Education

Teacher feature: With pop, rap and dance, Melanie Hester celebrates cultural diversity of her Iowa City classroom

Melanie Hester has taught at Alexander Elementary in Iowa City for three years

Melanie Hester works with her fifth grade class at Alexander Elementary School in Iowa City on Monday, Feb. 5, 2018. Hester, who is 29, is the daughter of two teachers who inspired her to pursue the profession herself.  (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Melanie Hester works with her fifth grade class at Alexander Elementary School in Iowa City on Monday, Feb. 5, 2018. Hester, who is 29, is the daughter of two teachers who inspired her to pursue the profession herself. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — She isn’t a music teacher, but Melanie Hester incorporates song and dance into many of her fifth-graders’ lessons.

“I enjoy making connections with my kids and inspiring them — not only academically, but also socially and politically,” Hester said. “I am especially invested in creating a classroom community that acknowledges cultural diversity.”

Hester always has been interested in music, and she said incorporating it into her teaching felt natural.

“Research has shown music helps you remember things, and gestures and movement help you remember things, so really I just tried it out one day and it worked."

- Melanie Hester

Fifth Grade Teacher, Alexander Elementary

And at Alexander Elementary in Iowa City — where about half of the student population is African-American — adding music and dance to lessons has been culturally relevant for her students, she said.

“As far as making a classroom community, I want to make sure that the way I teach things, and the information the kids are getting, are things they can use within their own culture,” Hester, 29, said.

To keep her students engaged — especially during math lessons, when students are tasked with rote memorization — Hester writes new lyrics to rap and pop songs.

Her students remember how to multiply a three-digit number by a two-digit number by singing a tune set to Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” how to divide decimals to “Side to Side” by Ariana Grande and the process for turning a mixed number into an improper fraction to “Rolex” by rappers Ayo & Teo.

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“Research has shown music helps you remember things, and gestures and movement help you remember things, so really I just tried it out one day and it worked,” she said, noting she was inspired by educators at Ron Clark Academy in Georgia. “ ... I have never had a group of kids say ‘this is stupid’ when it came to songs and the learning.”

Hester has an associate degree from Kirkwood Community College and a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa.

“I truly think she is superhuman,” said Greg Ludwig, another Alexander teacher, in Hester’s nomination. “Because I am a new teacher, she is always willing to guide me, and help me succeed. She is the teacher I hope to be some day.”

Q: What made you decide to become a teacher?

A: As a daughter of two teachers, I saw the importance of teaching. I wanted to have influence on children and help them realize their full potential in and outside of the classroom, and find joy in learning.

Q: Name a few things you always have on your desk.

A: Motivational quotes, student work to grade, to-do lists.

Q: What are some of your favorite lessons to teach?

A: Grit and perseverance, multiplication and fractions, writing.

Q: What’s one of the hardest conversations you’ve had at school?

A: Conversation about student dialogue, and student behavior that may have preconceived notions related to race and culture.

Q: What keeps you motivated at work?

A: Thinking about how my work impacts the bigger picture. The staff and the kids’ energy and positivity. And coffee. Shout out to those who bring me Starbucks!

Q: What would you be if you weren’t a teacher?

A: A music producer.

Q: What’s something students probably don’t know about you?

A: Things that they are facing in their lives can be similar to things that I am facing in my life. I am very sensitive.

Q: Best way to get students to pay attention?

A: Being energetic, positive and a little rap music. Song and dance that is integrated into instruction helps with engagement.

Q: Who was your favorite teacher when you were a kid?

A: Mrs. Lien from fourth grade (at Harrison Elementary in Davenport).

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The Gazette is featuring Hester as part of an ongoing series spotlighting educators in the Corridor. To nominate someone to be featured, send an email to Molly Duffy, K-12 education reporter, at molly.duffy@thegazette.com.

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.