Musical inspiration

University of Wyoming Lab School music teacher Jennifer Mellizo, who was recently named the Albany County School District No. 1 Teacher of the Year, sings along with her kindergarten class Wednesday as they play “Kangaroo Jump” on their xylophones.

JEREMY MARTIN/Boomerang photographer

Jennifer Mellizo’s students teach her just as much as she teaches them.

When a new student from Trinidad and Tobago joined her class two years ago, Jennifer, a University of Wyoming Laboratory School music teacher, noticed he didn’t seem interested in playing traditional band or orchestra instruments. So, she decided to connect with him.

“I took that extra step and asked him, ‘Well, what kind of music do you like?’” she said. “If I never would have asked him that question, I never would have found out that he loved to play the steel drums — and was quite successful in playing the steel drums in Trinidad, which is where that instrument originated.”

Jennifer, who has taught music in Albany County School District No. 1 for 16 years, was recognized this month as the district’s Teacher of the Year, representing the county in the state competition for the Wyoming Teacher of the Year award.

“I think it’s a great honor, particularly because there are so many amazing teachers in this district that I have the opportunity to learn form on a regular basis,” she said. “There are so many amazing teachers even just in this building.”

Full circle

Jennifer was born into a family of teachers. Her mother, Ruth Engleright, was a French teacher, while her father, Brent Engleright, taught PE and coached football. Her younger brother, Patrick Engleright, would later follow in her father’s footsteps and became a PE teacher and football and wrestling coach.

“I kind of joke sometimes about how I never really knew what it was like in the real world, because I just kind of functioned in this world of education, where school and the classroom felt like my family,” Jennifer said. “And my parents’ friends who were teachers were extended aunts and uncles.”

Jennifer was born in Riverton, but her family relocated to Wisconsin when she was 6 months old, and she spent the first chapter of her life growing up in the small, central Wisconsin community of Edgar. As a student, she competed in track and cross-country and graduated in a high school class of roughly 60 students.

For Jennifer, there was never any question that she would become a music teacher — her love of music and education made the decision a “natural choice” for her, she said.

After high school, she attended the University of Wyoming, her father’s alma mater, to pursue a bachelor’s degree in music education.

As a college freshman, she met fellow education major Carlos Mellizo — now a counselor at Beitel Elementary School — in the UW collegiate chorale; she sang alto, while he sang tenor. They were married in 2000, the year she graduated, and now have two young children: third-grader Paulo and first-grader Sofia, who both attend the UW Lab School.

“(It’s) pretty awesome to get your kids in the hall every day and especially getting to see them in music class several times a week,” Jennifer said.

Her first job out of college was a music teacher position at Beitel Elementary School, and she also taught students at Centennial Elementary School.

“My first year teaching was wonderful,” she said. “I had wonderful students. I had a wonderfully supportive administrator over at Beitel. I really loved driving out to Centennial a couple times a week and teaching the kids out there.”

School Board Vice Chairman Dona Coffey, who was a kindergarten teacher at Beitel when Jennifer joined the staff, praised Jennifer’s ability to encourage her students.

“Jennifer has such a wonderful way of working with kids that they absolutely love her and will do anything for her,” Coffey said. “She’s extremely knowledgeable about this, and then to know that she went ahead and got a Ph.D. while she had … kids of her own and was teaching all that time, is just totally amazing, what she’s been able to accomplish. She’s just a wonderful teacher.”

Making musical memories

In 2002, Jennifer accepted a new job teaching music at the Lab School, where she’s remained ever since. She continued to pursue higher education at UW as she worked, graduating with a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction in 2006, and again with a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction this month.

As a music teacher, she said, one of her primary goals is to introduce students to a “huge variety” of musical learning experiences, with the hope each student will latch onto an aspect of music they enjoy, such as singing or playing a musical instrument.

“I think that by the time the students are through fourth grade, they’ve found some aspect of music that they are passionate about,” she said. “And that is my ultimate goal — that is, to cultivate a lot of music so that students will continue to perform music and enjoy music and have it a part of their life for the rest of their life.”

On May 20, she began her first class of the day by singing and playing her acoustic guitar — much to the students’ delight — and leading the first- and second-graders through an enthusiastic rendition of “And the Green Grass Grew All Around.”

Next, they practiced matching pitches and holding a steady rhythm, tapping out beats with their hands and chanting “left, right, left right.”

“You’re doing a fabulous job,” Jennifer told the students as they carefully played those same rhythms on metal and wooden xylophones. “I’m very proud of you.”

Music lessons with younger children typically involve these types of basic exercises, she said. As students get older, they learn more about music theory, practice reading written notation and learn to the play the recorder; by the time students are in fifth and sixth grade, they have the option to pick up a band or orchestra instrument.

Jennifer is passionate about musical theatre, and many of this year’s lessons have focused on music from “The Lion King,” which the students performed in April, Jennifer said. Previous classes have performed “Annie,” “Into the Woods” and “The Wizard of Oz,” and Jennifer has plans for an upcoming K-4 production of “The Aristocats.”

“It’s hard to put my finger on what the best part of my day is because there are so many rewarding moments throughout any given day, for many, many different reasons,” she said. “I would say my most fulfilling moment is just the joy of watching students experience success and getting to try something new and getting to be creative.”

UW Lab School Principal Margaret Hudson, who nominated Jennifer for Wyoming Teacher of the Year, said Jennifer is a “fabulous” teacher.

“Jennifer excels as a teacher, going above and beyond every day in her efforts to ensure the success of all students,” Hudson wrote in her nomination letter. “She is one of those rare individuals who can effectively work with students at all levels, from toddlers, through elementary, middle level, high school, and adult.”

The right notes

School Board Chairman Janice Marshall still remembers the way Jennifer inspired her daughter, Rhiannan Rubino, when she was a student at the Lab School.

“My daughter is not a natural born singer, but Jennifer really helped her to be the best that she could be in singing,” Marshall said. “And I talked to that daughter today and I told her about Jennifer winning Teacher of the Year, and she said, ‘Oh, I wanted to be Mrs. Mellizo when I grow up.’ And I said ‘why?’ and she said ‘Oh, she was just so poised and she was so confident and good with music.’ And she always made her feel so good about herself.’”

Jennifer said she thinks her passion for music encourages her students to develop their own love of the subject.

“I love music and I think they can tell — and that generates a certain level of excitement,” she said.” But even though I love music so much and it’s my subject area … my primary purpose is not to teach music; it’s to teach children through music. And always keeping myself centered in the human aspect of education and the children I am teaching helps to motivate me as a teacher and helps to make my job fresh and new every day.”

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