This April, much like she had done in the past 10 years, Stefanie Onieal held a poetry activity for her second-grade students over the Zoom video conference platform.
The Burris Laboratory Schools teacher’s students presented poetry they had written or liked, dressed up as poets and snapped their fingers for each other during the presentation while she used a tupperware container as a bongo — all done to bring some of what might have happened in the classroom to her students virtually.
“I felt that what my students were needing from me was community and engagement with each other in any way that I could,” Onieal said.
Activities like these are what she said helps build a sense of community in her classroom as her students learn social and emotional skills, problem solving, collaboration and communication while also learning how to work, disagree and debate with each other with civility.
When it comes to 21st century skills, Onieal said a lot of people think about technology, but the aforementioned skills are just as important.
This approach to teaching is what earned her the Ball Brothers Foundation’s Excellence in Teaching Award. According to a press release from the foundation, the award comes with a $17,500 grant which provides $5,000 each to the district, school and classroom of the winning teacher and $2,500 to be used by the teacher for professional development opportunities.
Onieal said communication and problem solving are fundamental skills that need to be actively taught and practiced from a young age.
“Academics, of course, is very important, but this other piece is just as important in my opinion,” she said. “So many future professions rely on having good communication skills and good collaboration skills.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic led to the closure of schools all across the state, it tested Onieal and her students’ skills when it came to maintaining the same level of engagement of communication virtually.
Along with the other second-grade teacher, Michelle Harris, they immediately found themselves trying to figure out how to continue delivering good instruction to their students in a way they could work independently so as to be thoughtful of parents who might be busy working from home.
Instead of running her virtual class with all 22 students at the same time, Onieal divided the class into groups of seven or eight. While she has expanded it to include 11 or 12 students, she said she believes teaching all of them at the same time might have been overwhelming.
Sometimes her Zoom meetings involved sharing and playing a game because students also needed an activity to relieve their stress. Unlike college students, who sometimes turn off their video or mute their mics during conference calls, she said her students were excited and eager to share things with her and their peers — sometimes showing off their Pokemon cards during the conference calls.
Her students could also reach out to her via online educational platforms like Canvas or Seesaw in order to keep communication with her students as vibrant and alive as possible.
“We learned so much on the fly and really worked together helping each other kind of try and problem solve and figure it out,” she said. “Even though it was scary and very stressful, it was exciting to be learning something new so quickly and trying to create something that was meaningful.”
For Onieal, who has been teaching for more than 25 years and earned her online master’s degree from Ball State at age 53, the biggest change she has seen with elementary school students is how much they know about the world around them.
“When I started, kids didn’t have as much knowledge about the world as they do now,” she said. “They come to us with a wealth of information.”
At the beginning of her career, Onieal said she was more of a “deliverer of content.” Today, she finds herself researching her students and being a coach to them instead of just being a teacher.
This can be seen in the way she teaches her students about the importance of community through her Muncie Landmarks project.
When Onieal first heard about the annual Muncie Bridge Dinner, she and her students learned about the city’s historic landmarks and created decorations for the event that would help teach others about Muncie’s landmarks.
She called in Chris Flook, director of the Delaware County Historical Society and telecommunications lecturer at Ball State, to teach her students about these landmarks. They discussed important questions like why there were many Native Americans depicted on statues in Muncie. When students questioned why there weren’t any women on these landmarks, she shared information she learned about the wives of the Ball Brothers and their contributions in Muncie.
She described her process of inviting guest speakers to her classroom on a variety of subjects as “taking cues from my students and finding connections in the community that can come in and speak to that.”
One interesting thing her students learned about was the civil rights history of the United States.
“I will say, it’s one of the hardest things as a teacher, especially as a white teacher, to talk about it,” Onieal said. “It’s so important to talk about it.”
Discussing difficult subjects like civil rights, she said, starts with building trust with her students. She also has read aloud sessions with her students where she reads them books that involve injustice and they have conversations about them.
She said she’s surprised by how her second grade students would later make connections to the stories they hear in class and how these stories stay with them.
In a press release from the Ball Brothers Foundation, Onieal said she plans to use a portion of the grant to purchase more books for her classroom, particularly more inclusive ones so her students can see themselves represented in the books they read. She’d also like to spend her professional development funds for her workshop-modeled reading and writing lessons and for training about teaching tolerance and using responsive techniques in the classroom.
One of her second-grade students, Eddie Comber, said he loves being in Onieal’s class because she makes the classroom fun and engages with the students’ interests — particularly through her book clubs. He said students have a lot of choice when it comes to what they read or write about. One of his favorite parts of Onieal’s class is learning about local landmarks in the Muncie community.
Dawn Miller, principal and chair at Burris who nominated Onieal, said she is “an excellent classroom teacher, but she is so much more.”
“She makes meaningful, deep connections with her students,” Miller said. “In addition to that, she’s a researcher and a scholar. She’s willing to branch out and learn about things that interest her and push her in the profession to learn and do more.”
She said Onieal is an early literacy specialist who has a deep knowledge on how to teach children to read.
“That’s so important, initially, because she has these great relationships with children. She gets to know them, gets to know their interests and their passions. She’s able to interweave all of that into finding books that really excites students,” Miller said.
This has led students like Comber to advance from being emerging readers in first grade to reading bigger chapter books in second grade, she said.
“I think that makes a huge difference as you move on through school — not just that you learn to read, but you learn to love to read,” Miller said. “We are so pleased that she is a part of our Burris family … she is a great asset to our school.”