Throughout history, hurricanes, tsunamis, and tornadoes have struck fear in the hearts of many. Not the students in Genia Connell’s class, though. Connell, a veteran third-grade teacher from Troy, Michigan, uses disasters to help her students learn everything from math and science to reading, social studies, and computer skills. In Mrs. Connell’s classroom, the Titanic isn’t just a ship that went down more than 100 years ago; it’s a vessel for learning.
Every year, Connell’s class does a disaster unit that culminates in Titanic Day, which features students as Titanic survivors and newspaper reporters. It’s a capstone experience that Connell shares with educators worldwide as a teacher blogger for Scholastic. Her blog captures her enthusiasm for project-based learning, technology, and education, even after 25 years in the classroom.
Q | Why do you spend so much time studying disasters in your class?
A | When I was a kid, I was so interested in the Titanic. And when you have a passion for something, whether it’s a project, a topic, or teaching, it shows. My students can hardly wait to get to the disaster unit and Titanic Day. I’ve been doing this Titanic project for probably 20 years, and I can guarantee that on the first day of school I’ll have seven or eight kids asking me, “When are we doing Titanic?”
Q | How does your disaster unit facilitate student learning?
A | We spend two and a half months on nonfiction, so we read books about disasters. As we read about disasters, we study weather phenomena like hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes. Students learn how to read scales—the [MMS] scale for earthquakes, the Fujita scale for tornadoes—and that’s science leading into math.
The class breaks into small groups, based on interest, and each group focuses on a disaster. In their groups, students learn how to research online and how to research through books. Because this is their first heavy research project, we talk about how to skim, how to take notes, how to know what’s important and what’s not.
Through all of this, the lesson that I teach is that disasters happen. Lessons are learned and some changes are made. The students take that with them: When things go wrong, you learn from it.
Q | How do you use technology in your classroom?
A | We might watch something on YouTube about a volcano. A few years ago, when one was erupting in Iceland, we watched the live webcam feeds. My students use technology in their reports, too. One student was finishing his report on tsunamis the morning that the big tsunami hit Japan [in 2011]. He asked, “Can I add a paragraph?” and I said, “Absolutely.” Right then and there he wrote about the earthquake and the tsunami. He incorporated, with pictures, an event that had happened six hours earlier.
I also have a classroom website, geniaconnell.com, which I developed two years ago. It has a photo gallery with tons of pictures and videos, and my website is visited by parents and even faraway family in India and Germany.
Q | You use e-readers in your classroom, too. Why?
A | Scholastic invited me to be one of the first teachers to pilot Storia, their e-reading app. When I got it, I didn’t know what to do with it, so I handed it to the kids and said, “Here you go.” I noticed two things almost immediately. One was that my hesitant readers were suddenly sitting there and reading for 20 to 25 minutes straight. I’d done absolutely nothing differently than hand them an iPad with the Storia app.
The other thing I noticed is that it levels the playing field. In third grade, you have some students who are reading at a first-grade level and some who are reading at a fifth-grade level. The ones who are reading at a first-grade level don’t want to be seen with a book that’s 30 pages long when the person next to them has a full-blown chapter book without pictures. With Storia, nobody knows what anyone else is reading, so they’re more than happy to read at their level. And because they’re reading at their level, they’re moving through the levels a little bit more quickly than when they were trying to read covertly.
Storia is also great for our English language learners because it has an embedded oral dictionary where they can tap on a word and hear it, or—if they’re not sure of the meaning—they can tap on the word and get the written meaning for it.
Q | You have a master’s in reading, a reading specialist certification, and an education specialist degree in curriculum and administration. Why do you still teach third grade?
A | I love the age. My students are curious. They’re unjaded. They still love their teacher. When they come in, they’re still so little and unsure of themselves, but by the end of the year, their confidence has soared. Until somebody tells me I need to move, I’m staying in third grade.