In this installment of TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating the first of three winners of this year's OTIP Teaching Award for Excellence sponsored by the Ontario Teachers Insurance Plan (OTIP) and the Ontario Teachers' Federation (OTF). Melanie Brown-Robson, from the District School Board of Niagara's Lakeview Public School in Grimsby, is the elementary category winner.
Melanie Brown-Robson's energy, enthusiasm, love of life and of education are what really make her shine when she stands at the front of a classroom.
That's according to Glynnis Fleming, an instructional coach in mathematics at the District of Niagara School Board, where Brown-Robson teaches Grade 4 and Grade 5 at Lakeview Public School in Grimsby. "She is so funny and she has a robust sense of humour," says Fleming, who nominated Brown-Robson. "She is an awesome, excellent teacher and so deserving of the OTIP award.”
That giant, warm personality is a big part of why she connects so well with the kids, creating a solid foundation upon which to engage and teach, Fleming says. “She has the most incredible way of getting kids to buy into things that are kind of tricky in teaching to buy into," she says. "I am not a new teacher, but I look at what she does and try to imitate what she does. She is a phenomenal teacher; just phenomenal."
After 33 years in the classroom, Brown-Robson says every day is still a new adventure full of challenges she relishes. “I am on a constant mission to get children to understand what’s going on around them and the world and how they fit in; it just keeps me driven,” says Robson-Brown. “The thing I love most about teaching is being able to make every child feel special in their own unique way. So many kids have so many strengths, and I think it’s up to teachers to get that out of them.” See TVO's video profile of Brown-Robson at right.
Doing Her Homework
Keeping on the cutting-edge of educational research has been key to Brown-Robson's success, Fleming says. "Melanie has consistently poured herself into professional learning in both literacy and numeracy," she says. "She had also done a lot of professional learning in the summer so she has a good repertoire of tools in her tool bag. She works tirelessly to genuinely and practically tackle the professional problem of ‘what do I do when they just aren’t getting it?’"
Catherine Fosnot has been a key influence on Brown-Robson. She attended a Summer Institute run by Fosnot, and has used those teachings in her classroom. One of the key pedagogical approaches taken from Fosnot’s work is her use of strings, in which students are asked to solve a sequence of related computations, allowing them to understand how a particular strategy works. Building on this process, Brown-Robson follows Fosnot’s use of arrays to deepen the math learning.
Brown-Robson has shared her learning and success with other teachers within the school board and at OAME's provincial math conference. Fleming helped to document what Brown-Robson found worked and what didn't, and shared it with their colleagues. "I had to absolutely document it because the things she was doing are exactly the things that we want teachers to be doing," she says. "One of the hardest things for teachers to figure out is how to make it work? Here was somebody who was making it work.”
Driving Student Math Learning
It’s not unusual for Brown-Robson to meet up with friend and fellow teacher Fleming at a Tim Horton’s on a Saturday morning. But it’s not support in life’s ups and downs that brings them together. It’s the math problems. Last year she had a group of kids in her class who were working below grade level in math. "We got together on a Saturday morning (at Tim Horton's) and started to hash out, ‘what can we do to help these kids to make the progress that she knew that they needed to make?’” The pair combed over research about teaching and learning mathematics and came up with a plan. During those sessions Brown-Robson developed innovative and effective math intervention strategies that helped the children make those connections and catch up with their peers, Fleming says.
Brown-Robson's approach was to build on the children’s ability to subitize (perceive the number of items at a glance), make tens, and calculate through leaps of tens by spending time with each child of concern one-on-one every day. During these intervention sessions she would do one to two minutes of visual quantity recognition using a variety of manipulatives, such as math racks of 20 and 100, play money in a cash register tray, and paper clocks. With all of her students, Brown-Robson aims to address their collective learning needs by placing them in small, flexible groups and conducting ongoing informal assessments. Specifically, her work with the students using math strings has brought ‘breathtaking’ success in the students’ computational fluency, Fleming says.
Food is also a great motivator when trying to engage kids, Brown-Robson says. “A few months ago, I brought in those little white fluffy donuts with the white sugar and they had to start splitting them in halves, quarters and eighths. We also talked about divvying them up, what’s fair and not fair and all of that,” she says. “I do lots of challenges with them regarding real life situations. So we’re going on a field trip, we need to book buses, we need to pack lunches. How many buses are we going to order? We can’t leave kids sitting on the sidewalk waving goodbye, so what do we do? Well, we have to order another bus. So it’s all of those real, day to day, life challenges that I want them to experience.”
Helping Underserved Students
For most of her career, Brown-Robson has worked with some of the most underserved students in the district. “I want them to know that when they enter my classroom everyone is safe, everyone is secure and everyone is treated fairly. Maybe not necessarily treated equally, but certainly fairly and to know that they can do anything in their life that they want to do. They don’t have to worry about where they come from, they can move forward. They can be whomever they want to be when they grow up.”
Being part Black, White and First Nations, Brown-Robson herself experienced bullying, because of her differences, in school as a child. “I looked different than the rest of the class, I came from a very different background than a lot of the kids, and my lunches were different than other kids," she says. "So I know how it feels to be different and I tell my story to the children every year when I get a new group of students. I think, that as teachers we need to really recognize and make sure children understand that it’s okay to be different, but it’s also very important for other children to get those children to be accepted. So it’s all about acceptance. You know you look different, but you shouldn’t be treated differently. Children should celebrate their unique, individual characteristics.” Understanding that her choice of classroom resources affects students’ perceptions of both themselves and others, Brown-Robson makes deliberate choices to include resources that include racial, ethnic, sexual, ability, and religious diversity.
Brown-Robson was an associate teacher to Brooke Wardrope when she was a teacher candidate at Brock University. “I learned so much from her. She taught me the tricks of the trade and all the little things you had to focus on beyond just teaching the curriculum to the kids. It was all about creating that environment and creating that relationship with the kids. That was probably the biggest thing and most important thing that any teacher can learn because it’s all about the classroom culture.”
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