Indiana State University Newsroom

Resetting her compass: Teacher returns to West Vigo Middle School with new energy

December 21, 2010

During a lesson on writing thank you notes and letters of appreciation, Melanie Beaver moved around her classroom questioning, assisting and teasing her 23 West Vigo Middle School seventh grade students.

"I love it because it's such a funky cool time for them," said the English teacher after class. "They're so raw in their writing ability and just in discovering what they like to read. I just like to be a part of that."

Beaver returned to her middle school classroom in August after a year sabbatical she spent as a clinical faculty associate at Indiana State University, starting her doctorate at ISU and a summer pursuing her passion through a Lilly Endowment Teacher Creativity grant.

"My husband says I'd be busy inside an empty cardboard box and that's true," she said. "I do it to myself. I didn't really have to be that busy. No one said I had to turn it into a degree. No one said I had to write a Lilly grant. But I just really wanted to be a sponge."

What she soaked up during her year at ISU, she has taken back to her classroom. Indiana State has been woven through Beaver's life since she left her northern Indiana home to pursue a degree in education.

"I thought of all the schools in Indiana that it was the best choice to be a teacher," said the ISU graduate in 1993 with an elementary education degree and in 1998 with a master's in education. "I wanted to be the most effective teacher I could be so I wanted to go to the right place."

Through her return to ISU as a clinical faculty associate, she spent one year passing along her passion for teaching to future teachers and her knowledge to faculty. Though all of Indiana State's elementary, early and special education faculty have experience in schools, clinical faculty associates bring current perspectives into the university classroom and faculty meetings.

"What a faculty fellow brings to us is that fresh, new, current, up-to-date picture of what is happening in the schools," said Beth Whitaker, Bayh College of Education professor. "The richness of what they can give us is beautiful."

Rebecca Boehler, second grade teacher at DeVaney Elementary, worked as the first clinical faculty associate in 2008-09. Beaver served as the second for the elementary, early and special education department during 2009-10.

"They both brought such creativity and a wide picture of the world for us that we value, value for the opportunity to have these people on board for the whole year," Whitaker said.

Whitaker said Beaver teaches with flair.

"She could take a ruler and teach a hundred lessons from a ruler and make it so exciting that you couldn't wait to go out and buy yourself a ruler," Whitaker said. "Melanie is the perfect example of what sparkle is in education. She just makes everything jump off the page."

As an Indiana State clinical faculty associate, Beaver taught classes and observed students as part of her duties. She worked with education faculty members on what teachers face in the real world classrooms to help them better prepare their students for that experience.

She also started work on her doctorate degree in curriculum and instruction in elementary education.

"I was owned by the idea that I could turn this experience for year into a more long-term thing and I wanted to stay a part of the Bayh College of Education longer than my one year with them as faculty," she said.

While Beaver learned that professors' jobs are more difficult than they seem, she also found it increased her sense of vision for her career choice of educating middle school students.

"It kind of like reset my compass, if you will, for why I became a teacher," she said. "It helped me realize that the same goals that I learned a long ago in becoming a teacher there at ISU, they're still instilling those values in teachers today. Then I came back to the classroom with a lot of ideas and a lot of energy. It just helped me to be able to focus more on the students realizing again that this is exactly the profession that I need to be in."

While working as a clinical faculty associate, Beaver had the opportunity to learn more about the Lilly grant program for teachers.

"I've always heard of people doing wild and crazy things all over this planet because of this teacher creativity grant and I jus t never could put my finger on what it would be for me, what I could do with it," she said.

During an event at ISU, she met teachers who received the grant and they gave her advice for her own project. Beaver said that Lilly wants teachers to "do something wild because they understand that teachers who get a chance to fulfill their wildest dreams and passions when they're not in the classroom, they go back to the classroom and show their students, you can dream big. You can make crazy, great things happen for yourself."

Beaver decided for her project proposal that she wanted to focus on something patriotic.

"I was born on a military base. I married a Navy sailor. I lost a nephew in the Iraq War on Terror," she said.

Her project "In Search of My ‘Monumental' Patriotism" received funding. She, her husband and their two sons spent part of their summer traveling in a recreational vehicle to five major national parks and historical monuments in the western United States.

From photographs she took during the trip, she is creating five watercolor greeting cards to send to military personnel in the Middle East.

"The sketch and watercolor of the places I visited was my big stretch component of the grant because I'm not a sketch artist and I'm not a painter," she said.

As part of the grant, she trained with watercolorist Katrina Murray in Indianapolis.

"She trained me on something that was new and foreign to me so that got me out of my box and let me learn through someone else's passion," Beaver said.

During a recent seventh-grade English class, Beaver showed her students how she created the greeting card through tracing the photograph she took of Mount Rushmore from her computer screen, transferring the tracing to watercolor paper and painting techniques she learned. Once she finished the watercolor, she shrunk it down and had it printed on cardstock.

"[Military members] are defending this beautiful country that in part they may not have seen," Beaver said about her planned cards that include scenes of Devil's Tower, the Grand Canyon and the Grand Tetons.

During the class, she brainstormed with the students on words to use and what to say in writing cards thanking the service members. Soon blonde and brown-haired heads bent over desks as the students wrote drafts of their letters on lined paper before copying their words of thanks to the red cards. Beaver moved around the classroom checking spelling and phrasing, encouraging and praising the students as they practiced writing a letter of appreciation.

"I didn't have to include my students in that part, but it's just not me," she said later. "I just couldn't do something so crazy in the summer and not find a way to sneak them into it."

And in the lesson on writing, she embedded another, one she tries to teach them all year long.

"One very important lesson that I always want to teach my students is just to realize how lucky you are and to be grateful - that no matter what your situation you can be grateful - and you can control your destiny," she said.

Photos: - Melanie Beaver has returned to teaching at West Vigo Middle School following one year as a clinical faculty associate in Indiana State University's Bayh College of Education. (ISU/Tony Campbell) - Melanie Beaver, who returned to teaching fo0llowing a year spent as a clinical faculty associate in Indiana State University's Bayh College of Education, keeps her students attention at West Vigo Middle School. (ISU/Tony Campbelll) - The Grand Canyon was one of several national parks and landmarks Melanie Beaver and her family visited thanks to a teacher creativity grant from Lilly Endowment. (submitted photo)

Media contact and writer: Jennifer Sicking, associate director of media relations, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-7972 or