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.