Saturday, April 26, 2014

Kindness Matters: Writing with StoryLines Pages & Edmodo

I partner teach 36 fifth graders with +sheila monger , our inclusive education teacher (some would call her an SDC teacher, she would not). We encompass rooms 7 & 8 so we call ourselves Team Seight. If you were to come in when we are all in the same room, you would not know who was officially assigned to each teacher.  +Edmodo has been a great tool for connecting our students in authentic ways, and preparing them for the world of social media in a safe and controlled environment. This year a theme at our school has been kindness, so using StoryLines Pages, an app in Edmodo, we created a Kindness Matters Book for each student.  

StoryLines Pages is a collaborative classroom activity where students learn the power of compliments and encouragement. Inspired by the story "All Good Things", by Sister Helen Mrosla, StoryLines Pages has each student in your class creating a page for each other student, expressing something he appreciates about his classmate.With this app, each student writes a “page” (one sentence) about every other student in our class. We read the short, true (verified by Snopes) story by Sister Helen and then the kids got to work. Some of my findings as we worked on this project:

  • All students participated, and I had a quick snapshot of who was or wasn’t working on their pages, using the overall status page
  • As I went through and reviewed students’ pages, I was able to see common mistakes, trends and areas of need. For example, this student consistently used capital letters incorrectly. Many of my students are still misusing the contraction of you are, spelling it Y-O-U-R.  Several of my students had difficulty writing in the first person, present tense.

SL comment page.PNG

  • It was extremely rewarding for me to read the comments that my students made about all of their classmates. Never once was a comment checked “It is not nice” because it was mean. Some of our ED kids did have challenges differentiating between a statement (You play with me at recess. vs I like when you play with me at recess.) However, overwhelmingly, the students really had surprisingly nice things to say about each other.

  • One of my students on a 504 has significant challenges starting work.  He will sit and stare into space. I was very worried about what other students would say about him, there just doesn't seem to be much 'there-there' from a 10 year old’s perspective, or so I thought.  I was delighted to see pages such as “You respect others, You are smart and funny (he is, when he speaks), You are a good listener, You are good at sitting still when others are talking. You are polite, respectful to others and very quiet in class.”  None of these things are untrue and I just loved seeing how they took a behavior that can be difficult and saw the positive in it! I learned a lesson myself from these kids (well,honestly they teach me something every day)

  • The app was incredibly easy for me to use, and even easier for the kids.  Because often the same child would make the same errors repeatedly, I could cut and paste my review comment, and they got practice correcting these problem areas.

  • I did have a few students think they could just cut and paste and make the same comment to multiple classmates. Because I would review all of the pages by a given student at one time, it was pretty easy to catch this and comment back to them to be original and be specific.

  • Once most of the Storylines Pages ages are done, we will go ahead and publish the book. Students will receive a link that they can choose to share outside of Edmodo.


I am eagerly awaiting the smiles and happy sighs when the students read the kind words said about them. As a parent, I know I would cherish seeing the kindness extended toward my child through such a project.  As a teacher of students with a wide range of abilities, it was great to find an activity that all students could participate in equally. This activity also served as a great formative assessment and gave me insights into student needs. Finally, it was just sweet and this time of year, in fifth grade, we can all use a little sweet!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Most Important Lesson They'll Learn All Year

After two months out of the classroom, I returned to my thirty-six fifth graders this past week.  Just eleven months ago my husband, Jim, was diagnosed with stage IV cancer.  He died February 19, 2014 at just 53 years old.  Half of my students were looped, and they knew last spring that 'Mr. McConnell was very ill' and that I was taking off a few days a week through the end of the school year to help him 'get well'.  What they didn't know was that he had cancer, and during the spring he had three surgeries and almost lost his life twice. 

Over the summer and after radiation, his health stabilized and the new school year started with more of a routine.  I was out every third Friday for our chemotherapy appointments.  I was able to get the same sub, Mr. Ma who grew to know them and their routine.  Over Thanksgiving break, my husband Jim's health took a turn for the worse and it was time to explain more about my absences to my students and their parents.

I really did not intend to tell them that day.  The kids were making a joke about all the coughing that was going on in the classroom during this particularly bad flu season, and I just lost it.  I'd been worried all year about bringing germs home to my immune compromised husband, and here these 10 year old were joking about it.  I just started crying in frustration, exhaustion and sadness.  So I told them.  With tears, they listened to my fifth grade version of our story.  

Over Christmas break Jim went back in the hospital with extreme difficulty breathing.  I joked how considerate it was of him to be hospitalized again during my time off school.  He was put on oxygen and we returned home, just in time for me to go back to school.  The students often asked about him, especially after I'd missed a day of class.  Some expressed hopes that he would 'get well soon', though I knew in my heart that was not likely to happen.

In the beginning of February, Jim was diagnosed with two extremely nasty opportunistic infections which required IV antibiotics every four hours. I had to take more time off as he was hospitalized and I learned how to administer at home injections.  The week before our 'ski week' break, I was only at school one day.  True to his form, Jim was admitted to the hospital just two days before the break and he died the Wednesday of ski week, while the kids were on vacation.

Upon their return to school, our principal informed my students of my loss.  They sent cards and a poster, 'Get well soon, we miss you'. Some of their parents attended Jim's memorial service.   +Kristi Schwiebert  is a mentor and friend of mine and her son has been in my class for two years now.  She asked him if he wanted to come to Mr. McConnell's service.  Kristi's son echoed the fears of many of my kids when he said, "No, I don't want to see Mrs. McConnell so sad." His words touched my heart.

My students were typical kids and were not very well behaved for my long term sub. Fortunately, I teach with some amazing colleagues who helped her through it.  After about a month I decided to come back on April 2,  45 days after Jim's death.  There is no right time and it would never be easy. But I had a strategy. I'd come back on a Wednesday, a short day, three days before spring break, to ease me and my kids into it.  I contacted The Center for Living with Dying to get some ideas for activities to help my students process our shared grief.  I contacted our staff and let them know how fragile I was and to not look at me with those sad, I'm sorry eyes before I had to see my kids in the morning.

And so, armed with grief management activities, the love and support of my co-workers and morning meditation, I returned to class.  The kids were peeking in the small door window that morning before class.  I knew they'd wondered, 'would I act the same? Would I look the same? Would I be the same?'  I wanted to be the same fun Mrs. McConnell they knew and loved, but how could I be? I was barely breathing I was so sad.  But then I saw their joy at my return and it was infectious. We had a group hug, all 36 of them! I was surrounded by love and hugs and happiness.  

We did our grief processing with some tears, theirs not mine.  I held it together until the end of the day when I was sharing with them how hard it was for me to come back, but how easy they made it.  Then I cried, just a little.  But I think it was good for them to see my emotion.  By Friday they were up to their old shenanigans and as 10 year olds will, they've moved on.  Inside, I am still incredibly sad, but they've taught me an important lesson.  Life does go on.

The Most Important Lesson I'll Teach All Year is not how to do a prime factorization, how to use figurative language in your writing or the causes of the American Revolution.  Yes, I will teach these things but these are not the things they will remember.  They will remember that their 5th grade teacher's husband died in the middle of the year.  They will remember that I missed almost a quarter of the school year.  But more, they will remember that I came back.  That I came back to them.  They know that my family, my husband, was most important. They knew that I was where I needed to be to care for him, and to grieve him.  But they knew I came back. To teach them. They know that they have value, that they are important to me. They learned about loss and grief and resilience and compassion.  They learned that love is what gets us through. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Future is Now - from my students

Today we used our awesome, advanced high-tech 3D printer for the very first time. We love our 3D printer.The 3D printer is important to our school because it can help us with our future careers.
Today we made a glossy, layered chain that printed slowly from the machine. The plastic, opaque chain was white and gray


. In the future, we will use this educational tool to create fabulous models, props, and diagrams for school projects.

Thank you so much for donating money for the 3D printer.

We used our GLAD Sentence Patterning chart and collaborative groups to create this shared post.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Silicon Valley Reads part 1

This past fall, our fourth and fifth graders participated in Global Real Aloud #GRA13, reading Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper along with students across the globe.  We connected with other classes using +Skype, GHO, and Edmodo and we shared our responses to literature using KidBlog.  In addition to reading an amazing book, our students learned about digital citizenship, geography, problem solving and cooperation, using  21st century tools.

Silicon Valley Reads is an annual community program that selects books focused on a contemporary theme and offers free events throughout Santa Clara County to engage the public in reading, thinking and discussing the topic. The goals of the program are to encourage the love of reading and learning and to have a welcoming forum where our diverse community can come together to share different perspectives.

It seemed like a natural progression to incorporate lessons learned in Global Readaloud to our own local, Silicon Valley Reads (SVR) initiative.  This year, SVR is exploring the relationship between books and the internet.  The two books adults are reading include What the Internet is Doing to our Brains:The Shallows by Nicholas Carr and Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Book Store, by Robin Sloan. (Which, by the way, has me staying up well past my school day bedtime!) SVR also selects companion books for children from pre-K to middle school.

I decided to reach out to my on-line communities to create a community for our students; sharing our thoughts, impressions and insights about the book.  I created an Edmodo group for teachers to connect. In addition, I shared the titles with my parent community in our private Facebook group. I use a lot of technology in my educational practices, so the topic is quite appropriate for our population.

SVR has companion book choices for children.  Last week I showed  the academy award winning short film, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. It was amazing. My students were totally engaged and intent on the meaning and nuances of the film. At one point (you'll know when you see it), one student whispered, "it's just like Wizard of Oz!". And indeed, the story was influenced by Buster Keaton, The Wizard of Oz and Hurricane Katrina.

The film became a picture book, The Fantastic Flying books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, (what a switch) which is the SVR selection for 4-8 year olds. After viewing the film, without discussing it, my students journaled their reflections while listening to the film's soundtrack.  
Emma wrote, "That movie showed how a book could bring an adventure each time you turn the page. To think that the books were alive gives me the more respect from books. I think the book that Morris had was emptied because they wanted him to write about how wonderful books can be. They wanted him to show how they are your gateway to imagination. Books are like none-other. They make movies seem just like a picture that moves but doesn't explain a lot. When Mr. Morris Lessmore died I was very moved. That taught me something. When something ends, another takes it's place. The music in the movie seemed to be explaining it all. Books are your greatest friends."

Then I read them the book, and we compared the two. Students posted their ideas to +Edmodo and +Kidblog 

Mason said "The world that Mr. Morris lives is a colorless world without any books. Once he has books, his world had color, and he was happy. The book had a lot more detail and meaning of what Mr. Morris felt. The one thing that I liked most about the movie is that the music made it feel calm."

Maya adds, "The theme of the story is that a person's greatest friend can be their books. Even though they have unspoken words they can have the greatest meaning of all. A story can bring you into another world just through words. The words in the book make the story more understandable. Like a dictionary gives definitions."

Next we will start reading Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library.  

Sunday, February 2, 2014

STEAM School part 1

I have been asked to participate in the early stages of discussions around building a STEAM (Science, Technology. Engineering, Arts, and Math) school in our district.  We are on a very tight time-line for the design of the physical space and so I have been gathering as much data as I can about what works and what doesn't.

I put out feelers to my PLN, I tweeted, Google +'ed, +Edmodo'd  and surfed.  I received an immediate tweet back from my friend +Jason Borgen  at TiCal  who suggested I contact +Skip Johnson. I had seen Skip present some innovative work his school was doing with iPods a few years back at Lead3.0 and then at a few TiCal gatherings.  Jason told me that Skip would be a good resource, so I reached out to him.

Skip is the Principal at El Crystal School  in the San Bruno Park School District. About a year ago, he and a very committed group of teachers "STEMmed" their school. I wanted to know how they did it, what worked and what they'd change. He referred me to a blog post, All Stemmed Up he'd written on the subject, and then we chatted on the phone. I can't wait to go up to his school and see what they are doing.
The good news, for us right now, is that they made very few facilities changes when they converted to a STEM Magnet school.  The did take the shelves out of the middle of their media center to allow for building of K'nex and Lego projects and other PBL (problem based learning) activities. But for the most part, the classroom walls have stayed physically the same. All of their classrooms have short throw projectors, interactive white board and document cameras.

As it should be, their efforts were less in the facilities department, and more in curriculum development and parent education.  The walls will be there, what really matters is the learning that occurs within and beyond them.

I've also created a group +Pinterest Learning Spaces board to start gather ideas.  Edutopia lists 8 tips for re-designing your classroom  starting with Involving Your Students. Which is exactly what I did! First I had our kids tweet about their idea of an ideal school.

Then I told them about the proposed STEAM school and showed them the facilities plan and asked them to design their ideal STEAM school. They are so excited and their ideas, and methods are as individual as they are.  I can't wait to see their ideas gel, and of course, I'll share them here.