Blending The “Old” And “New”

It didn’t work. I had a vision: a plan in my head of exactly what my new Grade 1 classroom would look and feel like. For a while now, I’ve been learning alongside amazing Kindergarten and Grade 1 teachers that share their ideas and stories using the #ReggioPLC hashtag. I read about Full-Day Kindergarten classrooms that showed the very best of what play-based learning has to offer. I was inspired! I wanted this environment for my Grade 1’s. I thought about what I did last year with my Grade 5’s, and I knew what was possible. This was going to be great!

But then it wasn’t — or at least, not exactly! My Grade 1’s were not being inspired to read and write. They wouldn’t even look at the books. I tried finding out about their interests and looking for materials that would engage them, but I was getting no where. The students loved playing, but just playing. They were reluctant to engage in conversations. They didn’t see themselves as readers and writers, so they were hesitant to try. Many students are still learning the letters of the alphabet, learning to recognize their name, and in need of some pre-reading and pre-writing activities. I needed to be responsive to student needs.

As a teacher that truly believes in the value of play-based learning and inquiry, I couldn’t go back to a letter-of-the-week program and Jolly Phonics worksheets. There needed to be a middle-ground. That’s when I chose to ask for help. I emailed an educator that I really respect and admire that has a background in developing literacy skills, and I asked for her advice. She shared numerous ideas of how I could teach reading through writing, and how I could use a Writer’s Workshop format to still have students inquire, but with mini-lessons to teach different skills to the different students that need it. After reading her email response and thinking about her questions, I went and looked at Lucy Calkins’ book, and I made some changes.

We still have a Language Inquiry Block time, but the students are spending this time reading and writing (and listening and speaking). They’re choosing the topics. They’re exploring different forms. They’re working with me in guided writing and guided reading groups to help target different individual needs. They’re not necessarily playing — or not in the traditional sense — but they are excited about learning, and more students are now going home to read and write. Yay! At the end of the day yesterday, a student said to me, “I asked my mom if we can stay in tonight because I really want to write!” This makes my heart happy!

In just under two weeks, all of the “I can’t’s” — when it came to reading and writing — are being replaced with “I can’s” and “I will try’s.” This is big! So as I sit back and reflect on my couple of weeks of changes, I begin to question if I still have a “play-based program.” Maybe play-based needs to look different in Grade 1, or maybe it needs to look different depending on student needs. Maybe I can still have the open inquiry block that I wanted, but maybe that will need to come later in the year as the needs of the students change. What I do know is that inquiry does not need to be an all or nothing option. When things weren’t working, many people advised me to look at “direct teaching.” I do direct teaching. But this teaching doesn’t include worksheets. This teaching is not rote learning. This teaching is not always full-class. This teaching still encourages students to think, question, and explore their interests, but it also provides them with the foundational skills they need for academic success. Maybe this teaching is really a blend of the “old” and “new,” as I think that inquiry can include both. What do you think? How has your classroom changed now that you’ve met your students? How do you make inquiry work for you and your students? I’d love to know your thoughts on this!


18 thoughts on “Blending The “Old” And “New”

  1. Hi Aviva – my name is Emma Reilly, and I’m the new education reporter at the Hamilton Spectator. I’m working on a story about teachers who use technology in innovative ways, and I was wondering if you’d be interested in participating. (My friend Sarah Boesveld suggested I get in touch). Could you call me at 905-526-2452 or email me at

    Thanks so much,

  2. Aviva I have started many school years with lofty expectations to be faced with a group that thinks/acts/works far differently than what I had expected. That is the beauty of being a teacher as it allows us to reassess for the people in our classrooms and find new/better ways to meet their needs I admire your desire to be full play/inquiry based and that you recognized that skills need to be taught along the way as well. I love how you are approaching this teaching through lessons in context of student discoveries. I love how you are creating children who love to read and write, not because you tell them they have to, but because they are passionate to read and write. Ultimately isn’t that one of the greatest lessons we can instill on our students?

    I too have struggled with the finding the balance between inquiry/play and direct instruction. It seems to be a different place for each students and I do my very best to respect that. Like you I feel very strongly in providing student choice. I try to keep my “big goals” always at the forefront of inspiring curious readers and writers. I’m not sure there is one best way that works for every student but I am willing to try a variety of ways to reach each unique learner. Good luck on your journey. I look forward to following along.

    • Thanks for the comment, Karen! We are definitely very similar in our thinking. I do believe that direct instruction is an important part of inquiry, but it’s how that direct instruction is given that matters. So often, it seems as though direct instruction has to mean that we don’t believe in inquiry and/or play-based learning, and that’s not the case at all. Making the changes to our program though to meet the needs of students definitely seems to make a lot of sense, and it sounds as though you’ve done the same. I have no doubt that the program will continue to change.

      It’s often the students that drive this change too. Even today I saw this. We’re creating a Playdough Store to sell playdough to the Kindergarten and Grade 1 students. This is a Math Inquiry-Based Project that came out of student interests in patterning and making playdough. Students have really taken control of this project, and continue to show their math thinking as we create and interpret data, count up different number amounts, and make important decisions. Well this morning, as we were looking at resources to use in the classroom to help us write, the students looked at the colour words at the bottom of our Playdough Store/Math Bulletin Board. That’s when they said that they could make signs advertising our Playdough Store. They discussed what needs to be included on signs, and then used various classroom resources to make them. One student is even working on a letter to the other classes asking them to come by and purchase the playdough. This to me is play-based/inquiry learning, and maybe even more student driven now that skills are continuing to develop. Maybe it just takes time!


  3. Hello Aviva, thanks for this timely post, always such a treat to have a window into your practice. You do seem to have found the balance between inquiry, play base learning and the very real need to teach those discrete literacy skills needed to become readers and writers. Again it may be the interpretation of play based learning and what it looks like in classrooms, that is making this k-2 piece so difficult. I rather like the web-based definition provided below by google. Tell me what you think of it.

    Play based learning
    “A context for learning through which children organise and make sense of their social worlds, as they engage actively with people, objects and representations.”

    I think this speaks to what you did. From your description, your students are engaging actively with each other and their environment as they make sense of the world. I look forward to continued reading about your grade one journey.

    • Thanks for your comment, Fatima! I really like this definition of “play based learning,” and how you’ve interpreted it here. I think that we hear “play” and have an image in mind. From this definition, our initial thoughts may not be 100% accurate … or, at least, not the way that things have to be!

      I’m going to share the definition and ideas that you wrote here with others too. I’d be curious to hear what they have to say.


  4. Hi Aviva,
    I love that you are creating such a wonderful bridge between FDK and grade 1!
    I wonder if maybe some of the children didn’t have the experience of an inquiry based program last year. I also feel that a lack of self confidence could also prevent the kids from really opening up with out such direction (I see it in Sarah). Good for you for recognizing the students needs and adapting to them! I think in time you will see the play based program you envisioned.
    As a parent, I am so happy that my child has the opportunity to not only learn the academic skills she needs but also to be excited about reading and writing and learning. That’s important to me because I know that will help her In future grades and other life experiences as she grows. Sarah comes home excited about her day and excited for the next day. She has been more willing to write on her own without constantly questioning if her work is “right”. I see a change in her already and I’m loving it! I feel a lot of comfort knowing that Sarah is truly learning to love learning and not just learn. Thanks for your blogs and all your hard work!

    • Thank you so much, Christine, for such a lovely blog post comment! I can’t imagine a nicer note to read before heading to bed. I love hearing your perspective on the school program, and letting me know how Sarah feels about it. I see what she does at school and hear what she shares, but it’s great to know that she’s just as excited and eager at home. I have no doubt that our program will continue to change, and that the students will help drive this change. It’s been less than two weeks of school now, and I can’t wait to see what the coming months bring!

      Have a great night!

  5. I have no doubt they will love reading and writing when you are done with them! I look forward to reading about this journey. I have teachers tell me they can’t do inquiry because of their students’ lack of vocabulary or literacy skills. I’m exploring how it does work in FDK, 1 & 2. Thanks for sharing! I might just share thus post with a teacher or two!

  6. Great post, Aviva – it is very inspirational how you are able to change direction readily and adapt to your entire class. I’m still so new to inquiry-based teaching, but I am learning that the more students put into their learning (through choice, play, questioning), the more they get out of it. I am also trying a blend of “old” and “new” teaching, partially because my high school students are comfortable with non-inquiry methods of learning (from past experience) (and, I’ll admit, so am I!), and I don’t want to take them too far out of their comfort zone. Good luck with the continued adaptations!

    • Thanks for the comment, Heather! I’m just curious as to how have you decided what “old” elements to keep and what ones to discard? What inspired your choices? How do these choices help address the needs of all students? I’d love to know more.


      • Most recently, I provided my students with a variety of resources to learn about motion graphs in Physics (which they do at their own pace – that’s new). While I would like them to take more advantage of interactive websites (with demos, interactive assessments, animations) (new), many are more comfortable with traditional methods of learning such as reading the textbook. So that is always one of the resources I provide (old). I will often also provide worksheets, to those that want them (old). I also wander through the classroom and teach mini-lessons to those who want them, because they learn best while listening to a teacher (old), but I do them to small groups only on a little portable white board, and the students walk *me* through the mini-lesson (new).

        That’s just *learning* – there’s a different thought process for labs/group learning… I guess what drives the decision is the attempt to balance what the students feel comfortable with (I’m not going to force them into an entirely new way of learning), with innovative approaches/resources that I think they’ll respond well to, in given time. I’m always watching the students throughout class to see how they learn best. It’s never the same twice!

        • Thanks for your reply! I love how you’re wandering through the class to see how students learn best. If you notice that they’re using resources that do not help them as much, what do you do? While students may feel comfortable with the textbooks and worksheets, are these two things helping them learn and think about the content? If so, then to me it makes sense to keep them in the way that you’re using them. If not, maybe it’s worth reconsidering their use, even if they make the students feel comfortable.

          Sometimes, I think there’s value to feeling uncomfortable: this is what brings about change. I say this because last year, my Grade 5’s loved textbooks and worksheets as they started the year. They wanted them. They were very confused about why we really never used them. But then they saw what the other resources allowed them to learn and do, and a group of students actually wrote this blog post at the end of the year: This is why I’m sometimes okay with the idea of “feeling uncomfortable.”

          Thanks for the continued conversation!

          • If I notice that certain resources aren’t working, we take a look at the resource list for that learning goal and pick a new one to try a different approach (or even get another student to walk me through a problem, talking it out as they go… sometimes that resonates more with other students).

            I agree that it’s good to push the students out of their comfort zone, and I do try and do that (haha it’s so hard to sum up what all happens in a classroom throughout the week!). Even though worksheets are often chosen by the students to help them learn the material, we also do a lot of open problem solving in groups where there is much discussion as to how a problem should be tackled (and the students always come up with lots of great ways to do it!). Labs, too, are very open-ended allowing the students to either put into play what they’ve learned, or help them learn through experimentation. The worksheets are only a small part of the process 🙂

          • Thanks for sharing more here, Heather! I know it’s hard to sum everything up in a blog post comment and/or a tweet. This reply definitely helps!


  7. Aviva, once again you remind all of us (humans engaged in any profession) that we are obligated to embrace a self-reflective stance daily in order to consider our practice’s impact.

    Calkin’s work on the constructive power of writing in supporting young learners in becoming literate will serve you well. A nice complement might be Dr. Marie Clay’s. Seek out, through Pearson:
    -The Puzzling Code
    -What Changes in Writing Can I See?
    -How Very Young Children Explore Writing

    As for your program, it would appear that you are embracing ‘play-based learning’ in grade one. Children are ‘playing’ with letters, sounds, words and messages in joy as they construct new understandings about the world of print in a way that respects individual strengths and multiple pathways to common outcomes.

    I would strongly suggest that your students are thriving!

    • Thank you so much for your comment and your other resource suggestion! It’s funny, as I was talking to my step-dad the other day about this, and he also suggested Dr. Marie Clay’s work. I’m going to see if I can find these resources at school. We have a number in our professional library.

      I really like what you said here about “playing.” I didn’t see things this way, but you’re right. Maybe I needed my own new/updated definition of the word. 🙂


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