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).

Lifelong Practices Live Within

My Educational Journey

I have been in education for 15 years and throughout my career, I have served in many roles at the Elementary level. This includes Teaching Assistant, Classroom Teacher, Reading Specialist, and most recently, Instructional Coach. Throughout the trajectory of my career, I have always worked to challenge myself in every position I have ever served in. Each position has taught me how to fine-tune what I know and do; each position has allowed me to see and focus on my strengths and the strengths of others in order to provide the best opportunities for students to reach their social, emotional, and academic potential; each position has allowed to me stay true to my core beliefs while learning new ways to approach teaching and learning. And because I have been fortunate to travel this path, I recognize the value every role brings to an organization. Over the course of time, I have asked myself, “How can I continue to honor my core belief system as I navigate the different roles I serve in?” At the heart of this journey, it became clear to me that developing relationships, connecting, being human, and leading with empathy and grace, opens doors to creating a community of learners who work together to ambitiously develop solutions to instructional challenges.

Not the Same Educator

Five years ago my school district decided to invest in job-embedded professional learning at the Elementary level. They reached to educators within the organization who had a strong background in literacy to elevate literacy practices and bring shared experiences to four buildings. When I took on the role of Literacy Coach, my school district had already committed to embracing the balanced literacy approach; this is an approach to reading and writing instruction I feel very strongly about to the core as learners can authentically engage in rich literacy experiences including the reading and writing workshop, interactive read alouds, shared reading, small group instruction, one-on-one conferencing, and have choice and voice as they get to self-select from diverse texts across a plethora of genres. This was an opportunity to work side-by-side with teachers as I got to collaboratively write curriculum and develop meaningful assessments with teachers, students, administrators, and literacy consultants. Over the course of a few years, we developed 73 Units of Study that were grounded in the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project philosophy. I got to work intimately with the other Literacy Coach, a brilliant colleague, and friend as we rallied teachers together to analyze, reflect, and revise a live curriculum to meet the needs of a diverse population. Additionally, we purposefully and intentionally took an audit of all elementary classroom libraries and ordered books and mentor texts to support learners and enhance the curriculum. Furthermore, we vertically aligned the curriculum, so there was a smooth progression of literacy development from K-5 that was aligned to the learning standards. In the last few years, I worked with my other Instructional Coach colleagues to ensure continuity of instruction in the Reading and Writing Workshop model, provided meaningful professional learning experiences during faculty and grade-level meetings, and participated in formal and informal conversations about student learning. All of this heart work has always been grounded in best practice. Best practices and systems are what guided this incredible experience. During this time, my coaching belief system was shaped by Jim Knight’s Seven Partnership Principles (introduced to me by Jessica Gruttola during an Instructional Coaching workshop). These principles influenced conversations, theory, and practice. These are the principles that supported my team as we embarked on the mission of creating positive change. If we modeled the change we wanted to see by consistently using the Partnership Principles as a guide while keeping learners at the heart of the decision-making process, we were off to great things!

Jim Knight

It was this work that led me to deeply understand what teaching and learning practices would best support learners in order to move them to higher levels, guide them towards independence, and create lifelong learners.

Coaching 1        Coaching 2Coaching 3  Coaching 4

Coaching work I facilitated in faculty, grade level, and one-on-one meetings.

Taking A Leap of Faith

This year I am taking a leap of faith as I enthusiastically join the Middle School team where I will serve as a Literacy Specialist. Although I will always keep my years of elementary experience close to my heart, I am incredibly excited to continue to collaborate, connect, network, reflect, and share all I have learned in every role I have ever had the privilege of serving in with colleagues and learners. I am also inviting the learning curve that will come with acclimating to a new culture and climate. I will learn for, about, and with new leadership, colleagues, and learners. In making the transition from Elementary to Middle School, I believe that there is great strength in knowing and understanding the building blocks of learning, where the students are coming from, and what skills they should have mastered. If we work together towards building a bridge that will reinforce what they know while making new connections to learning, there will be a strong vertical progression of literacy development.  As I make this transformation to the middle level, there is one thing I know for sure… I will continue to honor my own core belief system and the teaching and learning practices I am so insanely passionate about. As I continue on my educational journey, I will never forget the experiences I have been a part of and the people who have impacted my growth along the way. They are all a part of who I am, and that will never change!

Keeping Partnership Principles at the Core

I created the infographic below to demonstrate how Jim Knight’s Instructional Coaching Partnership Principles translate to working with learners using a balanced literacy approach. I believe that belief systems in education can be applied to any learning environment, if they are in fact, best practices!

Keeping Partnership Principles at the Core (2)

Keeping Partnership Principles at the Core