My name is Melissa Barone Percontino, and I am an 8th-grade English Language Arts teacher in Hudson County, New Jersey. I will be starting my 15th year in my school district this September. I attended Ramapo College of New Jersey and received a degree in Literature with a minor in Psychology. I have always loved books. As a young girl, I wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps and become a teacher, but in high school, I set my sights on publishing, editing, and maybe one day becoming an author. I wanted to work in New York City at a glamorous publishing house like those I had seen on television. I loved the places I could go mentally by reading. My grandmother, Bridget, was an avid reader and helped support and encourage my reading addiction. For as long as I remember, I could get lost in a book for hours, sometimes even finishing books in a single day. When my grandmother started losing her eyesight to Macular Degeneration, the visits with books are memories I will treasure forever.
Even though I loved reading, I wasn’t always an excellent reader. One year early in my education, I recall getting pulled out for special Reading classes with a specialist. We would work in a trailer outside my school. I was a shy and quiet child, and I feel my communication was lacking in those early years. I really grew to love this teacher, Miss Rozman. She had such a passion for reading, and I knew she loved what she did. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and I don’t recall a day she wasn’t upbeat or encouraging. The small group lessons and time I spent with this teacher quickly became a favorite part of my school week. The rules and strategies of reading stuck long after our reading sessions ended. I will never forget her and have to give her credit for why I became a Teacher of English many moons later by Alternate Route.
Once bit by the reading bug, I brought books everywhere I went. I was constantly told to put the book down by my parents at the dinner table and at night to go to bed. I found a love for getting lost in good writing. I would read anything and everything out loud: directions, recipes, the back of food containers, newspapers, 80’s TV Guides, magazines, you name it. I read aloud in the mirror and even pretended to be on commercials after reading shampoo bottles and body soap containers in the shower. As my reading confidence grew, so did my interest in teaching. As I came out of my shell more and more, I came to spend time in my father’s classroom. He was a teacher and coach, and I loved spending time helping him prepare project materials and put on concerts.
My first job was working with kids in a summer camp. That continued throughout high school. At the culmination of college, I worked at a Youth House in Hackensack, New Jersey, doing Art and Interaction. I brought picture books that fit our theme for the day. I also worked at a Senior Veterans Center doing Art and Interaction in their Alzheimer’s Ward. Thanks to my Psychology classes, I have taken opportunities to work with people and develop my interpersonal skills. There, I realized I wanted to take all the opportunities to foster good connections and be the person Miss Rozman was for me. It pushed me to go back to school to gain my teaching credential. I could combine my passion for reading with something I knew would make a real difference. The first smiles and conversations from my quiet, struggling readers were victories. The first time I got my reluctant readers and English Language Learners to lean into a story was monumental.
I had my first child, a son, after two years of teaching 7th grade English Language Arts and was given the opportunity to take classes in Foundational Reading and Orton-Gillingham classes. I raised an avid reader and then had another son. We were constantly reading in our house. It was a literacy-rich environment. I then became an interventionist when my district went to Response to Intervention and found joy in teaching kids to learn to read instead of reading to learn. Then I had my daughter. I taught many grade levels to read and write, as low as 4th and 3rd. I went to 6th grade English Language Arts and then found my sweet spot in 8th grade ELA. My cup truly runneth over.
I appreciate all the twists and turns my life has taken. It feels full and right. I love sharing great stories and reading amazing mentor texts. I love making connections with new students every year and meeting their families. I teach students to communicate in spoken and written words that make their readers think and feel. As much as I love my career, I tell my students I don’t quite know what I want to be when I grow up. I take every opportunity to learn and grow. I love what I do, but I want to show them that you are never too old to dream or set new goals.
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