Concordia Elementary School teacher Miss Melissa Swartzkopf and her trusty companion, Gus, a plush green and gold dragon are creating popular home-based learning videos for her students.
Together they go on learning adventures helping students as they grow in their understanding of language, spelling, and grammar conventions.
Her virtual lessons and informative videos have been highly acclaimed by students, parents and even her fellow teachers. We caught up with Miss S. to find out what inspires the entertaining video lessons she produces.
What do you cover during your word study time?
Most of what we were working on in this particular book was spelling rules for suffixes, though we just called them the “tails” of words.
For Word Study I’ve basically been following our new Phonic Unit of Study. Since this is new to 2nd grade, I wanted to continue on with the lessons we’ve been covering, and hopefully being a model for the other teachers of how they could teach the lessons and still have some fun.
Most of my content has come directly from the books, just stretched out. Sometimes I come up with my own connections during the mini-lessons, but that’s what we teachers are trained to do when teaching these Units of Study.
I’ve also generally been stretching out the lessons since we needed to give kids less screen time and less new content overall. You can’t teach everything you could on a carpet during a word study video, and the kids are not able to practice with one another, so I’ve just adjusted some lessons.
How do you come up with your ideas about what to do in the lessons?
As I’ve said, most of what I produced was written in the Phonics Units of Study, I just gave it my own particular flair. It’s the perfectionist and performer in me that kept adding music, sound effects, graphics, and comedic bits.
I’ve been creating radio shows and videos with my little brother and sister since I was a little kid and was given my first tape recorder. I’ve watched an incredibly unhealthy amount of television (haha) and performed onstage for so many years, that sometimes I have a really good instinct on how to create a video project that will not only instruct but entertain, something I knew our kids were going to need if we wanted to keep their attention.
Want to see one of Miss S.'s videos? The title here will be the title or description of the video, this and be something lik, “Elementary Home Based Learning Video Example/Preview/Sample”.
Is Gus part of the phonics program?
Kindergarten, 1st grade, and 2nd grade each have their own unique mascot that goes along with their Phonics Unit of Study.
In second grade we have the precious dragon, Gus, who is interested in protecting his environment and learning to be a better 2nd grade reader and writer.
When I went to Columbia University this summer for the Phonics training, I kind of fell in love with this dragon (maybe it’s because one of my favorite stuffed animals growing up was a dragon). I thought that Gus could be a kind of 2nd grade mascot not only for Phonics, but for other class events as well.
When we were making content for our social studies program earlier in the year, I videotaped Gus visiting a couple of parks in Shanghai to have the students notice what Gus was seeing there. I hope to use him in more subjects throughout the year.
I think that in times like these, while kids are away from the normal, it’s useful for kids to have a symbol and something unthreatening and kind to latch onto.
Not only that, there is a Gus in every 2nd grade, so you know when our students return each class is going to have that “relationship” of learning with Gus in their own classroom.
Who is the other plush character in your videos?
I thought it only fair that Gus has a friend to talk with during our virus quarantine. So many kids are separated from their friends, so I brought out one of the stuffed animals I keep in my classroom.
Last year we dressed up as characters from favorite books. I had dressed up as “the woman” from the book “Orphan, A Raccoon”, a favorite realistic fiction book I’ve been reading since my elementary school days.
Orphan, the raccoon, had completed my outfit. He is also a favorite in my classroom, the kids love hugging him, so I thought he would be the perfect friend for Gus. While mostly I just use Gus, sometimes I bring in Gus’s friend.
You and Gus also helped with writing, correct? Can you say a little about this?
I’ve also been using Gus and Orphan to supplement the writing curriculum.
Our new phonics curriculum was written to be taught in conjunction with what the students are learning in reading and writing, so Gus and Orphan have been writing poetry for the poetry unit, using the ideas learned there, while still thinking about the spelling lessons we’ve been doing.
That was my greatest challenge sometimes, writing poems that didn’t exist that used words to highlight certain spelling concepts. It was tricky at times.
The Poetry Jams came about because some students were not able to see lots of good examples of poetry from their fellow students, so I decided to play around with Apps and find one to animate Gus as an MC at a poetry reading introducing student poetry.
I used the sock puppet app from the student iPads to read aloud the kids poems, and it just became so fun.
Those poetry jams were probably the projects that took me the longest eventually, because of the sheer number of programs I was using to create them. But projects are my passion.
Kids really responded well to the poetry jams, and wanted to see their poetry creations highlighted. It spurred us on to have not just one celebration of poems from the students, but three! So I was pretty busy some days!
What is next for Miss S. and Gus?
Like I said, Gus is going to be a permanent fixture in my class and in probably many other subject areas as well.
People have told me I should consider doing a regular YouTube channel with my videos, but I’m content to just create video projects when the mood strikes or when it’s useful, and just continuing being the best and most creative teacher I can.
It really helped me get through this challenging time to have a project to work on when I couldn’t be around the students and teachers. But I’m talented in so many other ways and can’t wait to put all of my skills to good use in the classroom again.
Is there anything else that you would like to share?
Kids like to know how I tape the videos.
I use a student iPad and a mechanical arm that holds it in place. I used to stop and start the video when I messed up, but I decided just to tape the sessions from beginning to end, and then I do a huge amount of editing on iMovie, sometimes cutting out more than I actually want to, just for time’s sake.
Sometimes I leave in my flubs for the kids to give them (and me) a little joy, and sometimes I include a blooper or two at the end. Who doesn’t love that?!
I buy and download most of my sound effects on iTunes. Sometimes finding just the right sound is the tricky part. I can hear it in my head, it’s just finding it out there!
I also learned how I say the words “so” and “alright” way too often! It’s been very interesting taping myself giving a lesson, and has taught me a little of how I can be more cheerful and precise!