MY TOP 10 LEARNING SPACES – A Universal Design, in a Gifted Classroom

The learning environment is what will help create community. Before anything, students need to feel safe. Not just physically safe, but safe to learn how they learn, safe to think “outside the box”, safe to ask questions, safe to make mistakes, safe to be who they are.  I recently read a post by Jackie Gerstein, a friend and mentor who talks passionately about the importance of community in the classroom (It’s About Connections Not Content). Below, I talk about the learning spaces to honour all learners.  It is my intention to help these students find their passions, their gifts, and their understanding of themselves.

The Circle

Each day, we start off in a large circle. We might play a game, talk about a current event or gather our ideas for upcoming lessons. The circle gives brings the class together as one team, a group of co-learners and a support structure that they will need.

Comfort and Escape

A few years ago, I taught in a brand new school with small classrooms. A quiet “comfy” space was not an option and was strictly forbidden by fire regulations. I yearned to provide my students with an area to go when they needed to unpack and reflect. As we know, this 7 hour day, surrounded by an assortment of individuals can be overwhelming and draining. This classroom (an older school) allows for this space.  Students can use it to work collaboratively using the bulletin board or small table or even the floor as a workspace.  Of course,  reading a book, plugged into a good song is also pretty fantastic for any learner.

It only took about one hour before a student crawled into this “getaway”.  A calming environment that is still in the same room is a true gift for any classroom.


Exercise – Meditative, focus~refocus, transition

I truly love to Hula-Hoop. Not only because it is great for the abdominal muscles, but the repetitive motion is soothing. After a long day, or a long think-session, there is nothing better then grabbing a hula-hoop,  with a little music (or quiet is good too) and finding a place to gather thoughts and re-fuel for the next “thing” to come. Another true gift that this classroom offers – enough space.


There has been much debate about the use of Gaming in the classroom and its integration into core subjects like math, social studies and language. The Kinect offers an incredibly fun way for students to work together in solving problems, debating stories and characters, and thinking through puzzles and math games. Allowing students to move around, challenge one another and discuss the creation and process of the game itself is incredible insightful and meets them in their world. We will be integrating Minecraft in our classroom this year, as a way to plan, think, and discuss through creation and collaborative building.

Apple TV, Reflection, Interaction.

So often, we use the projector and whiteboard to deliver instruction and content. But with the Reflection App or Apple TV, students can broadcast their work and designs on a larger surface. To show the students a quick video, or demonstrate an iPad tool, I can stand anywhere in the room and broadcast quickly and safely. Even better, students can broadcast their work.  Only a few years ago, I found myself stumbling trying to improve my motor skills when using the Smart tablet.

Group Think-Tank and iPad Center

One of my students asked, “Too bad we can’t just write on this table!”. I wonder if “Idea Paint” would work here.  To move away from their desk workspace to a group workspace is valuable. It is also valuable to have an option to go back to ones own individual space. With the use of the HWDSB iPad program and the School iPad purchases, I have about 10 iPads in the classroom. We will start of with interview videos. A favourite app used today was WORLD OF SAND. I highly recommend it. Highly.

Weekly Schedule, Handouts and TEA.

Posting a daily overview is important, but to see it in context within the entire week is essential. Like adults learners, our younger students want to know what is next and why, and especially how it relates to their learning. There is a definite accountability attached to this practice, but it is so worth it. At the end of the week, I brew tea and together we work on the next weekly schedule. It empowers them and gives them voice.

Choices and Voices

This image keeps changing. As students become more comfortable with me – and more confident, they start adding more ideas and information here. It is fascinating to see how many students ask to get away from the brick and mortar. They want field trips, walks, and to learn outside.



Blended learning is not only going to provide more solid communication and on-going information for students and parents, but also more access to content and learning. While it might be surprising to some (ha, ha!), I am not the bearer of all knowledge and information.  Neither is the Internet. A blended learning platform (where students can also learn online) such as EDMODO (something new I’m trying this year) will allow me to facilitate content that is rich and diverse to a group of students that vary greatly in learning needs.  As well, each student will be given a personal blog, and will have access to my daily plans through Google Docs and our classroom blog (another huge accountability risk that is worth the immense outcome).


My favourite learning space – The real world.  This year, I’ve established a partnership with the Hamilton Farmers Market where students will get a chance to learn stories of the lives of real Hamiltonians. Students will learn to shop, cook and share resources.  Most importantly, they will have an opportunity to socialize and interact with citizens and with each other in authentic ways. With some structure and guidance, they will have a chance to apply what they have learned at school to something real.


We have also arrange for several community walks. Our school location is surrounded by hundreds of acres of forests (Royal Botanical Gardens) and wooded trails. The colours, smells, sounds and wildlife are the inspiration I’ll need when teaching poetry and creative writing. Perfect for finding space and time to talk, share and develop a real sense of self.



My “Top Ten” Voicethread applications



A couple reminders that might ease your mind about using this OPEN and FREE tool…..

* Voicethread provides tutorials, ideas, and examples. Give yourself some time to explore and PLAY

* Voicethread comments can be moderated by the owner

* Voicethreads can be public or private and can be shared with one or many people

* Voicethread tool is free and is accessible on computers, iPods and iPads

*Voicethread can be uploaded to a website or blog using an EMBED code.

* Voicethread has been around for about three years and there are MANY MANY resources out there

#1 – Parental/Community communication (My PERSONAL favourite)

  • Bring parent voice into the classroom: Add a Voicethread to your Classroom blog or website asking for parent ideas and thoughts about the topic you are studying.  For example: Upload a map, ask parents to talk about historical story of their family using the map (Ie: immigration, jobs, travel, climate, war, environment).
  • Parent input and perspective: Add Voicethread to District website asking for community input about a specific topic (ie: building of a new building, closure of schools, announcements of upcoming board meetings.
  • Community input on Board Meeting minutes:  Upload the minutes on voicethread allowing parents to use the voice, or video to make comments and express concerns, thoughts, ideas.
  • Parent-teacher communication:  Use the voice thread to  communicate with the teacher about student work. Make the Voicethread only public to you and the parent. The voice and video option creates a less intimidating situation as the parent can see you, hear you and understand the communication.

#2 – Assessment (Also my PERSONAL favourite)

Before a lesson or activity:

  • Diagnostic: Ask students to share what they already know about the topic using a prepared Voicethread.  This might help the teacher in the planning stage of the unit/theme and to identify student strengths and weaknesses.
  • Learning Goals and Criteria: Use the Voicethread to upload the learning criteria. The comment section will allow students to discuss the criteria and add, modify or change the criteria if needed. The use of the audio and video functions will help provide a more detailed example and rational behind the criteria that was developed.

During a lesson:

  • Ask Questions: Use the Voicethrad as a station in the room.  This could be done with a stand-alone computer or portable device (iPad, iPod). Students go to the Voicethread and ask questions (or listen to other questions) during work time.  Put up “sample” comments to help students know how to respond appropriately in audio.
  • Review/Test prep: Use the Voicethread to post questions that review the course content. Allow students to comment, respond and ask questions throughout the course. This would be helpful to students and parents during exam preparation.

After lesson, completed project, or assignment:

  • Reflection and Meta-cognition: Have students post their reflection, discussion and overall thoughts about the assignment or project that they handed in. Allow them to make self-assessments about their strengths, weaknesses and next steps.

After a lesson: Exit Card? Homework? Feedback?

  • Exit Card: Have a voicethread ready to go on the computer, portable device, or interactive whiteboard with a focused question relating to the goal of the lesson.

Research – gather data, information

  • Research Tool:  This could be meant for a small focus group or a larger group as a way to gather information about your topic.  Use the Voicethread to build on the questions each week.
  • Shared Leadership in department: Use the Voicethread to gather knowledge and skills from a variety of educators and leaders in the department.
  • Crowd Source:  This tool can be made public. Use the tool to crowd source your question and gather information from a larger network.


  • Teacher – Student Feedback. DESCRIPTIVE, AUDIO FEEDBACK: Use the Voicethread to provide detailed descriptive feedback to the student. Upload a picture of the student work, use the pen/drawing function along with your Voice and add comments to the work for improvement. 

#3 Collaboration Tool

  • Classroom-to-Classroom: Use this tool to form a classroom partnership and focus student learning on a specific topic. Students can use the Threads to comment on each other’s ideas.

Examples: Upload art from a variety of classrooms or schools; Create joint stories about a topic, stories from a neighbourhood, a community.

Student-to-student: Peer mentorship. Students can partner on a Voicethread based on a book or an activity that they have been working on. Like a blog, they easily post pictures, video’s, and text . What if you had class partners from different places in the world?

    • School-to-school: District schools that partner on themes and activities (i.e.: sports, drama, music festivals, art) can use the Voicethreads to communicate information, seek information and advertise the events.
    • Division or Department Planning: Use the Voicethread in partnership with a blog, wiki, or website to plan, discuss and develop collaborative ideas. Take it further and use Voicethread to collaborate with OTHER DEPARTMENTS AND DIVISIONS.

CHECK OUT THIS VOICETHREAD…A Couple of years old, but still going strong. Why are you using a PLN to support your learning? How has twitter impacted your professional development?

#4 Newsletters

      • Classroom News: Each week, copy/paste your newsletter to a classroom Voicethread. This allows the teacher to make comments and reminders directly on the VT as well as having students and parents comment when needed.
      • School News: Post news, questions and ideas with  a Voicethread  to the community.
      • English Language Learners: Use the Voicethread to extend written and spoken words to students and families that speak other languages. Make use of student, parent or district translators when needed.
      • Interactive: Make the newsletter interactive and accessible through the use of audio, video and text together.

#5 School Announcements

      • Whole school announcements:  Have students record their voice, text, or video of a school announcement. The announcement could be relayed during the morning announcements
      • Class announcements: Use a VT to announce upcoming events in the classroom.

#6 Instruction

      • Post-Instruction: Add a video of yourself (use the smart recorder, or video camera) teaching the lesson and post it on the Voicethread for students to review if needed. The collaborative nature of the voicethread allows students to ask questions and make comments based on the lesson that was posted.  
      • Pre-Instruction: Add a video, text, image or audio that focuses on follow-up lessons. This will help students move ahead as needed. Integrate this with a Flipped Classroom lesson.
      • Review of Content: Use the Voicethread to post the notes from each lesson.  At the end of the unit, the Voicethread will include notes from every lesson. This will help student with review for test, exam or culminating activity.

#7 Student Work/ Student products

      • Student Work: Allow student to hand in their assignment using a voicethread. Use the audio comment tool for student to give a reflection and summary about their work.
      • Differentiated Instruction:  Use the audio feature to allow students to SPEAK their answers rather then requiring written work.  This allows students to  be more confident when explaining their work, images or uploaded videos.

#8 English Language Learners:

      •  Use the Voicethread to post audio and video of a lesson, activity or classroom/school information in a variety of languages and formats.

#9 Differentiate Instruction:

      •  Product: Allow student to use their Voice or Video to demonstrate their learning instead of the traditional “text based” response.
      • Process: Use the Voicethread to provide a varied instruction using your voice and video. Information about upcoming assignments, tests, and events can be made in a variety of mediums. DECREASE PAPER that you are sending home.

#10 Student Leadership

      • Student-Created –  Student – driven Voicethreads: Students from a lower (or higher) grade, division or school to present information about a topic. Students from another class or division are to respond and give feedback.