Melanie Mello: 2013 Teacher of Excellence Award Winner

Melanie Mello Enlarge image (© Courtesy Melanie Mello) A former student from Melanie Mello’s German class at St. Joseph High School in South Bend, Indiana, Daniel Brach, signs his letter “Mit freundlichen Grüßen aus Berlin.”

Brach, currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, is studying abroad in Germany. He describes how as a student of “Frau” Mello during his junior and senior years at St. Joseph, Mello’s “passion, dedication, approachability, humor and ingenuity” allowed him to gain a strong grounding in German, preparing him well for college-level classes.

“Frau Mello introduced my class to new and exciting topics beyond the typical vocabulary lessons,” he writes. “For example, we read a crime novel, examined German poetry, and explored not only the language but also the culture…I do not exaggerate when I state that were it not for Frau Mello and my high school German education, I would likely not be studying abroad in Germany as a college student.”

Interacting with Germans

In Frau Mello’s class, you get to know the popular culture of present-day Germany, including German television shows and films watched via Internet.

“Exposing students to authentic German programs helped improve our understanding of native spoken German, which is something we lacked prior to her arrival. She also prepared us for interacting with Germans.”

Brach is one of many individuals who have been inspired and motivated by Melanie Mello’s teaching. Having herself been stimulated by her history teacher and German teacher at her Gymnasium in southern Germany, Mello planned to acquire German teaching credentials for English and German at the Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen. After completing a DAAD-funded exchange at California State University, Chico, however, she decided to stay in the US to complete her studies, receiving BAs in German and English.

More than Luck

A stroke of luck gave Mello her first full-time teaching opportunity when a local high school was looking for a German teacher shortly after she moved to South Bend with her husband. At the time, however, Mello was told there was no guarantee the position would be continued beyond that school year. After six years, the German program’s expansion and success is clearly due to more than luck.

The fact that “six years later, the German program keeps on growing and growing” is, Mello believes, her greatest accomplishment as a teacher of German. “Moreover, our curriculum is rigorous and my expectations of the students are high.”

“Students who decide to take German do so because they know they will learn how to speak, read, and comprehend the German language.” For Mello’s students, her classes are just the beginning of a long-term engagement with German. “Most of my students major or double-major in German at the university and many test out of all language learning classes,” she says.

The expectations for her students are high because of the high standards Mello maintains for her own teaching. She is constantly seeking new methods of reaching her primary goal: “to create assignments that have a real purpose and are creative in nature.” The many such assignments have in common that they serve to connect students with the reality of Germany as it is today.

Tapping into Myriad Learning Styles

Ricardo J. Rios, World Language Chair at St. Joseph High School, calls Mello “a dedicated and energetic instructor who maximizes her students’ potential and taps into students’ myriad learning styles.” He cites several examples of the type of activities she uses to engage students:

“Students in German levels I through III participate in ‘Das Bild der Anderen,’ an email exchange with other learners of German through the Goethe Institute. Students write letters bi-weekly in which they share personal experiences as well as cultural aspects of their respective countries.”

“In addition, her classes have included a project where students have written and filmed a detective mystery. This…project was part of the Annual Theater fest at Valparaiso University, which is a competition between high school German students. Furthermore, Melanie has encouraged her students to participate in the International German Olympics with great success, with a student recently receiving special commendation.”

A Good Taste in the Mouth

To create the inspiring, motivational learning environment she herself experienced at Gymnasium, Mello continually seeks techniques, often incorporating Web 2.0 tools and other technology, that change the foreign language classroom dynamic from a traditional, teacher-centric model, to a student-centered approach.

She describes the “Wir eröffnen eine Gaststätte Projekt”(“We’re opening a restaurant project”) from her German II class, in which groups of students design a type of German restaurant from concept to décor to cuisine, which they prepare and serve at the annual International Club Cook-off. The Internet research that goes into this endeavor provides for an “application of new technology…that allows [students] to demonstrate their learning creatively.”

It’s this approach to teaching that inspires Mello’s students, and even leaves a good taste in the mouth.