4 Fun Ways to Fire Up Learners

Memorable Moments

When you think back to your fondest memories of school, what experiences do you remember most? I am talking about memorable moments that have wrapped around your heart and hugged your soul. These memories are so vivid that when your thoughts wander back in time, you are the starring role in vibrant mind movies that leave you feeling incredible pride, joy, and gratitude for those opportunities. These memory moments have become part of the fabric of the person you’ve become and will continue to be on your course of life. 

Snapshots in Time

For me, these snapshots in time are what made learning fun, creative, and applicable to real world interactions and experiences I’ve encountered. I can assure you that when my own children, students, and colleagues ask me about my favorite parts of my schooling timeline, it is not about the standards, assessments, skills, strategies, and/or particular lessons that were taught. It was the times I performed in the school musicals and dramas, participated in Battle of the Classes, and worked on passion projects I actually cared about. It was the educators who unlocked those moments that sparked my interests and ignited my passions. Those educators created personalized experiences that kept learners at the core of the work and viewed them as human beings first. The social interactions I had with peers illuminated the most relevant parts of learning. Together we laughed and navigated our way through successes and failures, sought solutions to conflicts, explored new ideas, and pushed our limits of learning, discovery, and growth. 

Great Educators CAN Make a Difference

In order to make a difference in the lives of our learners, great educators must create experiences that tap into learners’ hearts so their minds are open to critically consuming information to create new and better things that are relevant to them and the real world. Meaningful learning sticks when great educators focus on the right things first! In Innovate Inside the Box, George Couros says, “We have to acknowledge that our students come to us with a unique mix of experiences, strengths, weaknesses, and passions…Our calling or task is to expose students to numerous pathways and provide them with the skills to be self-directed and goal-oriented so they can choose or create a path that allows their brilliance to shine” (p.32).  I’ll admit, at the beginning of my career, I was so focused on delivering the curriculum that I rarely leveraged the moments where I could have listened more and developed deeper connections with my students to make learning matter. I always cared about them, but I thought that the primary way of showing it was by “covering the content” instead of making investments in their emotional deposit boxes and continuously giving them the choice and voice they deserved. In the book Personal and Authentic, Thomas Murray says, “Expecting children to walk through our doors and desire a “standard” model of education completely ignores the vast differences in interests, passions, and strengths of our learners. Providing opportunities, both small and large for these learners to explore areas that are meaningful to them recognizes who they are and reaffirms to them that they matter” (p. 107).

4 Fun Ways to Fire Up Learners

How can great educators create conditions that bring out the best attributes of every learner who enters the school buildings and classrooms they live in? I’ll tell you what has worked for me… fire them up and make them a part of the learning process! Empower them to listen, think, discuss, and choose the way they want to learn. Create opportunities where learners freely share their ideas, listen to others’ perspectives, and talk about what’s on their hearts and minds. Use those moments to influence their learning and plan instruction that’s tailored to their needs; give them the starring role in vibrant future mind movies that they can recall and later share with pride, joy, and gratitude! With that being said, I want to share what my students think are 4 fun ways to empower them and fire up the learning that transpires in classrooms! These are learning experiences that they request we revisit regularly:

Picture of the Day

I discovered Picture of the Day from Hello Literacy consultant Jen Jones many years ago. I have found that using pictures is a low stakes, meaningful, purposeful way to observe, think, promote critical discussion, and honor other perspectives about anything you choose! In author Ralph Fletcher’s recent keynote at the Spring Virtual Long Island Language Arts Council Conference on March 25, 2020, he discusses how the world of our learners is increasingly visual. Photos are a universal language that reveal emotions and tell stories about people’s lives. Photos can magically stop time and become a tool for inquiry. They also serve as mentor texts that can inspire learners to take their own photographs and document their own journey. When I introduce the picture of the day, I begin by selecting pictures that are of high interest, relevant to the unit of study I am teaching, and/or mirror the interests of the learners in my class. For example, if I am teaching story elements, I may showcase pictures with a variety of settings, people, conflicts, and resolutions; if I have learners who have a passion for sports, traveling, cooking, etc… I will share those photographs. The students are invited to make observations (list things that can see in the picture) and then make reasonable inferences (using the details from the picture and what they already know) to develop ideas and perspectives about the photo. My students are also encouraged to select their own photographs in the choice boards I will discuss below! Learners can think and respond about photographs in a multitude of ways (i.e. in a writer’s notebook, Google Doc/Slides, Jamboard). I have found that Picture of the Day has supported my learners in previewing and comprehending more complex informational text.

Choice Boards

Choice boards are not only a great way to empower learners by giving them choice and voice in what and how they are going to learn, but it also provides meaningful balance between online and offline learning. I have found that providing learners with choice boards encourages intrinsic motivation and a more meaningful desire to learn,  personalized instruction, and allows students to respond by using various print and digital competencies. This type of freedom guides learners towards independence. The choice boards I designed below were inspired by Catlin Tucker’s blog and self-paced course on blended learning. Each choice board includes skills/strategies that I have introduced in my own classroom. I revise the learning activities as I introduce new skills/strategies. Revising the options keeps learning fun and engaging! In the book Innovate Inside the Box, Couros states, “When students are empowered to choose how they can best demonstrate their knowledge and skills, they are able to see the relevance in learning the basics and how reading, writing, and math apply to their lives and are less likely to check out mentally” (pp. 62-63).

Link to Literacy Offline Choice Board #1

Link to Notice and Note Offline Choice Board #2

Dialogue Journals

This is an authentic way to get students to informally write about any topic with a partner or group while supporting the development of relationships and building stronger connections with teachers and peers. Teachers can utilize literature, informational text, video, podcasts, and/or free writing prompts to get learners to participate in this process. Learners will start with a question, comment, or thought about the topic by including content knowledge and content-specific vocabulary. Learners respond to one another and should keep the dialogue going. I call this fast and furious writing! Learners should not worry about grammar or spelling. They should be able to get all of their ideas out freely.  Dialogue journals are a low pressure way to tap into students’ interests and passions, to learn more about each other, develop writing fluency, stamina, and build confidence. Teachers can participate by sharing their own experiences through writing, by giving feedback to the learners and/or participate in the writing process.

Dialogue Journal information from: The Best-Kept Teaching Secret: How Written Conversations Engage Kids, Activate Learning, Grow Fluent Writers…K-12 by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels  and Elaine Daniels

Here is an example of student dialogue journals:

Inspiration Collages


There have been several opportunities for my learners to create inspiration boards that exemplify and illustrate who they are as people. Allowing them to utilize a digital space such as Google Slides, enabled them to express their creativity and illuminate their passions and interests by using quotes, words, phrases, colors, and images. These activities have helped me to initiate meaningful conversations with my students and have supported the development of future lessons that are relevant to their lives and the world. In Innovate Inside the Box, Couros says, “If we don’t understand the learners we serve, even the best ideas for teaching and learning will not be as effective if we don’t learn about our students and connect with them first” (pp.77-78). In the example below, shows how learners responded to the book Love by Matt De La Pena by creating a board about what Love means to them! See the slides for more information about P.S. I Love You Day (the impetus for this learning experience).

Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 1: Inviting Change

A Special Note: Many months ago, I was encouraged by George Couros to create a digital portfolio in order to highlight and archive my learning. These conversations started before the COVID-19 global pandemic emerged as one of the most challenging and life-changing events in history. During the quarantine, I connected with Kristen Nan and Jacie Maslyk, co-authors of All In: Taking a Gamble on Education in a book study Voxer group. This is when Kristen invited me to co-blog on her website. This was a great opportunity to test drive blogging. The experience was incredible and gave me the confidence to take George’s advice and create my own platform. One of the first blogs I wrote during this time was Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model. The purpose of this blog was to keep the workshop model alive during emergency remote learning. I wanted to share my experiences with other educators and show them that what may seem impossible is in fact, possible.

With that being said, as I learn more about implementing the workshop model in physical and virtual learning spaces simultaneously, I want to share my process with other educators. So, I welcome you to the beginning of a series of blogs titled: Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model. I will break up my learning process and the workshop model framework into various components so that they are easier to digest. Please understand that my learning is constantly evolving and all of these ideas may be revised over the course of time!

This blog series is dedicated to George Couros, Jacie Maslyk, Thomas C. MurrayKristen Nan, my PLN: #Read2Lead, #EdCampLI, #LBLeads, and my Long Beach colleagues who have inspired, motivated, supported, and encouraged me to write and share my learning and voice with the rest of the world. I am forever grateful.

What Happened to the Magic?

There is a certain kind of magic that lives within an educational universe. If you orbit around an organization and open the doors, you will find sparks of light. These sparks of light shine brightly because they are ignited by communities of educators who pour their souls into maximizing and elevating learning experiences for kids. It’s that spark that ignites into flames when curiosity and wonder spread like wildfire. It’s that spark that rallies a community of learners together to support one another through the learning process. It’s that spark that embraces the idea of agency, voice, choice, and productive struggle. It’s that spark that empowers and guides learners towards independence. And just as the flames happily dance and spread around our magical learning hubs, the intensity of the flames can just as easily be disrupted, startled, dimmed, faded. What happened to the magic? I’ll tell you in one word: CHANGE. When change invites itself through our doors, it can be paralyzing. It can be suffocating. It can be stressful. It can be shocking. It can also be eye-opening.

Change is the Epicenter of the Journey

I have been in education for 15 years and I can assure you that change has been the epicenter of my journey. Most of the time, change has been a gradual occurrence that happens over a steady course of time. It’s so slow, that at times, it cannot be recognized until it’s looking you straight in the eyes. However, recently change has looked quite different in the world of education. Across the globe, educators have been pushed to rethink education. Educators have been challenged to question their core values. Educators have been pushed to revisit their philosophical beliefs. Educators have been remixing existing teaching and learning practices that have lived in the nucleus of their daily lives and in the book Innovate Inside the Box, George Couros brilliantly states, “I’ve long believed that change isn’t to be feared; it is an opportunity to do something amazing…Change will come our way. We can “go” through it or “grow” through it. We grow when we seek out solutions rather than letting those obstacles hinder us.” This quote resonates even more deeply since the Covid-19 global pandemic has jolted the more traditional educational landscape we have always lived and known. I’ll admit when shifting to emergency remote learning and now teaching in physical and virtual spaces simultaneously, I have paused multiple times and questioned the what and the how. I have questioned whether or not the philosophy of the workshop model can live on in virtual environments. I have questioned if I can make the workshop model come alive for learners the same way I did in physical learning environments. Katie Martin, author of Learner-Centered Innovation confirms how vital developing solutions are to the barriers of change with this astute notion, “If the world is changing, the evidence and research become irrelevant if you don’t consider a new context.” And if we want to reach learners effectively, we MUST consider the new educational contexts that have been thrust upon us. We cannot look back, we must keep moving forward! And then, I came across a tweet from Thomas C. Murray, author of Personal & Authentic that spoke to my core, solidified these ideas, and reminded me of my why. And when I revisited my WHY, I knew it is to continuously cultivate lifelong learners who feel empowered to reach their social, emotional, and academic potential. And then, I realized that through the workshop model, I can continue to rally together a community of learners and build community by prioritizing the social-emotional needs of students and keeping “who” we teach at the heart of the learning journey.

Choosing What is Right

I have encountered many people who have embraced different educational philosophies. I have listened to theories and have read multiple books and articles by countless leaders and experts in the field of education. I have indulged in and have digested several perspectives about various topics with the intention of catapulting learners to academic success through multiple kinds of curricula and teaching and learning practices. And every time I have read an article, a book, or listened to a podcast, I used to think, wow, this must be the magic prescription for success. In my earlier years of teaching, when I was handed a curriculum, I followed it to a T. I thought that the curriculum itself was the key driver of developing a learner’s social, emotional, and academic potential. I thought that the people who were responsible for making decisions about the curriculum knew best and I looked to them as the experts. Now I know better. Now I know that the learners are the curriculum. They tell you what they need. I learned that there is not one single curriculum that works best for all learners. I know that every curriculum must be viewed as flexible and should be modified to meet learners’ needs. Knowing this made me realize that I can adapt the Workshop Model in both physical and virtual spaces. Knowing this helped me understand that I can revise the implementation and the process at any time. Knowing this made me feel more comfortable with taking risks, sometimes meet those risks with failure, share and reflect on those experiences with colleagues, and recognize that it’s an opportunity for growth.

Thomas C. Murray invites Kristen Nan to share how important it is to take risks and step out of your comfort zone in this #LeadershipMinute!

The Workshop Model Will Live On

Suddenly, a spark was ignited within me…I knew that by inviting this change, I was still going to continue to honor my belief system and keep the magic of the workshop model alive. I felt committed to implementing what I have known to be best practices in the new context we are living in. It is because I believe that this is the framework that empowers learners to become confident readers and writers. This is the framework that guides them towards independence. On October 17, 2020, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project held their first virtual Saturday Reunion. When I logged in to watch and listen from the comfort of my own home, Lucy Calkins was delivering her opening remarks. She said “We need to be as connected as we can be…Teaching is about holding onto the faith that the work we do matters. This is hard to hold onto right now. Even if it feels that nothing is going well, we need to show up.” These are powerful words that made me ask myself again…How can I rally learners together and build community when we are teaching in both physical and virtual learning spaces simultaneously? What can I do to cultivate meaningful connections and develop relationships with face-to-face and virtual learners? What new and existing tools can I utilize to support the execution of the gradual release of responsibility? I know that while navigating this learning journey, I must continue to be patient, I must continue to give myself grace, I must continue to be open to feedback from my colleagues, my PLN, and my students who are living this with me, and I must show up. And as Calkins suggests, I will show up for my students, their families, my community, and my country. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. The fact of the matter is that change has already invited itself through our doors. As George Couros says, “You can fight change, adapt to change, embrace change, create change, or lead change. No matter your choice, change is not going away.” And do you know what else I will not let go away? The Magic of the Workshop Model.

Lucy Calkins passionately delivered her introduction at the October 17, 2020 TCRWP
Saturday Virtual Reunion.

Stay tuned for the next blog in this series: Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 2: Rallying Learners and Building Community