The Reading Riot

By Rachel Hill

One of the primary goals at KiS is to help our students feel engaged, challenged, and supported wherever they are developmentally, which is why a mixed-age educational model works so well for us. Children grow and learn at different rates, and it is important to make each student’s academic journey as unique as they are. As far as research for mixed-age classrooms, Mattern and Yates discovered that elementary level students have a “broader social experience and increased opportunities to lead and follow, and to form stable peer relationships” (1995). Younger students can always look to the teacher in the space to answer their questions, but can also get help from older students in the class. Additionally, children usually perform better academically in multi-age classrooms than in traditional classrooms (Anderson & Pavan, 1993).

Our multi-age classroom at KiS comes with a few unique challenges. One of the trickiest is incorporating activities that include and appeal to the entire class. From my experience as a reading teacher, regular read-alouds are beneficial for students of all ages, so I decided we should share the book, The Wild Robot by Peter Brown, a heart-warming work of Science Fiction. This decision led to a ton of academic opportunities as well as quality community building. Students received many opportunities to make predictions, actively visualize and imagine, retell what they heard in the story, and connect the events back to their own lives.

Usually we read one or two chapters each day to kick off our literacy block, but as we delved deeper and deeper into the story, the students started wanting more, and they were definitely feeding off of each other’s energy. On a surprisingly related note, as the school year has gone on, we’ve been sharing more and more music during the morning meetings. One of my students is a big Twisted Sister fan, and one morning he requested We’re Not Going to Take It. When the other students heard the song, they were instantly fans for life. The song has become a regular request now as well as a silly response to classroom requests, even when there’s no true intention of bucking my instructions.

As we were approaching the end of The Wild Robot one morning, our second chapter left us on a climactic cliffhanger, and the kids begged me to continue. I gave in and read on for another two chapters, and when I told them we should stop for the day, a riot broke out like I had never seen in the classroom. The students began running around, chanting for more story, and eventually broke into a repeated chorus of We’re Not Going to Take It! As surprised as I was by the sudden rebellion, it made my teacher heart happy to see them so excited about our book!

I changed my reading block plan for the day in that moment of chaos, and we finished the book together. The chorus of cheers when I gave in to their demands for more of our shared story will always remain one of my favorite memories as an educator. As we finished the book that day, I wasn’t the only one who ended up a bit teary-eyed, and it wasn’t just because of the emotional ending to the novel. The student excitement that our shared reading cultivated and the community we have built while sharing this story combined to have my heart close to bursting. I can’t wait to figure out what we’ll read next!

Play-based Learning: Can We Make a Game for This?

By Rachel Hill

After stumbling across the book, The Playful Classroom by Jed Dearybury and Julie Jones, I was immediately consumed by the idea of play-based learning in the classroom. This educational framework quickly became an important professional development focus for this school year. 

Games as a teaching tool is not a new concept to me. During my time as an educator, I have been drawn to the idea of gamifying lessons as much as possible. Games make things more memorable and fun, and I’ve seen firsthand the way students can get consumed by the game as they tackle rigorous academic challenges. Meanwhile, deep learning happens amidst all the fun. 

For example, in previous years, before choosing a side for an opinion writing prompt, I loved to set up debates for my students. By adding a squishy ball, we turned the debate into a game, where only the student holding the ball could talk, and when they were done, they tossed it to another student. Additionally, as students expressed their opinions, others were allowed to switch sides if moved by a specific argument.

A play-based learning model takes this concept of gamification even further. Any learning that is happening in a playful manner could fall into this category. The Playful Classroom recommends that playful learning opportunities are those that include imagination, sociability, humor, spontaneity, and wonder. It can manifest as role play, exploratory play, dramatic play, deep play, or many others. 

The broad nature of this definition allows for countless interpretations and versions of the same lesson, which can be daunting for a teacher with several content areas to teach a day. I am learning through practice that this doesn’t have to be a complicated or stressful process, just a reframing of how I plan and execute lessons in the classroom. 

For example, when learning about animal habitats, our indoor investigations could only take us so far. Taking our learning outside made all the difference. We could actually notice all the different creatures in our unique school environment. As students explored and found more examples, they also got more and more excited. Afterwards, we stayed outside, and I challenged them to identify each example as a consumer, producer, or decomposer. The challenge aspect took our habitat play to the next level, and it connected prior and present learning!

The most impactful part of that learning experience was that it completely veered away from what was written in my plan. The exploration and game naturally happened as the lesson unfolded outside. I will always love an organized, streamlined lesson plan, but my best days as a teacher are proving to be the ones where I scribble all over it, move the pieces all around, and let the students take the lead from time to time.

In order to effectively implement a play-based model, I must also enlist the help of experts. Luckily, I’m surrounded by play experts everyday in my classroom. My students are the greatest resource I have when it comes to making learning more playful, which is why the question, “Can we make a game for this?” is so very powerful. If I dare ask that question out loud and allow the students to be part of the answer, we can transform the mundane into the magical together. 

This transformation happened beautifully one day in math class. When one of the students was having trouble with pairs adding up to 10, another student suggested a game with dice to practice the skill together in a more fun way. I watched the struggling student’s frustration transform into laughter and shortly after, proficiency in the math skill. It all appeared so effortless, but the deliberate goal behind the play made it an effective approach.

I’ll be the first to admit that play-based learning makes me a bit nervous because I have become a tad controlling over these last few years of teaching. Letting go of that control in order to make time, space, and opportunities for play doesn’t always come naturally to me, but I know it’s worth the extra work to implement this educational framework. The combination of deliberate educational goals coupled with playfulness creates powerful educational opportunities for everyone in the classroom. Playful learning is also happier learning, so I should never ever be afraid to play, mess up, learn, and try again, since it seems to lead to happier teaching as well.

This Belongs to You!

Letting Children Take Control of Their Education

By Heather Lee Schroeder

Almost certainly, every child will hit a wall at some point in their educational journey and begin to feel like completing their schoolwork is too difficult. This is when we parents, in cooperation with our child’s teacher(s), need to both warmly encourage and hold boundaries for our children.

As a parent with a child at KiS, I can attest that those moments often arise more quickly than we expect. My son recently hit a roadblock in his math program, a little less than a month into the school year. He couldn’t move forward in his Beast Academy work, so Ms. Rachel consulted with my husband and me and explained why our son was stalled out on his coursework. We jumped into action at home, helping him with some extra practice and coaching him about writing out his math work before submitting answers to the Beast Academy system. 

After about a week of extra practice and home support, he aced the lessons necessary to unlock the next step in Beast Academy. My son told me that he was proud of working through the process because he knows it means he really understands the material and is ready to move on in the program. Not only had he built his confidence, but he added some mortar and bricks to his intrinsic (internal) motivation, and I could not be happier for or prouder of him for persevering through what was a very painful process.

I credit his willingness to engage with difficult material to KiS’s use of Student Learning Contracts (SLC). This year, we’ve implemented SLCs at KiS—a goal we’ve had since our school was founded. We’re excited about the SLC program as we know the benefits of these documents are vast. Each student is evaluated and observed for the first few weeks of the year, and a contract is generated based on each child’s specific educational needs. When we say we meet each child right where they are, we mean it!

Educational fads come and go, but one constant remains: the children who achieve the most are the ones who are internally motivated to learn. Although chore charts, behavior modification programs, punch cards, and other external motivations offer a short-term boost in student performance, the long-term impact of tactics designed to provide external motivation serves to impede and even destroy children’s natural love of learning.

The SLC, even for our youngest learners, provide clear-cut academic structure and support for students. School can sometimes feel like a mystery for young learners—material is presented without any context for why it matters or how it fits into the child’s bigger understanding of their educational journey. A learning contract offers clear guidelines for even our Kindergarten students, and it gives them specific, actionable goals to complete. In my son’s case, one of his actionable goals is to complete each unit of Beast Academy with full credit (three stars). As our recent experiences reveals he didn’t stop until he had reached his personal goal, even when it took extra effort on his part.

The contract also outlines what our teacher, Ms. Rachel, can be expected to do to help each learner meet their contract goals. Of course, chief among these duties is guiding a child through the material and cheering on their successes, but the learning contract also points out that Ms. Rachel can reasonably be expected to critique work and request revisions or amendments and that she can ask parents to step in and assist in the learning and support process. 

Research shows that when teachers and students have a clear and shared understanding of what goals are important and how to achieve them, students are more likely to be successful. Learning contracts are particularly helpful for struggling or demotivated learners because they serve as a clear roadmap while insisting upon a pledge to adhere to certain clearcut and defined parameters for success. In this way, students who have a learning contract in place can move their mindset from fixed (only perfection will suffice) to flexible (learning is a series of challenges underpinned by hard work and at times failure before success). 

But, really, what is a Student Learning Contract?

A student learning contract is a formalized document that outlines actions and goals learners must complete in order to achieve academic success in their schoolwork. In our school, no two Student Learning Contracts are the same as we promise that each student will be challenged to the full promise of their capabilities. Thus, although two Kindergarten students might have similar actions and goals to complete, each will have specific goals that reflect their individual gifts and challenges. This approach is particularly helpful for learners who are asynchronous in their development—say, far ahead in reading but behind in math. 

The contract opens with a statement of purpose that outlines why the contract is being made. This is followed by a list of student actions that are clear enough to convey specific outcomes but open enough to give students some leeway for academic exploration and evolution. The next section outlines exactly what a student can expect from Ms. Rachel, and the final sign-off section allows the student and teacher to indicate that they have talked about the actions and goals and understand what they are.

Our Student Learning Contracts are a semester-long commitment on the part of the student and teacher. At the end of the semester, your student will work with Ms. Rachel to craft a new or amended set of actions and goals for the next semester. Some actions/goals may remain the same from the previous contract, but some will be amended—either because your child has mastered a skillset or because the item needs to be adjusted to better reflect their capabilities or needs.

More importantly, the SLC offers built-in assessment opportunities that remove the need for stressful high-stakes testing. Your child will be formally evaluated several times a year, but their progress will be closely monitored and tracked throughout the year, and micro-adjustments will be made to their learning path. This allows students to gain skills and confidence in those skills in a more natural and affirming way.

Who is involved in the process?

The contract is signed by your child and Ms. Rachel, and once signed, your child becomes the primary beneficiary of the contract’s guidelines. Ms. Rachel serves as a guide and a conductor on your child’s educational journey, helping him or her embark on the strongest educational path possible. 

However, parental help is necessary behind the scenes. Learning can be a difficult and, at times, frightening process because it requires us to face what we don’t know so that we can gain new skills and knowledge. Parents’ role in providing a steady and positive influence on their children’s educational mindset is vitally important. More importantly, when the journey gets tough, as it absolutely will, we need parents to remind their children of their commitment and to support Ms. Rachel’s teaching through positive reinforcement and messages at home. 

Although I have known intellectually that SLCs are a great tool, I learned an important lesson while helping my son unlock his learning roadblock—turning a child’s education over to them results in better outcomes. Ultimately, at the core of this experience are freedom and compassion. Learning is hard work—a full-time job for children. We must compassionately hold space for that process and guide learners to their best successes while giving them the freedom and agency to engage with the material authentically.

If your child has been caught in the web of high-stakes testing and has developed an extrinsically motivated, inflexible mindset, the SLC approach can be the key to changing their educational experience. 

Soft Landings: Community Building at the Start of the School Year

By Rachel Hill
air air travel airbus aircraft
Photo by Pixabay on

Classroom communities are dynamic and complex. They need to be deliberately built and cultivated throughout the school year. A healthy classroom community includes students and teachers who show respect for themselves, each other, and the space around them, which leads to a happier, less stressed learning environment. This deliberate focus on the different facets of respect leads to more responsive, compassionate classroom management, more harmony in the school, and a jumping-off point for future discussions about disrespectful behavior. I was lucky enough to be a part of the Character Leadership Team at Copper Ridge Elementary last school year, and I learned so much about cultivating character in students and teachers alike with ample opportunity to apply my learning in the classroom.

So what does community building look like? I personally believe it should include a lot of discussions to get to know each other as humans, plenty of games to see how students handle winning, losing, and teamwork, both collaborative and independent work to gauge academic soft skills, and lots of easy, fun assignments to build confidence and academic stamina while students acclimate to being back to school. At Knoxville Innovation School, we start each school day with a community circle, and after the first few days, circle time will only be 10-15 minutes. At the start of the year, they stretch as long as necessary. When the students feel like sharing, the last thing I want to do is shut them down because the info I’m gleaning is pure gold.

Community building at Knoxville Innovation School looks a bit different than what I was used to at my previous school, mainly because my class is a mixed-age group. For example, on the first day, we made bookmarks together. Some were collage compositions, and others were drawn and colored, but all ended up unique! We discussed different scenarios where we could choose to be a helpful or respectful classmate and how we might respond to fellow classmates. We played games to practice being good losers and good winners. We made Kahoots that included important information about what we like, and they also included tricky, funny answers. As an educator, these experiences were vital. Not only did I learn many important things about my students’ preferences, temperaments, and emotional needs, but I also immediately found it incredibly easy to find things to love about them when I had so many opportunities to see what makes them unique.

By the end of our first week together, I knew so much about my students that I was able to design specific learning contracts for each one, outlining individualized social and academic goals until Christmas. These goals are connected explicitly to information the students offered or my own personal observations, and I’m excited to describe these contracts and their impact in a future post! Whether I am using student interest to guide instruction, investing in our relationship by truly listening when students share, or noticing which strength to build on next, community building will always primarily inform my classroom culture.

“I’m nervous because I want to be excited!”

roller coaster ride
Photo by Angie on

The title of this post is a direct quote from one of my younger students on our first day of the school year, and it also embodies exactly how I felt as the teacher in the room. I disentangled myself from the public school system last year to embark on a new chapter of teaching at Knoxville Innovation School, a small progressive, student-centered private school and a completely different educational paradigm. My seven years in the public education system conditioned me in many ways, not all of them healthy or helpful, so as my students are learning this year, I will be doing my own share of unlearning. Unlearning and unblocking will help me go from nervous to excited, hopefully for good.

“Bell to bell” is an expression I heard a lot as a public school teacher, and the urgency it suggests has stuck with me. I have always been driven to be good at things as quickly as possible, even things as multi-faceted and complicated as teaching. The educational field is definitely one that benefits from teachers with a love of learning and the ability to adopt a beginner’s mindset, so my urgency to “master” teaching is counterintuitive to the learning process. But I am who I am, so I tend to overplan lessons and then rush through them, not truly in the present moment, and definitely not truly responsive.

My best lessons by far are the ones where I actually let the students lead me off the beaten path and authentic learning magically happens. In those moments, I go from being the expert in the room to being a facilitator and a fellow learner. For example, one year when I was teaching figurative language, students started throwing out examples from their favorite song lyrics. The discussion veered, and suddenly, they were begging me to do a group project where they identify and explain figurative language examples from school-appropriate songs. That was and is now one of my most engaging ELA lessons, and I have the students to thank. It can be especially difficult to remind myself about these improvisational moments when I’m crafting the perfect lesson, but I believe my new school environment will help me remember to remember more.

As thrilled as I’ve been to jump into this new educational paradigm that honors and encourages imagination, flexibility, and creativity, I overplanned and rushed through my first day of school. Don’t get me wrong-the students had a great day and didn’t want to leave. We did some mindful movement, created class agreements, organized work spaces, and tried out supplies. But because of my fabricated urgency, I didn’t savor every moment and rushed more than I wanted to. I was still stuck in that previous, hectic pace, and until that moment, I didn’t realize what an ingrained habit it was. Afterward (as I was worrying about how to overplan the following day), my administrators/friends offered me love, support, and choices about how to go forward in a less stressful way. We decided “bell to bell” may work in other schools, but we’re going to try a “breath to breath” strategy.

“Breath to breath” means that there is ALWAYS time to stop and regroup. It implies that learning can look like many different things, and that there can be (and should be) multiple right answers. “Breath to breath” encourages me to combine the magical and the mundane right in front of me to see what’s best for me and the students right now. It suggests that sometimes community-building and learning can happen at a slower, more deliberate pace, like a blooming flower. It invites the unexpected to emerge. “Breath to breath” makes space for possibilities, loving-kindness, patience, and joy in the classroom. I am looking forward to teaching breath to breath today.