons from Parents: "Both my parents passed away a year apart from each other. They both had dementia. I tell my students you really need to train your brain to default to the positive. My dad was so positive, and had such a funny sense of humor. Consequently, when his brain capacity went, he became more simple and more childlike. My mom defaulted to being quite angry. That lesson was really: You need to train your brain so that the pathways it will default to will go to kindness."
  • On Being The Person You Needed When You were Younger: "I try to think of everything that I would have loved when I was in this period of my life, and think through this period of their life. As silly as this sounds, having a phone charger so they know they can come to charge their phone so they can make a call after school. ... I just want students to have somewhere to be where they can feel safe and loved and honored. That's my goal everyday. The energy that I feel for them is absolutely a gift from god, the universe, whatever you want to call it -- and I think it's because I had such a difficult time as a child during this period, that that's my reward: this intense energy. I never get up thinking 'Ugh, I don't want to go to work.' Not one day. I may be tired, but it's just the greatest blessing."
Lots of gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes volunteers that made this call happen!


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