Students are getting excited about reading at Randolph County Elementary School! Join us in conversation with Principal Heather Melton to learn more.

Heather Melton in Classroom Conversations

Students are getting excited about reading at Randolph County Elementary School! Join us in conversation with Principal Heather Melton to learn more.

Watch this episode on YouTube here.


Ashley Mengwasser: Good day educators and leaders of Georgia. Thank you for joining us for another Literacy Leadership episode of Classroom Conversations, the platform for Georgia's teachers. I'm Ashley Mengwasser, and you are very welcome here. Thanks for joining us. Our handmade heart-made podcast series is a joint project of the Georgia Department of Education and GPB, Georgia Public Broadcasting. These two entities are in alignment to bring you fresh focused content to inform classroom instruction for teachers and improve learning outcomes for students. I often repeat the phrase, "It's a beautiful thing," on this podcast because there is beauty in the design of what our teacher and leader guests bring forth in these episodes. One of the most beautiful things a school or system can create within its walls? Alignment. We know the uncomfortable feeling of an ill fit, misaligned teeth, misaligned tires, spines out of whack, that pull as teeth are righted, loud whir as tires are drilled into order, and the crack as vertebrae snap to attention are momentary pains before the release that comes with alignment. Alignment is a structured place of efficacy, flow, and satisfaction, and its utterly thrilling when curriculum aligns under the strong guiding hand of quality instructional materials, the topic of today's Literacy leadership episode. We have a principal in our office today, a literacy leader who upholds her school districts motto, one vision, one team, one community. Heather Melton has served 22 years in the same district, Randolph County School System, and is the new principal of Randolph County Elementary School. She's worked what feels like 10 different roles in the same school system. It's evident Heather is in alignment in Randolph County and Cuthbert Georgia. Hey, Heather.

Heather Melton: Hey, it's great to be here today. Thank you for having me.

Ashley Mengwasser: Are you having a good day?

Heather Melton: Yes. I'm so happy to be here.

Ashley Mengwasser: We're having a good day now that you're here, would you talk about your pathway to principal to get us started? How did that happen?

Heather Melton: Okay. Well, I started in Randolph County as a kindergarten teacher, and I did that for 10, I think 11 years, and then I was a second grade teacher. Then I was always involved in some type of leadership role in the school, so I may have been a grade chair for the grade level. I may have ran different committees for the school, things like that. I also did intervention in 4th and 5th grade after school. And then our instructional coach retired and I was asked by Dr. Tangela Madge to move into that position.

Ashley Mengwasser: Instructional coach?

Heather Melton: Yes. So I did do that for a few years and then I went into the next role, and that was, for the district, I was the literacy coordinator for the district. So I was working K-12 at that time.

Ashley Mengwasser: Wow.

Heather Melton: And I was also the L4GA grant coordinator.

Ashley Mengwasser: Of course you are. And we keep going with these roles and titles.

Heather Melton: Yes. And so this year towards the end of May, they called me in and asked would I take this position as well. And so now here we are.

Ashley Mengwasser: Here you are, your first semester as principal. One of the cutest things you did when you and I first spoke Heather, as you said, "And guess what?" What was your "guess what"?

Heather Melton: Okay. It's a fun fact, but I attended the same school that I have also worked at for the last 22 years. So you have to think I've spent almost my entire life-

Ashley Mengwasser: Entire life.

Heather Melton: ... in that building.

Ashley Mengwasser: That is wild and beautiful. I can't stop grinning. What is special to you about elementary school education? Why are you there, do you think?

Heather Melton: I just love their energy and they're genuine and they're kind. And they really want to please you and they want to do well. What's important to you becomes important to them.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes. What do you like about being principal?

Heather Melton: I like that I've in this role now because the work that we were doing, this role is the perfect vehicle for me to be able to implement the literacy components that we are currently rolling out in the building and for us to merge them with the new GSE math standards as well.

Ashley Mengwasser: Which is a big thing right now. You have this quote that you love to live by as principal. Would you share it with us?

Heather Melton: I sure will. Reading is the tide that raises all boats.

Ashley Mengwasser: I like that so much. And so the idea is we're pushing kids. You said we're pushing kids to their maximum, but we're supporting them. We're buoyant underneath the boat. You're doing a lot of cool stuff, you were talking to me, about reading and math and open-ended questions and all of these subject areas. How are you using open-ended questions?

Heather Melton: Okay. Every day when our students go into their curriculum, they have supported reading time. But each day when that time ends, they are given an open-ended question for them to ponder on, for them to think about and to articulate in their own words onto that paper. There's a lot of conversations about the responses that they're writing and that empowers them to become the critical thinkers that they have to be in today's society, in school and in life.

Ashley Mengwasser: Exactly right. And you're seeing great success with this. And you said how does your school approach literacy? It's structured? Tell us about that.

Heather Melton: It is structured literacy. We have three literacy blocks and what that means is we have 45 minutes of shared reading. So at that time, they're working in an actual trade book that you could go purchase at Barnes & Noble. It's not specific to a curriculum. During that time, they are practicing their oral reading fluency. Then they end with the open-ended question.

Ashley Mengwasser: Love it.

Heather Melton: Then they move into their ELA block, and either it's going to be an interactive read aloud or it's going to be a language standard that they're working on. Then the last 45 minutes would be our DI block, which is differentiated instruction, and that is where students are given specific instruction for enrichment or skill remediation at that time. So that's custom and those groups are very fluid.

Ashley Mengwasser: I want to ask you an open-ended question. Tell me about the purpose behind your district motto, because I'm hearing it in some of your answers. It was one vision, one team, one community. Why does doing this in a structured way seemed to work? What was the purpose of following your mission in a lot of this?

Heather Melton: So, for us, following that mission was an alignment of the work. It is going to help the students. We're removing that cognitive load of always trying to figure out what we're going to do that day.

Ashley Mengwasser: I love that thought.

Heather Melton: What we're going to do that day. You come in, you know you're going to read, you know you're going to write, you know you're going to receive support at small group table. That is comforting for students to know that that is exactly going to be the routine every day. And again, the load is removed. They can focus on acquiring the skill.

Ashley Mengwasser: And we know that students do well with structure. Kids do well with structure.

Heather Melton: And adults too.

Ashley Mengwasser: Exactly. And some of that anxiety of everyday being different, needing to know, "What are we going to do today? What are we going to do today?" And that helps teachers too.

Heather Melton: Yes, it does.

Ashley Mengwasser: Exactly.

Heather Melton: It does. And it does help them polish their craft because they're not changing constantly. You're taking this one model, you're learning the model, implementing the model with the students, and then it gives you that reflective moment to look back, "What would I have done differently? What would I do the next go round?" So one of the things we asked our teachers to do last year was to put sticky notes to self inside so when you encountered it again next year, this would be a reminder, "Okay, I would do this differently." So we did add that last year.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's a really good idea. You are so structured, just like structured literacy. I think that's the vibe I'm getting. Tell me about yourself personally. Is that your personality?

Heather Melton: That is who I am. I live about two weeks ahead in life.

Ashley Mengwasser: Good.

Heather Melton: So, about two weeks. I have to have order. I like things to be just so.

Ashley Mengwasser: And in your personal, what are you like? You seem very focused on structure and order. Is that who you are in your day-to-day?

Heather Melton: Yes, that is who I am. My family jokes around that I typically live about two weeks ahead in life, and I really do. Things are orderly for about two weeks. It just works better for me that way and for them too.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes. What are the components of your life? You have the school that you're the principal of, but then you have much more, I'm sure.

Heather Melton: Yes, I do. I have my family's at home. I have a husband. He's a local timber harvester in our community.

Ashley Mengwasser: Really?

Heather Melton: Yes. So I do have three kids. I have a daughter named Morgan and a son-in-law named Quinn. I have a middle son named Cole and a younger son who's a senior in high school named Nate. They take up a lot of our time, a lot of our time on the weekends spent with family.

Ashley Mengwasser: As kids do. A lot of time with family, a lot of time at school. And you just completed some school yourself?

Heather Melton: I did. I have been out of the classroom now for six years. And for the last five years I have been an active student myself through all the changing roles in school. But I just completed my reading endorsement. I did my ED Leadership Tier 1 add-on, and then I went out and got my specialist in ED Leadership Tier 2.

Ashley Mengwasser: Congratulations.

Heather Melton: Thank you.

Ashley Mengwasser: What are you doing with your free time?

Heather Melton: Oh, I'm trying to learn how to have free time.

Ashley Mengwasser: How to have free time.

Heather Melton: Honestly.

Ashley Mengwasser: I expected you to say that. I'm also super early. I like to be prepared. I get it. But what can sometimes be a mess, if I'm honest, Principal Melton, is my work bag of too many absolute essentials. You can never just have a couple. Could we do an ode to Vogue right now? I would love to hear, Heather, what is in your work bag? Do you have your work bag with you?

Heather Melton: I do.

Ashley Mengwasser: Okay, show us what you got. First of all, her work bag is a backpack.

Heather Melton: That's fitting.

Ashley Mengwasser: Which is so fitting for school.

Heather Melton: I know.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, what is this book on top?

Heather Melton: Okay.

Ashley Mengwasser: Is this something you're reading? Yes. What is that?

Heather Melton: What Great Principals Do Differently.

Ashley Mengwasser: Very interesting.

Heather Melton: Yes. And I do have a page tabbed in the back. Great principals never forget that it is people, not programs that determine the quality of a school.

Ashley Mengwasser: People not programs. Okay. So you've got some stuff in there that I would've expected from our principal. What's this next book?

Heather Melton: This next one, The Writing Revolution.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, that looks good. A Guide to Advancing Thinking through Writing in all subjects and Grades.

Heather Melton: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Good handbook.

Heather Melton: It is. And it goes back to sentence level instruction, which we also do in our curriculum as well.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah, I know you're focused on that.

Heather Melton: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: And what is the last workbook?

Heather Melton: The last one is How to Plan Differentiated Reading Instruction. And this is what we use to provide instruction to our students that are in their DI groups. All of the materials are inside. You can see it's very lived in.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes, very lived in.

Heather Melton: Very.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's how you can tell it's a piece of work. Thank you for taking us behind your work bag. I really enjoyed that.

Heather Melton: Sure. Thank you.

Ashley Mengwasser: Who are our thought leaders that you're reading these days? Who are you most looking up to at the moment?

Heather Melton: At the moment would be Sharon Walpole because her work is the work that we're aligning in our building. We are going through all of her blocks one by one and slowly looking at each one what can we do better so we're constantly evolving in this process. Last year, our teachers, we did a reverse rollout in our curriculum. And what we did was our students in grades 3, 4, and 5, we put a new curriculum in place for those students because they were the most impacted post-COVID.

Ashley Mengwasser: Wow. A big change.

Heather Melton: Yes, a big change.

Ashley Mengwasser: How they do?

Heather Melton: It was a tough first nine weeks trying to expose them to the rigor of that curriculum to the... It was more of they had to learn a new way. And with that meaning you're constantly working. This is constantly reading.

Ashley Mengwasser: Iterative. Yes.

Heather Melton: Yes. You're constantly reading. You're constantly writing. They were one and the same working together. Our teachers were able to lift that curriculum. And we did what most schools what it would take them three years to do-

Ashley Mengwasser: You did?

Heather Melton: ... in two months.

Ashley Mengwasser: Incredible.

Heather Melton: We did it. They did it. I helped them with the work, but the teachers really were the ones that did that huge lift. And we were able to put all three of those blocks in motion and the students grew tremendously.

Ashley Mengwasser: Amazing. So that's what you mean when you say you work your students to the max with support?

Heather Melton: Yes. With support. They had support.

Ashley Mengwasser: That push was hugely effective.

Heather Melton: It was.

Ashley Mengwasser: You found it just was necessary. Let's start with the basics as we dive into our topical discussion of instructional materials. We know that learning should be more than just reciting facts and knowledge. That when we're talking about instructional materials, we want tools that are relevant that help make knowledge stick that are built for that lesson, that skill, that aha moment. What exactly are we encompassing when we say instructional materials?

Heather Melton: Okay, so instructional materials are any items or resources that we can use to help us deliver instruction. That can be anything from a trade book, to a poem, to an anchor chart, to manipulatives that the kids may be using. Those are the instructional materials that you would see throughout the building.

Ashley Mengwasser: Could they be audio, video? I'm just thinking about my world here.

Heather Melton: Yes, they sure could because some kids use podcasts in the classroom. And it can be, they have different stations that they can go and work in those areas.

Ashley Mengwasser: I got you. Or even electronic like a calculator or other tools of the trade.

Heather Melton: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Okay, interesting. And one thing that I wonder when you're selecting instructional materials, we all know the feeling of chemistry, from a great hairstylist or a great mechanic or that perfect sandwich maker in the deli, does it feel similar when you're choosing instructional materials for your school, Heather? Is it, "This instant chemistry, this is going to work for us?" Or is it something you just try and implement and the love grows over time? How would you describe the relationship?

Heather Melton: I would say the relationship depends on that teacher and what their focus is. And by that I mean when we implemented this curriculum last year, our ELA teachers were instantly in love and they embraced it with open arms. But in our district, we are self-contained, so we're not departmentalized. And that means that our teachers teach all contents all day.

Ashley Mengwasser: All areas.

Heather Melton: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Okay.

Heather Melton: And with that being said, the math teachers were more hesitant.

Ashley Mengwasser: They held back a bit.

Heather Melton: But over time they were enjoying the books as well and the instruction and they could see what they were doing in reading start to impact math, which is what we want to happen.

Ashley Mengwasser: Very good. So the answer is it depends.

Heather Melton: It depends.

Ashley Mengwasser: It depends on where people are joining you as pertains to that content area. And there can be different purposes for instructional materials and tools and resources that are quality. I know that that's big for you. You did a big push, you found something that worked. What tools and resources are available for helping districts determine the quality of high quality instruction materials? How do we know?

Heather Melton: Yes. Well, there are rubrics out there that districts can use. So when they are getting ready to evaluate curriculums, they can use these rubrics to go through, "Does it have this? Does it have that?" And then you can lay your rubrics out and see which one you would like to choose. But there's also reliable agencies that you can reach out to too, like the Reading League. And you can also reach out to What Works clearinghouse and receive the ratings off of there. Those along with your rubrics would help you make really informed decisions.

Ashley Mengwasser: Don't fly blind.

Heather Melton: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Do your research.

Heather Melton: Do your research.

Ashley Mengwasser: And why is it important for districts and schools to have common materials for teachers across grade levels? Is there a reason to do that?

Heather Melton: There is a reason to do that. And that will ensure when you're walking through those classrooms, you're seeing a similar delivery of all of the material. But we also want to make sure that all students have access to high quality materials. So what one kid is receiving in one classroom, you would expect the same student to be receiving in the other classroom as well.

Ashley Mengwasser: Right. Alignment?

Heather Melton: Yes. Back to our motto, our vision. And then perhaps I would say if students are struggling, it gives us a common data point to figure out is it the curriculum, is it the classroom. We can start backtracking to figure out exactly what we need to provide some support to address an area of concern.

Ashley Mengwasser: Whereas if there were more going on, it might be harder to tease out the issue, yeah.

Heather Melton: Harder to pinpoint. Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: And the Georgia Early Literacy Act, this is very relevant, House Bill 538. It requires local boards of education to approve high quality instructional materials for K-3 and to certify to Georgia DOE its instructional materials. How does this part of House Bill 538 help ensure quality instruction and literacy for grades K-3?

Heather Melton: So, what that means, this act will be changing the lives of students in Georgia.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, I like that.

Heather Melton: Yes. The instructional resources will be high quality evidence-based materials that will be provided for the schools.

Ashley Mengwasser: So that's how it's done?

Heather Melton: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Nothing is taught in isolation.

Heather Melton: No.

Ashley Mengwasser: You told me that. You said that's something you really believe. And I think your actual curriculum and your approach to the curriculum at your school shows that, and that teachers are teaching across the disciplines. You're using structured literacy. By doing the same thing every day, they get to release that cognitive load, you said, until the process is automatic. Are they noticing that? Are the students noticing this? Do you see it in their eyes?

Heather Melton: Yes. They are noticing it because we've had a shift inside of our building.

Ashley Mengwasser: Ooh.

Heather Melton: With that, I mean, before, we had students that were very reluctant readers. Because typically if you struggle to do something, you do not do it. But by providing the support through the curriculum, through the blocks, they were receiving that DI time, those skills are growing. So now you see our students checking out book after book. We have students in the lunch line reading books.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh my gosh.

Heather Melton: We have kids walking to the bus reading books.

Ashley Mengwasser: With a book.

Heather Melton: So, there's been a shift inside the building and now we are becoming a culture of readers.

Ashley Mengwasser: A culture of readers.

Heather Melton: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: And you've got programs in the school that overtly support literacy there. I want you to tell us about two of them if you would. First, what is Word Count Wednesday?

Heather Melton: Okay. Well, Word Count Wednesday is, A, that's the day that all the kids wait for in the building because they want to see who are the top three readers in their grade level that week. And they're reading books, taking accelerated reader tests, and then they get the word count. And the students are extremely competitive.

Ashley Mengwasser: With the Word Count?

Heather Melton: Yes. I had a little boy stop me Friday. Well, no, it was Thursday. And he said, "Look in my backpack, I want you to see all the books I'm reading because I have to have my name in the Word Count." So they want this. It's something that the kids want and they are just empowered by reading now.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's beautiful. Where do they go and see who the winners are? Do you announce them? Are they posted?

Heather Melton: Oh, we announce them. And we post it on our Facebook page. We post it. Each week we also do a Shout-out to the Rising Reader. So whoever's up and coming, we want to encourage all of our readers and they work really hard for this.

Ashley Mengwasser: Brilliant. And there's another program I love, which is inviting parents into this mix with Cupcakes and Curriculum. What does that do?

Heather Melton: Yes. Okay. So what we're going to do, since we're having this new curriculum, and parents, we want them to be able to help their kids at home, we are going to invite them into the building and we're going to actually walk them through what these lessons look like, "This is what we're doing. This is what your child is doing every day." And we're trying to tear down those barriers so they can help us at home and we can have home and school become one again.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah, you said you're bridging that gap.

Heather Melton: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Definitely. Definitely sounds like it. How can schools begin to approach literacy this way? Maybe their school day is set up totally different, but what is a simple thing that they could do to get these results?

Heather Melton: I would say embrace your current reality. Look at what you're doing really well. Look at areas where you need to work. And figure out, put a plan in place to start working those areas that do need the additional support. And step out of all patterns. You do not have to keep doing the exact same thing over and over because-

Ashley Mengwasser: Just because it's what you've done.

Heather Melton: That's right. You're going to have to be bold. There were some times last year when we rolled that curriculum that I was nervous about it, but I never did let the teachers know that I was nervous because that was our moment.

Ashley Mengwasser: That was your moment, yes. You've advocated a lot today about finding a curriculum that works holistically instead of trying to layer too much in, because the chaos that could create, if there is a problem, might be harder to detect it. So is there any other contributor to your success? I know you do a lot to advocate and applaud for your educators. Say something about them right now.

Heather Melton: Okay. I would like to just thank them for what they did for children last year because I know that that was a very stressful year. It was a lot. It was a lot. There were hard days, but they did not give up on the kids. And that's powerful. We had Ms. Mitchner, Ms. Stanfield, Ms. Oliver, Ms. English, Ms. Peek. We had Ms. Brown and Ms. Hardwick. They did not always embrace it, but they delivered that curriculum with fidelity and they changed lives that day.

Ashley Mengwasser: Delivered the curriculum with fidelity.

Heather Melton: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: They were in alignment with the with the curriculum.

Heather Melton: They were in alignment. It was powerful.

Ashley Mengwasser: That is your mantra. That's a wrap, Heather.

Heather Melton: Why thank you.

Ashley Mengwasser: Thank you so much for being here today.

Heather Melton: Thank you.

Ashley Mengwasser: Your laser focus is absolutely galvanizing. And we know what's in Heather's bag. She's shared some from her bag of tricks as well. And take a look inside of your bag next. And if you borrow from Heather, you could secure the most promising instructional materials for your school's literacy growth. Another great episodes of Classroom Conversations in the Bag. I'm host Ashley, back this time next week in alignment with our usual rollout schedule. Join us. Bye-Bye for now. Funding for Classroom Conversations is made possible through the School Climate Transformation Grant.