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! 🙂


Shifting Thinking. Shifting Practice. Re-Thinking Both.

As part of our Reading Specialist professional development, we’ve been reading and discussing, Shifting the Balance. I actually read this book back in September when I applied to the Reading Specialist team, as I wanted to gain a better understanding of the Science of Reading. I’m grateful that I did read it then, as re-reading it now — especially after being in this position for over 7 months — allows me to think more deeply about the information shared and re-visit some of my previous learning.

At our last Reading Specialist Meeting, we got into groups to discuss some of our reading and reflections. I was in a group with another educator, who spent many years teaching kindergarten. One point that we both commented on was the focus on the value of oral language and vocabulary building. Students need schema, and it’s through rich play opportunities and wonderful inquiries that we can help build this schema, introduce new and subject-specific vocabulary, and provide lots of talking and listening time with kids. When we’re thinking about the Science of Reading though, a lot of time is spent discussing phonics. At every Reading Specialist Meeting that we’re at, we’re reminded that phonics instruction should probably only be about 20 minutes a day. I know that I’ve shared these words with the educators at my school, and it’s a wonderful and important message. A shift though in how we teach reading, definitely seems to have more of us — myself included — thinking more about phonics, and even this book on reading instruction, is reminding us that there’s more to reading than that. This then comes with a big question and one that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently: If I were to go back to the classroom as a kindergarten educator, what changes might I want to make?

This blog post is inspired by this question. Before I share more, I need to say a couple of things.

  1. This is some of my initial thinking. Yes, it aligns with the Board messaging around reading instruction, but no, it is not the way that I’m telling anyone to teach reading. It is a way that helps to ensure some targeted, systematic instruction around phonics, while holding to the pedagogy in the play-based Kindergarten Program Document that I love so much. It also aligns with the flow of the day that my previous teaching partner, Paula, and I had in our classroom before, so I know that it would have worked for what we had in the past. Connecting with teaching partners, looking at student strengths and needs, and planning together as a team are so important. These are things that I would need to do again if/when I go back to the classroom.
  2. There is not one right way to do things. This year, we’ve been told to dabble. Experiment. Try something new. We are still learning about the Science of Reading, and we’re waiting on the release of a new Language Document, which might include a Scope and Sequence for reading instruction. Professional judgment is so important. The things that might work for me and my students, might not work for you and yours … and that’s okay. I want to write about this because by blogging my thinking, I will remember it, and I can return to it at a later point. Doug Peterson taught me this value of blogging, and it’s why I’m writing this post today.

With this in mind, here are some shifts that I might consider making in kindergarten (but only after having conversations with my teaching partner to see what they think and what else they might add, remove, or change).

  • Maximize transitional times for Phonological Awareness activities. This year, the educators at my current school are using UFLI for phonics instruction. Every UFLI lesson includes some phonological awareness work. Instead of doing this sitting as a class on the carpet, I wonder about doing it during transitional times. What if we played with segmenting and blending as we get ready to line up and move to another area in the school or as we clean up? Maybe this could even be done as students are coming into the classroom each day or getting ready to move somewhere else. As the educators, we would say the sounds in the words and they could blend them or we could give the class a word, and they could give us the sounds. We could also do this when walking in a line somewhere. If we gave the students a word, they could give us the sounds as they step: one step for each sound. I even tried this out this year when connecting with a student in the hallway.
  • Try out the visual drill during line walking times. Each UFLI lesson includes a visual drill, where you show students a letter and they give you the sound(s). If you’ve ever had younger students walk in a line, you’ll realize what a challenge this can be. It’s really hard for them to stay focused on what’s in front of them. Almost 20 years ago, I used to put a stuffed animal on the end of a long stick, and they would watch the stuffed animal as we walked in the hall. This worked. I haven’t used this approach in years, and I have some mixed thoughts around the need to walk in a straight line, but regardless, often this is the expectation in a school. Why not print out the letters in the visual drill, and hold them up high for students to see? They can tell us the sounds as we flash the cards. Many might enjoy this little game, and then we can use this time walking to also support instruction.
  • Do the auditory and blending drills during transitional times, as students come to the carpet. There are usually a couple of times a day that kindergarten students gather as a group. What if we did the auditory and blending drills from UFLI during these transitional times? We could have some students write the letters on whiteboards or clipboards, and we could have others use their fingers to form the letters on the floor or in the air. One educator could lead the blending drill as another one assists students that are still getting ready. We could transition students in two groups (almost), so that those that are most ready for this reading instruction, would be there to participate in the majority of it. Again, it comes down to knowing our students. A few students that need a challenge, could even have a clipboard and make a list of as many of the words that they recall in the blending drill. This could be a differentiated piece for kids. If some students are stressed by this instruction, maybe they could help the other educator with some of the set-up in the classroom, and could then hear and see the lesson but still be slightly removed from it.
  • The new concept could be introduced in a smaller group or during a meeting time. Depending on the students, a smaller group might be better. One educator could always sit around a writing table or in a book nook area with the UFLI presentation loaded. The educator could invite students to join as play begins. Others might listen in, and that’s great! Then the educator could run different lessons for different students, so everyone is receiving the instruction that they need. If we decide to do the lesson with the full class, this could be done during a meeting time. The lesson itself is shorter, but it’s the word work, writing, and decodable passages that take longer. This though leads to my next bullet point …
  • Do the word work, writing, and decodable passages (if applicable), during play. This could easily be done in a little reading area space or around the writing table. Then students that are ready for this instruction, can receive it, and others can always listen in and/or join in from afar. As more students are ready, more groups can happen. We could always support other students with the letters and sounds introduced by making them out of play dough or plasticine, writing them on a covered table, or even printing them with paint or in the sand. Educators playing alongside students could support the learning in this way, and then extend this learning with reading and writing opportunities for students that are ready.

This is not something that I’ve ever done in this way before. It does align with some past practices that Paula and I had, but it also varies from some. I think it would be a case of trying, reflecting, and trying again. My hope though would be that in this case, there would still be lots of opportunities for rich play and inquiry, while targeting reading skills, but in a developmentally appropriate way. As kindergarten educators, what does this systematic phonics instruction look like in your classroom? What’s working? What’s not? What might you consider changing and why? There’s still time to try something new, and as this school year is coming to an end, maybe we can all learn a few different approaches from each other. Thanks to Shifting the Balance and a great book club conversation for shifting my thinking, shifting practice, and re-thinking a bit of both.


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.


“Better Than Wonderland?!”

On Thursday, I was setting up for the final day of the Epic Kindergarten Outdoor Play experience. I realized that I haven’t seen the worms again that a Grade 1 teacher and her daughter collected on Monday. It turns out that I needed to go and get some more worms. 🙂 I was planning to head outside on my prep to dig alone, but the Grade 1/2 teacher offered up some help from a couple of children. It was the conversation that they had with me that inspired this post.

I started to wonder, what makes digging for worms so wonderful? What might this teach us as we plan future learning experiences for kids?

  • Maybe this speaks to the importance of connections. Maybe it’s less about “digging for worms,” and more about having a special opportunity to go outside and help out. The two student helpers knew that I needed these worms for a Kindergarten class, and they love to help out the kindergarteners. Could this desire to help have fuelled these positive feelings?
  • Maybe it was about doing something special. While I only took the students for five minutes — worms are easy to find in the courtyard — they saw this as an opportunity to leave the classroom and go out on an adventure with me. The adventure might have only been to a space across the hall, but it was still exciting. They could have also felt special for being the two that were chosen to help out.
  • Maybe it was about the sensory experience. I brought six Kindergarten classes out into this courtyard space over a 1 1/2 week period. While I set up many different provocations outside, the students in all of the classes were most drawn to the sensory play. This huge sandbox was often filled with all, or almost all, of the kids for the vast majority of our time outside (over an hour). While my two helpers were older than these Kindergarten students, they are still young enough to enjoy mud … and the giggles and conversations as they dug with me, show just how much they like the mud.

Just a couple of examples to show the popularity of the mud kitchen!

I keep thinking that as devoted as we are as educators or as parents to planning exciting, and at times, expensive, opportunities for kids, could something simple be just as valuable? Going to Wonderland is expensive. Digging for worms is not. According to these two kids, digging for worms is even better than Wonderland. I wonder what other simple experiences bring just as much joy. As my tweets this year show, I’m definitely focused on joy for this school year, and when kids are happy, the feeling is contagious. We’re at the point in the year when many educators are planning year-end trips or fun activities for June. What might be your “digging for worms” equivalent? Is it worth considering something simple, but wonderful? As my hands were also covered in dirt and picking up worms, I couldn’t help but feel this same joy that the kids felt. Maybe they’re onto something here.