Curriculum, Educational Theory

Of Whales and Wood-Chopping: Personal Musings on Emergent Curriculum

Emergent curriculum is the idea of powerful, personal learning in which what is taught is most relevant as a result and an extension of a child’s own experiences and connections. It is typically closely associated with (the fabulous) schools with Reggio Emilia approaches and often references Vygotsky’s theory of social constructivism.

Photo from NAEYC

I found myself twirling around notions of emergent curriculum in a somewhat meta fashion and reflected on my own experiences of emergent learning and growth as an educator and learner in many contexts. Have a peek at some of my musings:

I have powerful and vivid memories of stumbling across a 5-ft marine worm when taking a school group tide pooling in Kachemak Bay in Alaska; I remember standing in the foot of the boat I worked on as a marine science educator watching a grey whale and her calf breech repeatedly next to us, making what I could have sworn was eye contact. I’m reminded of azure skies above the Tetons and laughing until our bellies hurt with a group of students from rural Wyoming. I’m reminded of smiles shared over steaming cups of tea in a barn, my Ama beaming with pride over my corn-kerneling skills- she a woman from rural Nepal and I a young woman with Scandinavian roots, both somehow adept at the same skill, despite little, even a language, in common. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to have been a student of place and to be mesmerized by the magic of unknown.

Though, these were big, in-your face and “obvious” moments of learning underscored by awe. I’ve omitted from my musings some the moments of frustration and things gone “wrong” in days before and after those moments- of plans falling through, or students/parents/colleagues/administrators with whom I was frustrated (or in turn, frustrated myself). I’ve also omitted any classroom scenarios as well as many other memories in which experiences I was SURE would generate wonder, amazement, curiosity, and general poignancy in fact fell flat for one reason or another. Perhaps the memories I listed were ones in which I felt wholly present and connected in a time and space with others- a moment in which I felt significant yet small, aware of the grandness of the world but also the improbability of it all. There’s simply no way I had any control over these moments beyond setting up an experience and trusting and stumbling, as the text said, in the unknown.

I’m currently in the throes of marathon training, a seemingly masochistic activity, but something that makes me feel grounded and connected, while humbled. “Chop wood, carry water” is a phrase those in the endurance community use to describe the mundane or otherwise unextraordinary work we tend to do in between the flashy or even the sorrowful work. One great workout will not promise me a fast race; a bad workout will not guarantee a slow race. Rather, the sum efforts of showing up, trying new things, and trusting in the one known- that I am capable of coming out on the other side in any workout- is what makes the magic possible. Chop wood, carry water. Perhaps it’s the same way in teaching: that the act of balancing our knowns, our structures, and our continued act of showing up set the stage on which the magic will be performed. A stellar field trip is not enough to ensure a school year of vibrant learning and engagement, though one botched lesson on neutrons surely isn’t enough to derail it all. Chop wood, carry water, allow the magic.

  • Where have you seen emergent curriculum successfully implemented?
  • What are some of your own ideas on emergent curriculum?
Educational Theory, Professional Development, Recent + Research-Based, Technology

Looking to 2020: New Year's Teaching Resolutions!

With a new year comes new opportunities to reflect one the year, which many do with a look towards health, habits, and perhaps even new gym memberships (go for it!). Why not do the same in the classroom? In January, I wrote about how teachers can use the new year as an opportunity to re-evaluate classroom norms, habits, and goals. As we round out the year, let’s take a look at what we can reflect on and look forward to as teachers in the new year. What will I be doing? Check out my 5 resolutions!

Audit My Classroom Library

Library Audit BINGO, created by Dr. Katherine Fishman-Weaver; from Edutopia

Dr Kathryn Fishman-Weaver, faculty at the University of Missouri, recently created a brilliant Classroom Library Audit BINGO, as featured on Edutopia. The audit itself addresses common problems in classroom libraries and is an invaluable, even fun, resource. Fishman-Weaver’s BINGO game is especially helpful for any teachers who feel intimidated by the grand task of ensuring they have representative and inclusive libraries.

Expand Classroom Inclusivity

It’s 2020, and dialogue has changed significantly. Things on the news become more and more raw, real, and scary and include difficult topics, such as consent, racism, homophobia, violence and terror, hate speech, and more. Our students are witness to these things daily, from the news to YouTube to all sorts of social media platforms, and beyond. While it’s ultimately up to each family to decide how, when, and in what manner they talk to their children about the real, raw, and scary, as teachers it is a disservice to ignore these topics. At times, however, it’s challenging to know where to begin. The most trusted and courageous resource I have found is Teaching Tolerance. This website includes easily adapted lessons, learning plans, student tasks, teaching strategies, learning plan tools, film kits, and posters on a wide range of topics for grades K-12. My resolution is to use 1 resource per month from Teaching Tolerance.

Experiment with Apps for Inquiry

Just a small sampling of the TONS of games and resources available through the Goose Chase app.

Confession: technology is not intuitive for me, particularly when it comes to using apps. I find I’m always a bit clumsy with respect to how to best incorporate apps into the learning, rather than have the app take over the instruction and learning entirely… though I’m learning sometimes this is okay, too (for example, MathGames or RAZKids). I’m going to challenge myself this year to get comfortable and plan a lesson around ONE app, and go from there. (I like setting goals I know I have some hope at achieving!). The app I’m thrilled to try is Goose Chase: an interactive, customizable scavenger hunt app and one that is easily adaptable and lends itself well to discovery, student-directed learning, and inquiry. I was introduced to the app as an online Learning Design student through the Harvard Extension School, and I loved it! I’m particularly excited to dive into the full Game Library that Goose Chase provides, which includes topics from Christmas wreath coding (cool!) to English language learning to ecology to field trips, and seemingly everything in-between!

Practice Responding Over Recreating

As mentioned in my November post regarding B.C.’s curricular overhaul, Indigenous knowledge and philosophy are critical pillars and lenses for learning and teaching. One of the key learnings for me in navigating and re-calibrating my positionality in response to these curricular changes has been the notion of responding to, instead of recreating, cultural practices, traditions, and art. My resolution in this regard is to continue to challenge my lessons and applications of the First People’s Principles of Learning, particularly in the way of how students can respond to art, stories, and lessons. Specifically, I’m creating my own essential question: What is the most valuable, meaningful, and authentic way students can connect to their own and other’s cultures? Luckily for me (and all B.C. teachers), there is the First Nations Educational Steering Committee (FNESC), who have SO generously provided extensive lesson plans and classroom resources addressing this very need. B.C. Ministry of Education also has some excellent resources to help guide me on this question.


This one may seem like an obvious one, but too often, teachers can get bogged down in the many day-to-day details that go along with loving and wanting the best for our students and their learning…that we forget to take a breather and look around. My goal/resolution there is simply to keep my ears perked and stay curious about new ways of teaching and learning. All of our students are so beautifully unique, and any expansion of our pedagogical toolkits can only help everyone. Recently, I’ve been diving down the rabbit hole of Whole Brain teaching...which seems great and also quite controversial (is this not true of everything to some degree?). To be honest, I don’t know much about it! If you do, what should I know?

  • What are your teaching resolutions for 2020?
Educational Theory, Instructional Tools

One-Minute Inquiry: Classroom Quickies to Inspire Critical Thinking

There’s been a big push for inquiry-based learning…and for good reason! Inquiry-based learning (which also houses problem-based and project-based learning) encourages critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, creativity, craftsmanship, and so much more. When done well, it’s undeniably a beneficial addition.

Inquiry can be a bit of a tricky dance for educators. On the one hand, inquiry-based learning is largely student-driven and teachers serve as more of a mentor, as opposed to a guide, in helping students construct their own knowledge. They play a support role, particularly if students begin to stray in their thinking or get stuck. This is not to say, however, that teachers simply stop teaching and let students have a free-for-all. Rather, teachers can work with students as a class to generate a common starting point before students venture off on their own individually and/or in small groups. Certainly this method of teaching will engage students meta-cognitively, and they will start to chart their own routes of what they want and/or need to know and how they can get there.

For many teachers, inquiry can seem intimidating and maybe even clumsy, particularly if one has assumed more of a direct instructional role for most of their career and/or training. There is so much room at the table for teaching strategies, and inquiry-based strategies provide another way in which we as educators may reach students. Inquiry, at first glance, may seem like a total overhaul in one’s traditional instructional strategy, but in fact, it’s likely many classrooms already employ inquiry-based approaches without even realizing it.

Feeling stumped?

Here are a few quickie, low prep and high impact inquiry-based approaches that can be added to a variety of subjects.

1) Show Me the Money!

If you’re a traveler like me (or if your colleagues are!), you likely have come home with small coins and bills from around the world. I collect and save money from all of my travels and keep a small stash in my classroom. A fun activity for rainy days is to compile bags of money of various currency, divide students into small groups, and ask them a series of questions related to Social Studies and/or Mathematics curriculum. Generally, students have instant engagement as they look through different currency. Who wouldn’t!? Some questions might include:

  • Discover and list the various types of currency (ex: Rupees, Quetzales, Pesos, Francs, Euros, Dollars, Zloty, etc.) in each bag.
  • Convert all money to CAD or USD. Which group has the most money? The least?
  • Identify all countries each money bag comes from and mapping (use the Mapster app if your school has iPads)
  • Ask students to describe any symbols or people associated with currency. What might we assume about the values of the country through what is represented? Have students engage in mini research projects and explore the various symbols represented on bills and coins.
  • Discuss with students the different forms of currency. Why do some countries have many small bills (ex: Rupees) versus some countries have primarily only large bills (ex: Dollars)?

2) Creepy Creatures

During Halloween week, when attention spans seem to wan, it can be easier to embrace the madness (while also being mindful of students whose families do not observe holidays) rather than fight it. Creating creatures is another low prep, hands-on, collaborative mini-project with a wide range of curricular crossover, including Mathematics, Language Arts, Art, Etc. Gather a supply basket for each group with things in your classroom (especially those hard-to-find-a-purpose-for things, such as dried bits of clay, pencils down to the nub, etc.). Give each group a bin, provide studnets with directions, and a time limit. This is a great ongoing project for free blocks and/or introducing new topics. It can be adapted to include more robust skills, such as paragraph-writing, creating narratives, and/or character development. Check out my freebie to inspire your own creature projects!

3) What happened here?

One of my favourite uses of transition time (beginning of the day, after recess/lunch, in between projects) is some type of daily or weekly ritual. Writing prompts are one of my favourites and are an excellent way to prime students towards imagination, wonder, and critical thought. Thanks to the internet, there are E N D L E S S creative writing prompts available. Here are some of my favourite images and sources. Please use discretion when selecting images, mindful to copyright and sharing, as well as what you are sharing your students.

Thanks for stopping by! What other ideas do you have for quickie inquiry projects?