One of Melissa Warren’s ninth grade English students, Juan Morales at South Brunswick High School, says her class is like the Army—you must be on time, you must be prepared, and you must make every second count.
WHQR’s Michelle Bliss recently embedded with Warren’s first period class and has this report from the front lines.
Six girls and twenty boys file in to room 183 where their petite drill sergeant is forging paths around the rows of desks, handing back papers with firm orders for revision.
“Those of you that are getting back your memoir drafts—I didn’t fix your grammar; your grammar is messed up. But you need to do that. I did mark some things that I liked about it.”
Classroom walls are plastered with student writing and art. At the front of the room, there’s a poster in a rainbow of magic markers that reads: Teacher of the Year.
Warren has spent a decade at South Brunswick High since graduating as a Teaching Fellow from UNCW. She’s been selected as one of the nine best teachers in North Carolina and is being considered for this year’s state-wide honor, which will be announced next month.
“Melissa—I only marked good things, but you will have to go back and fix the grammar, okay?”
After handing back papers and taking attendance, Warren launches into class discussion. There are no mere observers, not even a visiting reporter.
“Did you notice that there’s a lady following me around? This is Miss Bliss and she’s from WHQR. And she’s also—and this is really cool—a nonfiction writer. If you have any questions for Miss Bliss about writing nonfiction, that would be a good place to start and then we’ll interview her.”
Warren turns seemingly small moments into opportunities for learning and growth by simply addressing the obvious, head-on—even her own vulnerabilities.
“I’m sure you noticed up there that I don’t spell very well, but that’s something we discuss, like: Miss Warren has dyslexia; this is going to happen; here are some ways I deal with it. And instead of just saying, ‘I’m never going to write on the board because it’s going to look wrong,’ I’m going to make a mistake, you guys can tell me when, let’s talk about how to fix it.”
By openly confronting her struggles, Warren creates an environment where students can be honest, an essential quality for their final class mission: to publish a collection of memoir. They can write about anything they choose, but their stories must be true.
“Last semester, there was a kid that wrote about being bullied that just blew my mind. He talked about pointless cruelty and the things that people had taken away from him by bullying.
Other kids have written about coping with a parent’s drug addiction or witnessing a drive-by-shooting.
But some of Warren’s favorite entries are snapshots of the perfect teenage night, perhaps out on the beach with friends. They remind her of being a student at South Brunswick High herself, not so long ago.
Like many of her students today, Warren could not afford to go to college. The Teaching Fellows program gave her a full ride.
“I came from a family that we didn’t always have what we needed. My mom was awesome—she just had three kids on her own. And so, I think one of the things that my teachers provided to me was that idea that there are options, there are scholarships, and there are ways that you can make different choices than your parents did. And that was how Teaching Fellows was so important to me.”
The program is no longer accepting applications because its state funding is being phased out. This spring, 35 North Carolina school districts, including Brunswick County, have signed a resolution asking lawmakers for help.
While everyone waits to see if there’s any hope for the program, Warren’s students remain focused on their operational objectives, submitting their drafts and revising that grammar—tackling the obstacles of any skilled writer’s basic training.