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posted: Tue, Nov 29th, 2016
Veronica Pandowski and teacher Britt Henricksen do some research

Where in the world?

Where in the world is that classroom on the computer screen? That's the question Britt Henricksen and Dani Marangon's fifth-graders recently tried to work out during Mystery Skype, an educational game played in classrooms around the globe.

In the game, two classrooms are connected through Skype, the popular video-calling portal, and try to determine each other's geographical location using simple questions that generally can be answered with a "yes" or "no." Think of it as a type of video "Battleship" game that reinforces not only geography but also logic, cooperation, and deductive reasoning skills.

Ms. Henricksen and Ms. Marangon's fifth-graders have played the game several times this year, most recently with a fifth-grade class just 90 miles away in Philadelphia. Walk into the classroom during a Mystery Skype session and you'll feel the excitement and energy in the air as the young detectives work to solve the geographic mystery. 

"The kids love it," said Ms. Henricksen. "It engages them in a critical thinking challenge that requires teamwork and good communication. It encourages thinking outside the box."

In Mystery Skype, every student is assigned a job. There are students who research the questions to ask the other class and students who research questions that need to be answered, for example, as well as those assigned to represent the class on camera. There are also typists responsible for chronicling the questions and photographers.

At the end of each game, which takes approximately 45 minutes to complete, the classes usually share information about their schools and communities.

There are several ways that teachers interested in participating in Mystery Skype contact each other. The most frequently used method is through Twitter by using #mysteryskype in the tweet. (Twitter has become a powerful resource for educators, allowing them to share information and engage in cooperative learning activities.)

Ms. Henricksen and Ms. Marangon's class has previously faced-off against Mystery Skype classes in Illinois and North Carolina.

Umar Ahmed speaks with the mystery classroom
Aiden Quinlan, Wik Padugu, and James Stewart have some fun as they narrow down the location of the other class

Writing biographies

One of them may be the next David McCullough or Doris Kearns Goodwin.

After cutting their teeth writing their own personal narratives, Monica Beaumont's fourth-graders recently told the stories of important adults in their lives. Over the course of about four weeks, each student chose an adult, interviewed him or her, and then crafted the information into a formal biography.

It was an assignment that touched on a wide variety of skills. The students learned interviewing techniques and the types of questions that yield meaningful responses, for example, as well as the three types of information that form the foundation of biographies: facts, chronologies, and direct quotations. 

The biographical sketches themselves focused on the early lives, personal lives, and professional lives of the subjects. 

"I encouraged the students to write about an older family member because I thought it would help strengthen that family connection and make the writing more meaningful," said Mrs. Beaumont. "Many had never had a real, serious conversation about the past with that particular family member or friend before, and were surprised to learn about their histories." 

The students shared their biographies with their classmates and several received extra attention because of their uniqueness. Liam Periera wrote about his mother, Sara, and chronicled her birth on Long Island, emigration to Portugal as a child, and subsequent return to the U.S.

Noah Lopez took on the task of writing about his great uncle, a former law enforcement official in the Indian government who once met Mother Theresa and was honored several times for his service.

And Stephanie Cuevas wrote about her cousin, Christian Cuellar, a Mount Olive High School graduate now serving in the Army. 

"The students had fun with the activity and took so much pride in what they wrote," Mrs. Beaumont said. "It was a great opportunity for them to learn details about an adult in their lives and practice telling a true story from beginning to end."


Dr. Tracey Severns, director of student performance, looks over the work of Michael Machen on Independence Day

Independence Day at CMS

CMS students recently declared their independence, not from British rule or aliens that destroyed the White House and tried to stop Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith – independence from their teachers. Independence Day was a district-wide event in which students celebrated being independent learners by engaging in projects that allowed them to work alone or in small groups with minimal direction. It was a day that focused the students on the control they have of
their own learning and
developed critical thinking skills, creativity, leadership, and the interpersonal
skills needed to work well with others.

At CMS, there were a variety of different activities among the grades and classes. For example, fifth-graders had a choice of projects and many spent the day researching topics that they selected themselves. In Britt Henricksen and Dani Marangon's classroom, the fifth-graders researched topics such as the history of music, the skills and education required to be a medical doctor, and the reasons why pieces of art become famous. 

Isabella Kolbusz, a student in Kristin Hare's class, explored her heritage by spending the day learning about Poland – the country where her mother and grandmother were born. Isabella researched famous Poles including Chopin, Copernicus, Marie Curie, and Pope John Paul as well as popular attractions and popular foods such as rosol, a traditional Polish soup.

In Karen Blomquist's classroom, students investigated endangered animals. Small groups each selected an endangered animal to research then developed a presentation of some sort that the students thought would most effectively convey the information they had learned. There were slideshows, posters, and even a news show.

"There's just such excitement, which is great to see," said Ms. Blomquist. "And I've learned things today about different animals. The kids did an incredible job."

The work of all the fifth-graders was presented in a museum-style exhibition at the end of the day. 

While this type of hands-on active learning is regularly done here at CMS, Independence Day was a way to for students to officially celebrate their ability to work independently and recognize the responsibility they have in their own education.

All four elementary schools held Independence Day on the same day, but recognized it with different activities. Mount Olive High School and Mount Olive Middle School held their own Independence Day about two weeks later.

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Chester M. Stephens Elementary School
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