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Thursday, March 19, 2020

Room to Breathe (R2B): Personalizing the Language Arts through Student-Designed Projects

This post was updated in February 2021.

The Origin Story

My teaching partner Tara and I knew we needed to redesign the way we taught Language Arts to our grade 8 students this year. What we had been doing was okay, and we did some pretty neat things with our kids, but it certainly wasn't streamlined, and engagement was pretty variable, depending on the task. So we went away in the summer with lots of things to think about, good books to read, and ideas to percolate.

When we met over coffee in August, we came to the conclusion that we wanted to do a reading/writing workshop-style approach. In this initial conversation, we wondered about how we would teach the other strands that are a part of our curriculum: listening, speaking, viewing, and representing. We thought maybe we could do something with these on Fridays. I was just pulling out of the parking lot when Tara called me on handsfree saying, "Wait a minute. WHY would we only do these strands on Fridays?? Why not all the time?"

This is how Room to Breathe was born.

R2B In a Nutshell

Students self-design projects that include an Inhale (Reading, Listening, Viewing) - in other words, text interpretation - and an Exhale (Writing, Speaking, Representing) - in other words, text creation. When they design their projects, they associate "I Can" statements - our entire curriculum reworded in kid-friendly language. Students conference with their teacher before they begin, and again at the end of each Inhale and Exhale. This allows us to help set students up for success when they start, to identify skills that need to be taught, and what resources will be needed. It also allows us to collaboratively assess the student work with the students (more on that later!).

Room to Breathe is the bulk of our English Language Arts instruction time. In 2019-2020, we had time for two full rounds of R2B (that's six projects), a class novel, and a final project. The way Room to Breathe is designed, students achieve all the outcomes from the curriculum over the course of the year (sometimes many times over!).

If you'd prefer to see us explain it to you, we recorded a presentation that we presented at the Calgary City Teachers Convention, in which we share the logistics, practical considerations, and philosophy of our Room to Breathe approach.

The Logistics

We created a flowchart for the Room to Breathe processes to help students get the hang of it, at first. Once they get used to the process, they don't need to refer to the flowchart - it becomes a part of their muscle memory.

Students use a planning sheet to organize their idea before we conference. The planning sheet includes the "I Can" statements, as well as a spot for the student, teacher, and parent to sign when approved.

A selection of some of our "I Can" Statements

The very first set of conferences to get the first Inhale approved is fast and furious, but then meetings are spaced out. We learned that finding a way to stagger that first set of conferences is the way to go, and often have an assignment the students are working on prior. This year, we did a practice inhale-exhale with a shared article and some poems to practice together how to annotate a text during an Inhale, and then had the students write an Exhale their own in the style of one of the mentor texts. Students then signed up for a conference when they completed this initial assignment, spreading out the first round of conferences.

Students set their own due date for the completion of their task and write their name on our classroom calendar on the due date. That becomes their next conference date. As we progressed through the year, we found ways to streamline this. In the classroom, we used a big calendar on the whiteboard for students to write their due date on, which informed us of our conference schedule for the day. Students knew there could be a maximum of four conferences scheduled each day. During emergency online learning during the COVID lockdown, we used a Google Calendar with bookable appointment slots to scheduled one-on-one conferences.

We offer minilessons based on student needs and questions that we compile as we conference prior to beginning a task. Here is a slidedeck we are continually adding to based on our minilessons. These minilessons come organically from what the students need. Not all students are required to attend a minilesson, only those who the minilesson applies to. Why learn about how to analyze a song if you're working on creating a stop motion video? Sometimes this means we repeat minilessons throughout the year, and that's okay. This is about meeting the students' needs and helping them grow.

The Principles

Now that we've gotten the "what" out of the way, we want to dig in a bit deeper into the "why."

A few principles guide our work and have been designed to be heart and centre in R2B.

For student learning to be truly personalised, they need to be the ones making decisions about what to read, view, create, and share.

We have heard people bemoaning the idea that today's youth don't read and write anymore. This is simply not true. In fact, students are reading and write more than ever before using social media and other platforms. In addition to all this reading and writing, they are engaging in sophisticated forms of content creation through platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and Tik Tok. The problem is that this kind of text interpretation and creation is sometimes not acknowledged or honoured in classrooms. Of course, we want our students to interpret and create in more critical and analytical ways. But by using the topics and ideas they already care about and allowing them to design their own tasks around these interests, student learning will be incredibly personalized and rich.

We were very inspired by the incredible book Beyond Literary Analysis as we designed R2B and their website Moving Writers has been instrumental as well. In both resources, Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell offer real strategies and methods for using topics that captivate our students and design tasks around them.

Assessment is teaching.

Most of the most powerful work in R2B happens during conference times. We have a chance to sit, one-on-one, with our students and really talk about their learning. When we look at the work that they completed and talk about what they are proud of, and what their next steps are, they get immediate, actionable feedback about what to focus on next. Because this project is ongoing, the feedback they receive is immediately implementable. 

Guess what this means? We don't take grading home. It means being intensely present during the one hour we work on R2B each day, but then our planning periods and after school time can be used to plan for student learning and respond to their needs.

Assessment happens here, not alone, on my couch.

We collaboratively assess and grade all work in R2B with our students, during conferences. In these assessment conversations, and following a conversation about what they learned and demonstrated in their work, we ask our students to suggest a grade for their work. In 99.9% of situations, students' perceptions of their own work are in line with our perceptions. We assess against the "I Can" statements the students selected, and if they can provide lots of evidence to show how they met the outcomes, there is no reason why they shouldn't receive a 4 (our school board uses a 1-4 indicator scale for assessment and reporting). 

The conversation, however, has quickly shifted from one of evaluation and judgment to one of learning - how can we, together, help you improve the complexity of your thinking and learning? We had mentioned that we wanted to push our students into analytical and critical thinking, and to support our students, we created a continuum of thinking:

This document has proven very useful for assessment conversations because if they aren't finding themselves using analytical, evaluative, and creative thinking, they are not demonstrating mastery. It also helps the students when they're designing a task. If they propose they're going to watch the movie Mean Girls and then summarize the story, this isn't designed in such a way that they can access analytical thinking. In our conference, we'll help the students redesign this proposal so it takes a more critical stance. In that example, it might become "I'm going to watch the movie Mean Girls, and identify the character archetypes present. Then I'm going to create a short film using character archetypes to help build meaning." Or it might become, "I'm going to analyze the movie Mean Girls, and then write a review about the movie, answering the question 'Does this 2004 film hold up in 2020 in how it portrays teenagers?"."

Student choice and ownership leads to authentic text interpretation and creation.

The proof in this approach has been the incredible engagement of our students. Our students can't wait for the hour in their day when they can truly breathe and focus on something that they have designed to explicitly engage themselves in their own learning. We have had an incredible range of student projects, which you can check out on our blog.

A Special Note About COVID-19 and Online Teaching and Learning

Many of us have found ourselves in situations where we need to be designing work that students can complete at home and submit online. As we learned about schools being closed indefinitely in our province, we breathed a sigh of relief because R2B could continue, business as usual. 

We continued R2B with our students during emergency online learning. Students used Google Drive to work on their projects, as they had done while at school. As mentioned, we moved all conferences to Google Meet, which students signed up for using Google Calendar. For those teachers who are finding themselves in interesting teaching scenarios, be that full online learning, a hybrid approach, or in the physical school with health precautions, Room to Breathe will work for you.


Please borrow any of our resources if they are helpful to you. Make a copy. Hack them. Make them yours. And then tell us about it! Tweet at us: @luckybydesign (Erin) and @bestcircus (Tara).

Get in Touch

If any of these resources are useful to you, you've been inspired by our approach, or have any questions for us, please reach out to us! You can find us on Twitter at @luckybydesign (Erin) and @bestcircus (Tara), or you can e-mail the Creativity Collective at