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Room to Breathe

Room to Breathe is an approach to Language Arts that positions students as designers of their own learning.

Room to Breathe is an approach to Language Arts where our students design their own projects. Born of the Pam Allyn quote "reading is like inhaling and writing is like exhaling," our students design a paired project involving an Inhale - text interpretation - which involves reading, listening, and/or speaking and an Exhale - text creation - which includes writing, speaking, and representing.

Room to Breathe was inspired by several pedagogical and philosophical assumptions:

Texts are more than just print.

Our students consume and create sophisticated texts on the daily, but sometimes they aren't print. A text is anything that is imbued with meaning, and interpreting and creating meaning is what teachers need to care about.

Multimodal literacy is non-negotiable in 2022.

The strands of Language Arts are equally important and literacy involves all of them. We owe it to our students to teach them how to interpret and create these kinds of texts.

Assessment is teaching.

Assessment is anything that helps a student continue to learn. So it is teaching. But if you believe this, then it cannot and should not happen by yourself at 9PM alone on your couch. It must happen with students if we want to have any hope that all that time and energy we spend on it makes any difference whatsoever.

Students should be a part of the decision making process. They are the ones who know themselves best, after all.

Personalized learning has gotten a bad rap lately as it's been co-opted by people wanting to privatize public education. But of course it should be a goal. Not one of us is exactly the same, and therefore, not one of us learns the same way or needs the same things. We can give students what they need when we let them tell us.

How it Works

Students plan out their project. They plan an Inhale-Exhale project as a pair. They may incorporate as many strands as they want into their project, but by the end of the round (typically 2/12 - 3 months of 1 hour class blocks), they need to have done projects involving each strand twice. Sometimes, a project might demand only one strand for the Inhale and one for the Exhale, such as if they wanted to read a novel and then write a short story. Other times, multiple strands are incorporated, like if they want to watch an anime (viewing and listening) and then record a podcast reviewing the anime (writing and speaking). Ambitious students have even incorporated all six strands into a project.

Students choose one or more goals they are working on in the project. The goals are a synthesis of the objectives in our Program of Studies (Standards). We have eight Inhale goals and eight Exhale goals. Students must incorporate each goal into a project once during the school year. We do two rounds of Room to Breathe in the school year (about 2 1/2 - 3 months each). Sometimes the goals dictate what kind of project the student needs to do. For example, one of our goals is to create characters and use strategies of characterization, so a fiction project is required at some point during the year. However, that fiction project might take the form of a short story, a script, a video, a comic, poems, or any other number of fiction forms that could involve characters.

When we meet to approve their first project, we set a deadline together. We record the deadline using Google Calendar, and we invite the student into the calendar invite as well. Deadlines are set depending on the complexity of the project and the number of strands and goals included. For example, a project where a student is analyzing the lyrics of "Shake it Off" as their inhale would take far less time than a student who wants to analyze Taylor Swift's entire oeuvre and create a ranking of her ten best songs.

As students work on their projects, we design instruction that targets student needs. We often begin our classtime with something we call “triage” - a few minutes to connect with any students who are bleeding at the metaphorical fermoal artery; in other words, they can’t move on in their project without something. We might also do a minilesson targeting a skill that several students are working on. Because we teach at the same time, in pre-Covid times, we would also use flexible groupings for minilessons. Each of us would teach a minilesson at the same time, and any student, regardless of whose class they were in, could attend either minilesson, depending of their need. Minilessons are a maximum of ten minutes long, and only those who need them attend them. We also hold a belief that there’s different kinds of teaching than direct teaching, and create many different tools that also support our students, like annotation bookmarks and graphic organizers.

After triage and minilessons, the remainder of the classtime is occupied with conferences. As the students continue to work on their projects, we meet with those students whose deadline is scheduled that day. Students pull up their work, we look at it together, they discuss how they met the goals they selected, and most importantly, we talk about what they’re proud of. We also work together to decide a grade. There are no surprises with grading. We use a generic four-point rubric, which is written at the bottom of the goals sheet, to give a basic descriptor of what excellence, good, basic, and not yet meeting grade level expectations looks like. This is a learning curve for many students who have not been invited into the grading process before. It takes a little while for many students to stop equating “I worked hard” with “excellence” and to start really thinking about the depth of thinking they demonstrated in their work in terms of how they met their goals. The last step of the conference involves looking at their plan for their next project, approving it, and setting a new deadline together.

This cycle continues on until the end of the designated time period. As mentioned, each round of Room to Breathe takes 2 ½ - 3 months. We kick things off at the beginning of the year by examining what a text is, and getting inspired by some interesting texts others have created. Last year, we used some short stories as a “practice Inhale.” The students worked in groups of two or three to read a short story of their choice. We used this as an opportunity to teach annotation strategies and let our students practice these skills. Then, they proposed and completed a “practice Exhale,” practicing what it would be like to fill out the planning sheet, and complete the project. We met with the small groups to look at their practice work, give feedback, and approve each student’s first “real” R2B project.

One final belief: we all need a purpose.

We invite our students to publish their Room to Breathe work on our website Having an audience outside the four walls of the classroom gives students a reason for doing this work: it’s for someone, other than themselves and their teacher. We believe this to be true for us as well. Practicing what we preach, all our materials, resources, and supporting documents can be downloaded for free at

Created By:

Erin Quinn, Tara Vandertoorn


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