My Week Long Story Of Students Directing And Owning Their Learning

After school yesterday, I happened to catch a tweet sent by my principal from an EQAO event that he was at in Toronto.


I found this tweet very timely, as this was something that I was actually contemplating. Yesterday was a different day in our classroom, and it made me wonder how many more of these “differences” I can incorporate into our regular routine.

Things started to change for me on Valentine’s Day. I went to go and pick up some stuffed animals from a friend and fellow teacher, Shirley-Anne. She collected these stuffed animals with other teachers and students at Ancaster Meadow School. Originally, her class was going to collect stuffed animals to send to mine as part of a pen pal activity, but before long, students were making announcements and collecting stuffed animals from everyone in the school. I only expected to pick up one or two bags of toys, but I ended up coming home with almost 14. What was I going to do?


That’s when my Toy Store idea started to take shape. I decided to blog about some of my initial ideas, and before long, my previous vice principal chimed in with some thinking of her own.

2015-02-21_09-21-00Her comment helped me think differently, as you can see in this reply.

2015-02-21_09-23-52With these thoughts in mind, I went into school on Tuesday curious to see what the students might think, say, and do. They eagerly embraced the idea of an Adoption Centre, and quickly started developing plans for displaying animals. They explored different sorting options during our Math Block, and even started thinking about proportional reasoning and non-standard units of measurement when looking closely at different sized toys and what this might mean in a real world context.

Then on Wednesday, we looked at the signs that we would need for our different stuffed animal displays. There was a lot of good thinking and talking about when spelling is important or not as important and why. It was great to hear student thinking as the children began envisioning the displays at our Adoption Centre. During our Math/Science Block, we started to think more about how we could store and display all of these stuffed animals. Students worked together to create shelves and boxes to hold ten or more toys. While creating the structures aligned with our Science expectations, there was lots of good math thinking and talking as well, on topics such as non-standard units of measurement and geometry.

This led to Thursday, and our exploration of Adoption Certificate options. Students decided on categories for the certificate, and looked at how to use classroom resources, familiar words, and letter-sounds to complete their own certificates. They knew that we likely wouldn’t be able to create certificates for all of the animals –– there were just too many — but students thought that if the K-2 students saw some of our certificates, they may even be inspired to create their own. Interesting thinking! During our Math/Science Block, we looked back at many of the shelf and box creations from yesterday, and students started to think why these display options might not work for our store. They also looked at how to fix them. From there, they made some new structures, and began to create displays for the grand opening of our Adoption Centre the next day.

And then came Friday, and the opening of our Adoption Centre. Students set the agenda for the day. First thing in the morning, they made our To Do List, and quickly realized that we needed to count the total number of stuffed animals to determine the number of students that we could invite to the store. They chose to count by 10’s, and the created the piles of ten to count. They also realized that we needed to figure out the number of students in each K-2 class and compare this number to the number of stuffed animals that we had. So they chose tools — from clipboards to iPads — and they went off to collect the data. Then students realized that they could use their knowledge of counting by tens to figure out the total number of students in all of the classes, so that’s what they did. When we realized we had enough stuffed animals for everyone — with some also left over — the students worked together to arrange their displays, make the additional signs, and invite the other classes. Without a doubt, yesterday the students were “directing” and “owning” their learning. They were in-charge. They supported each other. They made the decisions, and so many students left the building happy yesterday because of them.

Were there things that I would do differently? Yes!

  • I wish that I got some of the students to write the To Do List. They gave me the ideas, but I did the writing. I think that they could have taken even more ownership if they did it.
  • I wish that I got the students to come up and do some more of the writing for the math calculations. Again, they gave me the ideas, and I recorded their thinking, but it would have been nice to share the pen more with them. I think this would have helped visually show more “ownership” of their learning, as well as show me the math thinking that’s happening in their heads.
  • I wish that I incorporated more reading options. Students read tags on the stuffed animals and some resources around the classroom to help them with their signs, but I felt as though there could have been more. Maybe this could have been a good time to bring out the poems that Shirley-Anne’s class wrote for the stuffed animals and see if the students could match the poems to the animals. The “adopters” could have brought home a poem and an animal. I’m thinking now of how to use these poems next week to help with inferring skills, and maybe even see if any of them align with the animals that we have left over.
  • I wish that I could have taken more guided reading groups. There was so much amazing thinking and learning happening in the classroom that I felt badly taking students from this to come and read with me. Since I only had 10 students at school yesterday, I decided to read and write with them in more of a 1:1 format instead of in guided reading groups. For most of my students though, I find that the intensity of the guided reading group helps more. I recently started using more poems as part of guided reading. Maybe I could look at different text formats (e.g., even a modified toy catalogue) that allow this guided reading time to align more with the learning that is happening elsewhere in the classroom.
  • I wish that I had a “reflection on learning” time at the end of the day. By the time that the last class visited our room, we needed to quickly go and get ready for home, so this reflection time was lost. I’d like to use the photographs and videos from the day to help with this reflection on Monday. When students are learning through “play,” I think that it’s especially important that they think about their learning, reflect on how they did, and look at areas to focus on next, as they may not necessarily realize all of the learning that took place.

While our classroom schedule normally allows for long blocks of learning time, the schedule was especially fluid on Friday. Would this type of schedule work for all of my learners? Maybe not. I think that some of them might struggle with a little less structure. Although I realize that it’s important for all students to learn how to handle unstructured time, I also realize the value in scaffolding this learning for students that need it. 

  • Maybe we could work together to help define specific tasks for the day.
  • Maybe we could determine specific jobs during the Adoption Centre Pick-Up Times. (My students yesterday decided to spread out and help people at each table area, but maybe we could have a greeter in the pod, or a person responsible for tally marks to keep track of the number of students that leave with stuffed animals.)

This week, and particularly yesterday, helped me see what play-based learning is all about and the value that it has in all classrooms … not just Full-Day Kindergarten. It made me further see the value in authentic tasks, and how much students can learn from each other and learn together in the classroom. It also made me think more about Learning Skills, and how students need multiple, meaningful opportunities to practice these skills. Sometimes, as the teacher, I need to sit back, watch the struggle, and wait for the students to figure out the problems on their own. When this happens, the learning is powerful. Yesterday’s learning was powerful, and I can’t thank Ancaster Meadow enough for being the spark that allowed this learning to happen!

How do you give students ownership over their learning? What impact, if any, have you seen on student achievement? I’d love to hear your stories!




7 thoughts on “My Week Long Story Of Students Directing And Owning Their Learning

  1. Aviva,
    I am fortunate to work at a school where there are a few primary teachers creating “play-based” classroom environments to stimulate inquiry. They have inspired me to take some “baby steps” in my own Grade 2 classroom. My first step was to run an “open literacy block”. I still use the components of comprehensive literacy, just not in the same way I did before. I don’t do as many whole class lessons and we are not limited by a “6-week cycle of learning”. Students are choosing what they are reading and writing about and I am finding they are very engaged in what they are doing. The other big change is I have devoted an hour every afternoon to “explore and discover time”. During this time, students are working on areas of interest. Some are building, creating with craft materials, writing, reading, researching (you get the idea). It is not teacher directed at all. I am chatting with students, documenting their learning and providing feedback. There is a “sharing time” built in at the end so students can share what they have done as well as their feedback from me. Their peers give them feedback during this time as well. There are no “rules” except that they have to “extend their learning” in some way (they have already learned to do this from their wonderful Grade 1 teachers). Student engagement during this time is extremely high and I have been very impressed with the meaningful connections they have been able to make to the big ideas we are working on in the classroom. As for their achievement, it has been relatively the same…perhaps it is developmental? I have been amazed by their ability to reflect on their own learning and to use feedback to make improvements.
    I also wanted to add that as teachers who have been trained in Comprehensive Literacy and the TCLP process this is a very big shift for us. I used to plan every last minute of our day! I am beginning to realize that I need to step back and watch to see what the students will do first before I make my “plan”.

    • Thanks for the comment, Patricia! I think that you make so many wonderful points here. For me, the big problem was that I really wanted this very open schedule, but my students did not initially thrive. My plans to continue the “play-based learning” that was a huge focus for them in Kindergarten were not meeting with success. Students were not interacting with each other. They were not reading and writing. They were sharing very little thinking, and creating few wonders that really helped to inspire future investigations. While I believe strongly in play-based learning and inquiry, I wasn’t seeing this success in the classroom. I think that this had a lot to do with my students and their needs, and I realized that I needed to make a change. I still wanted student voice and choice, but I felt as though my learners needed some scaffolding. Based on some feedback from an educator that I really admire, I tried using a Writer’s Workshop Model. I start the day with a mini-lesson, and do have some provocations to hopefully help students extend their learning and focus on an area of need. I still let students choose what they want to read and write about, and we still inquire a lot, but with a little additional structure. My students love this Writer’s Workshop time, and as the year has progressed and the students’ skills have progressed, the routine is changing too. Maybe we’re now getting closer to moving towards what I initially envisioned. This whole process has taught me that we need to meet our students where they’re at, and they may all be at different places. All students still deserve rich, meaningful learning environments, but the structure may vary depending on student needs, and it may continue to grow and change throughout the year.


  2. Your week certainly was jammed packed full of fun! The children must have loved seeing all of those stuffies as I know my class is stuffie obsessed! Over the last several years I’ve often chatted with you and others trying to determine exactly what student directed learning is. I’m always wondering what it is supposed to look like, sound like and feel like in my First Grade classroom. The one thing I have learned is that student directed learning (like inquiry) is interpreted differently by every person I correspond with. I am beginning to wonder if there is no one definition!

    I got thinking about the stuffies in bags and how I would have used them over the span of my career as a long time kinder teacher and now first grade teacher. It’s amazing how time, experiences, technology, and brain research has impacted myself as a teacher (and learner).

    At the beginning of my career which would be very early 2000’s I would have started an animal theme. I would have sat down with my teaching partners looked at specifics expectations on a grid supplied by the board, checklist what I needed to cover and then make up activities for each of the centres in my classroom. I would have spent an entire day explaining the activities and how to use them and then let the kids try out the centres on a rotating cycle—but only if they used them correctly!

    Move ahead a few years and I would have posted in a Yahoo group that I have these bags of stuffies. I would have waited eagerly for email after email from teachers who didn’t even know me or my kids and then I would have collected their ideas and spent hours planning them and creating little activities based exactly on what my online friends suggested. It wouldn’t have mattered if my kids already knew habitats we would have sorted them anyway because so and so had a great idea! The kids would have had a blast and I would have been exhausted by all the work and planning and organizing it but not had a second to enjoy it. Oh by then I had moved away from a rotating system into a ticket system. Make sure you visit all the activities!!!! No going to the same one twice!!!!

    Move ahead again to about 12 years ago and I would have looked at the curriculum and came up with an goal for the kids in each subject area. I would have stayed within the balanced/comprehensive literacy model and found a shared reading to support stuffies and I would have found guided reading materials to link and my read alouds would be all about animals and we would make connections visualize infer all while the room was covered in stuffies. We would submerge the kids in our non-theme! My centres where filled with lots of choice of materials based on the purpose of the centre (literacy/math/listening/art/paint/science etc) but front and centre would have been the new activity additions. Children had lots of choice in materials to “play” (I use the term lightly now) with at the centres but nothing was added to centres without instructions, modelling and lots of explanation. Children were encouraged to use each thing for the purpose it was put there!! They children were (I thought) in charge of their own learning because they could use a visual task board (just like outlined in the Guide To Effective Literacy Instruction) figure out where they needed to be and once they got their had choice in what they did. Again they were having a blast and I was exhausted but have to admit loved the hours of idea hunting and activity creating and day plan filling!! Hitting up dollar stores and thrift stores made it all the more exciting!

    During this time teacher chat boards were popular and Personal Educator Websites were all the rage filled with ideas. So much so it was hard to keep up. Down the road comes Pinterest (who could possibly keep up with some of the teachers on there and the cutesy activities that take hours to produce and minutes for the kids to actually use) and then of course Twitter!

    I’ve been on a new journey over the last 5 years and it’s been full of new learning for me! Although I wasn’t part of fdk roll out until the 3rd year, I was at the original presentation the ministry did about it to our board. My eyes were opened to the fact that the early childhood terminology and philosophies were being extended to 8 years old and I knew I had lots to learn. The things they presented were so different from current practice!! I started reading and researching and paying attention and started looking at everything in my job through the lense of an early childhood first and a teacher second. I learned lots and continue to do so. My teaching style changed dramatically as did my classroom environment.

    What would I have done with the stuffed animals today??

    I would have piled them in a mountain, sat on a chair beside them and observed what the kids did, documented as fast as I could everything they said and tried really hard to keep my mouth closed! I would have blogged all the learning as it occurred and then had a huge sharing time so that all children benefitted by the different learning that spanned across the curriculum. I would have spent some time going over the documentation to figure out what kid is where and where they could go next and got a good night sleep so that the next day I could be ready to jump in along side the children with teachable moments to scaffold each child’s interest, train of thought or learning. I’m still as exhausted at the end of the day but now I’m exhausted from playing with the kids, engaging with them and learning along side them. Not planning for the big event!!

    This has been such a learning curve for me and everyday I wonder if I have swung to far into play and interest based learning for Grade 1 but at the end of the day I am comfortable in knowing that I know the curriculum enough to make teachable moments work and I see progression with each child so I think I’m okay! Well….until tomorrow when I start second guessing myself again because of some cute activity from Pinterest that I am not doing!

    Here is your hard question Aviva as I know how much you like them.

    Did you ever consider just putting the animals out and seeing where it would go?

    Not that this question is hard but I really wonder what is student directed learning? My way seems student directed to me, but as I read your exciting week your method does too. I’m loving how things are going for me with my group of kids and you are having success with your group too!

    Again at the end of the day my hard question is……maybe leaving the pile of stuffies out and letting kids have total control of their learning is too “willy nilly”??

    • Lori, thanks for your comment and sharing your learning over the years! The truth is that I had a plan (somewhat) after last weekend (or at least something that I thought of in my head). Watching and listening to my students though had me continue to change my plans. All I did on Tuesday was put out the bags. The students were the ones that suggested sharing all of the extra stuffed animals. They really wanted the K’s, 1’s, and 2’s to come and get one. From there, I asked about the idea of an Adoption Agency (based on Kristi’s comment on my last post), and the students got excited, and spoke about wanting to create a map, planning things out. I hadn’t planned this, but I went with it. We started to create one together, and then I left the rest up to them. I had actually planned a totally different Talking Tuesdays (our Math Talk for the week since we were off on Monday), but changed it when my kids said that they really wanted to get into the bags. So we did. I sat back, and they started sorting. Then they resorted, and sorted again. Then they bagged up their new sorted piles, and we spoke about if kids could select stuffed animals from these big bags. They said, “no,” because they couldn’t find what they wanted. So the students decided that they needed to be laid out, and that’s how we got into creating the boxes and shelving, and eventually, leading to the toy displays. As they were sorting, students started talking about the category names, which gave me the sign idea. I hadn’t really thought of that one. We looked at that the next morning, and then as the students got interested in looking more at the individual toys and sharing their “background stories,” it made sense to talk about Adoption Certificates, and so that’s what we did.

      I’ll say that with my students and many of their needs, the reading, writing, and sharing rarely just happens naturally. Friday was the closest that I saw to this. Yes, I plan in advance, and yes, I continue to modify my plans daily based on what I’m observing and the conversations that I’m having with kids. For most of my students, their language needs are HUGE though, and the small group guided reading sessions need to happen. This is a huge focus for our school, and this is something that I’m not willing to get rid of, because the truth is, I’ve seen big progress because of it. Would these guided reading groups need to look the same in all Grade 1 classrooms? Probably not. Do I think that small group reading is important for kids? Yes, but for some, this could easily happen in 1:1 situations and maybe even in the midst of play. I’ve tried this, and it doesn’t work for my students. Now, could it work at some point? Yes, possibly, but for now, I need my day to include these guided groups. And as such, the documentation piece is impacted a bit because there are moments of the day when I’m documenting what’s happening in these guided reading groups, but not on the floor and around the classroom. Students are doing more of this documentation on their own, and what they record, helps me as I plan for the next day.

      And so, in answer to your first question, as I said to my EA on Tuesday morning, I’m going to leave out these bags of stuffed animals and see what happens. And I did. There was a huge pile of them, but the truth is, that until I asked the students about what they saw, they came into the room and said nothing. The pile took over most of the carpet too. So I tried the question, listened to what they said, and went from there.

      In answer to your second question, I don’t think that you leaving the stuffed animals out is too “willy nilly.” From what you’ve shared on your classroom blog before, I think that your kids would see them, and just go with it. Mine didn’t. I needed that initial prompt, but then I needed to respond to what the students did next. Again, I think it all comes down to knowing our kids.

      Lori, I love what you do, and I explore your blog often. You cause me to reflect on my own practices, and you cause me to make changes. I think that we’re both committed to doing what we can to meet student needs, and in some ways, our approaches overlap. In some ways, they differ. I think that’s okay. These differences are largely a by-product (I think) of our different students and their different needs. The fact that we both try to be responsive to these needs, I think says something. Isn’t that what teaching and learning is all about?


  3. This is a very interesting discussion. Do you think the way children engage in play differs based on their home experiences (cultural background, caregivers, access to services etc.)? We hear a lot about the importance of the “years before five”. Aviva, was it a reluctance to play you witnessed at the beginning? Was it that they didn’t have the oral language skills to engage in conversation with one another? Perhaps all of the “group building” you have done up until now has made students more comfortable with one another and now they are more ready to work as a team? I am curious to know what makes them more ready to “play” than they were before? Or was it the inquiry side that was problematic? Were they not asking deep enough questions? Does inquiry always have to be about asking and answering questions? I find that I always have more questions than answers as I learn more and more about this process.

    • Thanks for the reply, Patricia! It was actually kind of a combination of both. Here are the problems that I initially observed:

      1) Many students didn’t have the oral language skills to engage in play.
      2) Many students didn’t have the background knowledge that’s first needed in order to later extend learning. (We really needed to build schema.)
      3) Many students struggled with the inquiry side of things: asking good questions, thinking about what they learned, and drawing conclusions. They also struggled with figuring out ways to share their learning with others.
      4) Many students were also ignoring the reading and writing invitations. They were reluctant to write anything, or even “draw” in detail in order to explain thinking. They really seemed to have nothing to share. They also didn’t see books as resources for information. On the second day of school, I noted that not one student knew how to even open a book the right way. More than half of my students didn’t recognize their names, and they had limited letter-sound knowledge.

      This wasn’t true for everyone, but it was true for the vast majority of the students that I taught. And as such, I needed to try something new. So I asked for some advice from an educator that I really admired, and the changes seemed to work. Now, as the year’s gone on, and the students have improved so much, our routines are slowly starting to change. We still have large blocks of time, and usually we have a Language and a Math Block (with the other subjects integrated throughout), but these blocks are overlapping more and more and the play/inquiry combination is really starting to take shape.

      Again, I think so often it comes down to knowing our students and making changes based on their needs. Like you, I often find myself having more questions than answers, and more times than not, trying something, making changes, and trying again.


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