Epic Play. Epic Learning. Epically Wonderful.

I don’t usually use my professional blog as a space to share a learning story, but it was the evolution of this one that makes me want to share it here. Also, with my current position as a Reading Specialist, I don’t have a classroom blog, so this becomes the area where I share and reflect on my learning.

The Spark …

About two months ago, I was perusing my Instagram feed, and I saw a post from a Grade 1 teacher, Kristina. Kristina taught Kindergarten for years, and while we’ve connected a few times online, we’ve never met in person. She now teaches Grade 1, and I love how she’s bringing her play-based philosophy from Kindergarten up to Grade 1. On this particular day, she shared some store play that was happening in her Grade 1 classroom. Students set-up a variety of stores, and they were selling her items. I really appreciated the menu making and reading in the restaurant, and the authentic reasons to read and write. Kristina’s post brought me such joy!

I didn’t think much about it until a couple of days later when I was connecting with one of the Grade 1 teachers. She was cutting out items for a money activity, and I mentioned about the store that I saw a few days previously. As I showed her the Instagram post, we realized that not only did these two teachers know each other, but they actually used to work together. The Grade 1 teacher at my school could feel my excitement about this store idea and she got a little excited as well. We didn’t really go further than a discussion at this point until

A Request To Look More Closely At Writing …

a couple of days later, when we were chatting about student writing. We noticed that students could use some additional support in writing and applying their reading knowledge to their writing. I offered to lead a mini-lesson based on my new learning around writing instruction, which came out of a recent Reading Specialist Meeting.

We didn’t get into too much discussion because I was about to go and set-up for some outdoor literacy play with a kindergarten class. The success for this play led to me mentioning how amazing it would be to give Grade 1’s these kinds of learning moments. What if we took Kristina’s store idea and connected it with our upcoming writing experience? We could slow the process down, and provide lots of reading and writing opportunities prior to the creation of the actual store. I shared the idea with this teacher, and she was in. Yay!

Growing Beyond One Class

A couple of other Grade 1 classes also had me booked to model and support a writing lesson, so I shared this idea with them as well. They were also in. As a previous kindergarten teacher, I was overjoyed to bring more play to Grade 1.

Leading To The Epic Play Store Project

It was thanks to this excitement and this interest around writing and reading instruction that this Epic Play Store Project was born.

Reflecting Together

While I might have been the original driving force behind this project coming to our school, the responses from the students and the interest from the educators has propelled the learning forward week after week. Below is some documentation from these weekly literacy play experiences, often supported with additional learning led by the classroom educator.

This project is not done yet, but it’s been the reflections together each week, which has led to us working together to plan where to go next. Classroom educators and students are as excited about this project as I am — I get stopped in the hall by kids asking when I’ll be coming in next — and they are even reflecting on the play experience as part of this process.

What’s the impact?

At our Reading Specialist Meeting yesterday, we got to share our Impact Stories in our Professional Learning Teams. This Epic Play Store Project was part of my story.

Sometimes our impact is in the actual work that we do, and sometimes, it’s in the inspiration to try a different approach or to view learning in a different way.

What Next?

I love that these Grade 1 educators are seeing the potential in play and inquiry, and experimenting with both in their classrooms. June can be a great time to dabble in something new as maybe both kids and educators need a bit of a change under an umbrella of routine. What might your “dabbling” be? How might play-based and inquiry-based learning be used in all grades to also support opportunities for authentic literacy learning? Thanks to Kristina for the one Instagram post that resulted in this epic learning adventure that is not done yet. Thank you, as well, to these awesome Grade 1 educators, who were open to trying something new and embracing some messy learning with me. I love working with all of you, and from now on, I’ve decided that every play project needs to be at least a little bit epic! 🙂


Walking And Learning

On Friday, I had the unexpected opportunity to join a kindergarten class on a walking trip to the library. The library is just under a kilometre away from our school, so this was about a 20 minute walk both ways, plus some time exploring the actual library. As I was walking with a group of kids, I couldn’t help but listen in on their conversations. At one point, I was tempted to take out my device and record them, but instead, I chose to focus on really listening closely. This post is inspired by what I heard.

During my prep at the end of the day, I wrote up a little quasi-learning story, where I captured and shared some of the conversations.

I could have added names or initials, but since the class is not my own and since I wanted to post what I heard, I decided to stick to anonymous quotes and more general descriptions.

Here’s what I kept returning to as I reflected on this experience: we are now at a point in the COVID pandemic where field trips are happening again. So many educators, children, and families are thrilled with this news. These experiences often help to develop schema for students, support community building, and address learning skills, but do they do more than this? As I was listening in on these four- and five-year olds, I saw so many oral language opportunities, reading and writing connections, vocabulary development, and an inquiry mindset at play. I wrote up this story not just for the purpose of this blog post or to share on social media, but because I wanted to also share it with the classroom educators.

  • What might they be able to extend back in the classroom or outside now?
  • What additional home connections might there be?
  • How can I support this learning in my role as a Reading Specialist?

We want to appreciate the fun moments of these special trips, whatever they might be, but in our remaining weeks of the school year, I wonder how some close listening, co-operative planning, and upcoming inquiries might also support something more. Whether at home or at school, listen closely to your children this week. What do you hear, and what might this mean for some academic learning in the coming month? Even a community walk has so much value!


What’s Your “Banana” Joy?

As I’ve mentioned in some previous blog posts, I share an office at the school with two other educators. Due to our different schedules and the fact that I rarely make it back to the office until well after the bell has gone at the end of the day, I can go full days without seeing these other teachers. Sometimes all we do is wave a quick, “hello.” Jenn Angle, the teacher librarian, is one of these two people, and our friendship has formed over a bunch of voice memos. I think that she texted me the first voice note that I’ve ever received, and now if we need a reminder or a thought strikes, we voice note it. I love Jenn’s passion — it’s contagious: trust me — and hearing her ideas also gets others excited about them. This blog post is inspired by a voice memo … and maybe a little something that came before that.

On Thursday, I was in the Learning Commons over the first nutrition break supervising the Chess Club. As I was walking around and chatting with some students, I noticed this banana on the LEGO wall.

The Banana That Started It All

I almost tweeted a picture of it at the time! I love this banana. It almost has a “comic” feel to it, and I was intrigued by the letters underneath it. Could this text contain a message? Could it be the start of one? I ended up getting immersed in a few other things, so I never sent the tweet and forgot about the banana …

That is until early the next morning when I received a voice note from Jenn reminding me about this LEGO fruit. She told me the background about this banana that I didn’t know at the time …

  • More than 50 students created this banana.
  • Students have been adding to this banana together on their weekly visits to the Learning Commons.
  • Students from Grades 1-8 have contributed to this LEGO artwork.
  • Every single child is speaking about the banana when they come into the library.
  • The banana brings Jenn joy, but it also brings joy to all those that see it.

Jenn wanted to capitalize on this collaborative piece and all of the great conversations around it, by linking it with some writing. She was trying to figure out where to go next, so she texted to see if we could come up with an idea together.

When Jenn saw this banana, she viewed it as a writing provocation. Strangely enough, I saw the writing connection as well, but in a slightly different way. In my mind, this banana was like a LEGO comic. The text underneath it reminded me of one of the callouts in a comic book. Could this be the start of a LEGO comic wall? I then started to think about this artist that my previous teaching partner, Paula, and I explored with students last year: Doodle Boy. Maybe it was the fruit that reminded me of his work, or maybe it was the artistic style, but I almost envisioned a LEGO Doodle Wall. Students could add LEGO text to it or even explore speech bubbles with the characters that they create. Imagine the reading and writing possibilities in this space as well as the media literacy opportunities. There are Language connections here for every grade.

This could also be linked with some comic creations. I just printed a blank comic template to use as a choice follow-up for an upcoming Kindergarten Read Aloud. It’s very open-ended, but there are also other examples of ones that could be printed and used. There are probably some comic apps that students could use as well, or they could create and read a pseudo-comic on Explain Everything. I was getting excited by all of the possibilities, and I sent Jenn an epic voice note with all of my thinking.

There are many things that I love about Jenn, but her overwhelming excitement about learning opportunities for kids, might top the list! She came running into a Grade 1 class where I happened to be before school started, and in true Jenn form said, “We’re doing this!” Yay! My long voice note didn’t deter her, but instead, further inspired her. She built on the comic idea, and even added some graphic novels along with some question prompts to get kids thinking more about the LEGO banana.

At second nutrition break, I received a text from Jenn, telling me how excited students were about this space. They already created a hamburger, french fries, and the start of a strawberry on the LEGO wall.

Jenn’s going to check out Doodle Boy’s work this weekend, and I’m going to bring in some speech bubble sticky notes to extend the writing possibilities in this space.

Working with Jenn on this evolving project reminded me of how important the Teacher Librarian and Reading Specialist relationship is in a school. Both of us have a “building capacity” component to our position, but it’s as we team up, that we also build each other’s capacity. We can then work with the classroom educators and students to support the reading, writing, media literacy, oral language, and vocabulary opportunities in this library space. Could this even extend to teaching and learning opportunities beyond the library? I’m thinking about the Epic Play Store Project that I’ve started in some Grade 1 and 2 classes recently.

  • Maybe a comic could be a different way to advertise for the store, while supporting reading and writing as part of the process.
  • Maybe we could have a Doodle Boy component to our project, which would also support storytelling as well as story creating.

Jenn’s getting me excited about new possibilities, and the evolution of the teaching and learning in the Learning Commons space might influence the evolution of teaching and learning outside of it. We’re now in the heart of the AprilMayJune (intentionally one word) crazy that comes every year in school systems. Maybe both kids and adults need to find and hold onto their own “banana joy” … a little something that can capitalize on the learning throughout the year, while allowing for some application and critical thinking wrapped up in fun. What might be your “banana moments?” How can you connect with other educators in the school to bring them to fruition? In the midst of stress, it helps to find your banana.


“Connecting Versus Correcting” With The Help Of Podcasting

Over the winter holidays, I read a fantastic Ministry resource, Think, Feel, Act: Lessons From Research About Young Children. The resource features many of my favourite minds on Early Childhood Education, including a wonderful article on pages 5-10 by Dr. Jean Clinton. She challenges us to think about the amount of time that we spend correcting and directing versus connecting. While the article is focused on younger children, I believe this same thinking extends beyond our work with 3-5 year olds. I thought about this more during a few different experiences this week.

As some of my blog readers know, in my new position, I share an office space in the Learning Commons with two other educators. While I spend very little time in this space outside of the hours between 7:10 and 8:30 (before school starts), I will sometimes come back to grab something if needed. This week, I ran back in on my prep to grab my car keys, as I needed some additional chalk from my trunk for our Epic Kindergarten Outdoor Play Literacy Experience. This is when I saw our fantastic Teacher Librarian, Jenn. She was so excited, as a group of intermediate students independently unpacked, set-up, and figured out how to work the podcasting tools for a new experience in the Learning Commons.

One thing that I love about Jenn is that when she is joyful, everybody feels it. She is such a passionate educator, who is always looking out for kids first. Due to some of my own commitments on that day, I could feel her excitement, but I think that I only really got to appreciate a small part of it.

Then I came into school the next day, and I saw this brainstorming.

I am all about authentic reasons to read and write, and I not only loved that podcasting was allowing this to happen for students beyond kindergarten, but that it was causing students to get excited about, invested in, and thinking deeply about learning.

The next day, I walked into the Learning Commons again, and the whiteboard from the day before exploded with even more podcasting ideas. As a curriculum nerd, I couldn’t help but look at this board and see connections to expectations across the grades and across the subject areas.

Later in the day, I was chatting with Jenn and our principal, Suzie, a little bit more about podcasting. This took me back to over 10 years ago, and my first experience with Andy Forgrave‘s internet radio station, 105 the Hive.

When I started to think about podcasting in the same way that I thought about 105 the Hive, I realized that it’s these kinds of student-driven, high interest, engaging inquiry experiences that would allow for even more time for educators to connect versus correct behaviour. Thinking about our focus on Universal Design For Learning, podcasting is also a wonderful way for students to share thinking and learning, which could be good for all, but necessary for some.

But what about, “We don’t have time for this? We have too much curriculum to cover.”

I understand the stress that a classroom educator feels, and I know that this comes from a place of wanting to do everything we can for kids. Many years ago, when the Social Studies Document first came out, there was a lot of time talking about the fact that expectations are not a checklist, and we really should be looking to the Big Ideas and Overall Expectations as our guide. This makes the curriculum less overwhelming, but it also allows us to dig deeper and prioritize thinking. Keeping this in mind, I wonder if a podcasting approach might allow for this focus on Big Ideas and Overall Expectations, while also supporting key Language expectations around Oral Communication, Reading, Writing, and Media Literacy. What might this look like across the grades?

I’ve added some of my ideas to a Padlet (slide across and down to see more), and I’m hoping that others can share theirs here or as a comment on this post.

Made with Padlet

Imagine the learning that we could co-create online, across Boards, and even across countries that could benefit students and allow us to experience even more joy in classroom and school environments. The recording itself does not need to be perfect, and as students continue to play with podcasting, they might add in different elements (e.g., intro music), but could the key here be finding a place to start? I keep thinking about some books that I read about inquiry many years ago now, and the important link between thinking and student achievement. If we want to help our kids become better thinkers, might podcasting be a great vehicle to support this? I’m excited to be on this learning journey with our school community.


Heading Out …

Outdoors that is … This past week was a beautiful one in Ontario, and the summer weather brought with it a desire for kids and adults to get outside. I completely understand! It’s too early to get into summer mode though, and varying routine too much is sure to bring with it behaviour. So what if we embraced the outdoors as a learning space?

I know that all of the Kindergarten educators at our school go outside for at least one long block a day … sometimes more. We’re fortunate to have four different areas for outdoor play, from a fenced in pen space to a beautiful courtyard to a grassy pen area (with an additional mud kitchen) to the big playground space. Each area brings with it a little something different.

At a Reading Specialist Meeting a couple of months ago, a consultant shared her experience as a Reading Specialist and the outdoor learning that she supported at her schools. I was hooked! As my blog readers know, when I was a Kindergarten educator, I was passionate about outdoor play and the wonderful literacy, math, and problem solving opportunities that came from this environment. The consultant also shared how the outdoors can support Self-Reg, and I completely agree. I wondered if this might be another area where we could work to support literacy development in students, while also building capacity in educators, and ultimately, co-planning, co-teaching, and co-problem solving in this space.

I did some more thinking about this plan, and a couple of weeks ago, I sent out an email asking if any Kindergarten educators were interested in me planning a literacy-rich learning experience for the outdoors. It would be about 1 1/2 periods long, and I would do all of the initial set-up and planning. They could be there to experience and document the learning with their kids, and then we could reflect together and look at making modifications based on our observations. While I’ve facilitated a lot of outdoor play before, this was always in different spaces, with literacy being just part of my goal. This would be new learning for me, and it might be a colossal failure or epically wonderful, but I was open to it just the same. 🙂 One Kindergarten team replied right away, so we started to make a plan.

This led to me sending one of my strange request emails to staff this past week, and I was flooded with replies. Not only did educators want to contribute nature items, but more Kindergarten educators wanted their kids to partake in this learning experience.

Soon I had everyone on board! Now to continue to plan for this experience. I’m still finalizing the plans, so I don’t want to share too much yet, but these tweets might provide a bit of a sneak peek.

I have a book on the way today (for an outdoor read aloud to provoke learning), some intentional and open-ended reading, writing, and oral language opportunities, and a little targeted instruction. I’m meeting an educator friend for lunch today to discuss my thinking and do some additional brainstorming. Having worked in all of the Kindergarten classes already this year, I know all of the students and their different strengths, interests, and needs. I want to be able to vary the environment accordingly so that this is a successful experience for all. Yesterday’s snail learning might also connect with some content-area vocabulary development and authentic reading and writing opportunities.

Not only do I hope that we can build on this outdoor play as a Kindergarten team, but maybe as next week’s spring weather transitions to summer weather again, we can look at how some of these learning opportunities could be modified for Grade 1 and beyond. How do you utilize the outdoors for instruction in all grades? What have you noticed as a result? Of course, we’re now expecting a little rain this week, but this could lead to perfect worm and snail weather, so maybe a change in the outdoor environment is not such a bad thing after all. Here’s to getting outdoors and supporting literacy learning at the same time … for nothing brings joy quite like a little fresh air.


An Update …

I don’t usually update my blog posts, but due to the nature of this one, I decided to do so. I spent a lot of time here discussing plans for the outdoor space. After meeting with an educator friend of mine, I finalized my plans for this week. I wanted to share them here in case they’re valuable for anyone else. My hope is that the plans will be tweaked along the way based on feedback from both staff and students. If you have any ideas to share or have thoughts on how to adapt these plans for different grades, I’d love to hear them!