Literacy: It Starts with Engagement

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of participating in a Twitter chat and podcast hosted by Stephen Hurley of  VoicEd Canada about Regie Routman’s new book  Literacy Essentials.  The conversation was about engagement and I’ve been giving it a LOT of thought ever since.

I challenged myself to think about a way to use the students’ passions to increase engagement with writing. Writing for an authentic purpose and audience is one of the strategies Regie recommends we try in order to increase engagement in schools.

So, I thought about the children. A crucial first step.

Every year, I have a group of children that absolutely adore building with LEGO. This year is no different. They make incredible creations and I often document their building process as well as their finished products. I find out a lot about their math understanding while listening to them as they build, and I also find that they have learned other things while playing with LEGO: how to collaborate, plan, share, clean up.

Side note: Yes, you read that right. There is even learning happening while we clean it up.  Here’s a response I posted on Twitter for a teacher that was wondering how to make cleaning up less stressful for the children (and herself):

I like to use the clean up as learning time. How many Legos do you think are on the floor? How many people will we need to tidy them up? Will we sort them now according to colour or just put them in one container to sort tomorrow?  And then, the next morning: Who’d like to play this game of sorting Legos? Will we work in partners or on our own? Let’s share them out into 3 equal piles in bins. Do you think you have more? Less? How long will we set the timer for? I guess my advice is to embrace the learning that happens through living, and cleaning up is part of living.

Now back to what I was saying:

I had tried earlier in the year to get them to write plans for their creations or descriptions of them, but honestly, it didn’t really inspire the writing engagement I had been hoping for. So, last week, I asked them if they wanted to challenge another class to a LEGO contest. And they did.

They argued about which class they should pick and ultimately decided that the class that had the most of their siblings would be who they would challenge. We wrote a letter together using interactive shared writing  to the Grade 2 class and then, a letter came back. With questions. When would it be? How would the contest work? Would there be prizes? Could students decide whether or not they would participate? And on and on.


Each question on the letter was read during a shared read-aloud. Children who had expressed little interest in reading were on the floor poring over this letter, trying to figure out what it said. The options were discussed, voted on, and responses were written on it. YES. NO. They also decided to write  some judging criteria that would be displayed at the event and write another letter asking someone to be the judge. And then created the judging sheets with the criteria for the judge.


The writing opportunities that came from this real-life contest were innumerable. Nearly every specific writing outcome was uncovered. Students deepened their understanding of writing in ways that I hadn’t even expected. And the LEGO contest hadn’t even happened yet.

Students created this sign and coloured it to look like Lego bricks.

Over the next 24 hours, word had spread. Students in other grades asked me about the contest. One student approached me during lunch to ask if I thought her teacher would do a LEGO contest. I said, “Ask her, and if she says no, write a letter to persuade her or start a petition.” The day of the event, children moved furniture, sorted their LEGO, set up materials, and created  and  hung posters in the library.  During the hour-long contest, they checked and announced the time remaining, cleaned up pieces they didn’t use, encouraged each other, and talked about their ideas.



The judge met with children individually so they could explain their creations orally. Later, she mentioned that she hadn’t realised how well some of them could communicate their thinking and how imaginative they were.  Prizes were awarded and 1st place went to a kindergarten student, 2nd and 3rd places to a Grade 2 student. The next day the students set up a display in the main foyer with all their creations.  Other students visited the display, while kindergarten students watched from the doorway and decided that they needed to create a few DO NOT TOUCH signs.

Now, you may be thinking: But I haven’t got time for that. I’ve got curriculum to cover. I can assure you wholeheartedly, that if you spent 2 days with your students delivering  your best writing lessons, you would have not have uncovered even CLOSE to the number of outcomes that this LEGO contest uncovered. The engagement, the relationships, the communication, the sheer MOTIVATION to learn about reading and writing that happened while children took on this real-life project was simply mind-blowing.

The quality of life that is lived in a school cannot be measured by numbers, but by how many students are engaged, passionate, and actively learning through meaningful activities. Last week, the quality of life in our school went up. Just imagine if every teacher in our school took a few hours a week and did a real-life project with their students. One that was derived from the students’ passions, and uncovered a lot of the curriculum in the process.

There’s a lot of weeks in a school year, and a lot of different students passionate about a lot of different things. That would be an awful lot of outcomes being uncovered and a lot of students engaged. I wonder if teachers would start feeling more engaged as well? I wonder if a shared project might be a starting point for more teacher collaboration?  Couldn’t we at least start with one project and see what happens? I wonder how I might help another teacher get inspired to start? Maybe I should ask the kindergarten students if there’s something else they’d like to challenge another class to? Or create something with?

Hmmm. I’ve got more questions than answers.

I must be onto something here.


Cathy 🙂


Cathy Baker View All →

Dedicated teacher for the past 18 years. Lifelong learner. Newbie blogger. Follow me on Twitter @Baker1973Cathy

7 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Thanks so much for your kind words and advice, Regie! I usually write my children a letter for their “report card” but I am thinking I may add onto it with a question and response section about what they wish I knew about them or what they wish they could do at school. Looking forward to Thursday’s podcast,


  2. Cathy, I smiled all the way through your inspirational, beautifully written blog. I loved all you wrote! You surely did use your students’ passions to spark teaching and learning in wonderful and unpredictable ways. You might ask your kindergarten students what passion they might want to tackle next. They might even want more time with Legos since that exploration was so engaging for them. Eager to hear what you do and your students do next. In any case, if you can keep focused on their passions, some of which will arise because you will introduce them to fascinating topics, I predict almost all of your students will grow by leaps and bounds as readers, writers, and communicators. With admiration, Regie

  3. Thanks for sharing more, Cathy! What would happen if you started a new project, but kind of kept this going in the background? It might not pull as many kids, but could it still support the learning of some? Could you do both simultaneously? Or could the next project maybe extend from this one (maybe looking at building in a different way, for example)? I know that we have two educators in the room, which makes things different. Just wondering …


  4. I’ve thought about where to take this next week as well but I think I may start something new. I am afraid of losing them if it seems like I am dragging it out. And I won’t know it’s at that point until the damage has been done. So, onto the next project a couple of children elected to not participate. I will be trying to find out on Tuesday what sort of a project they might be interested in.

  5. Cathy, I love how you took the lead of the children and connected expectations to this interest. It’s clear that there’s a lot of authentic literacy and math happening here. I wonder if children could also title their creations, make additional signs for their buildings (this might provide a nice link to environmental print), or even label what they made. So many different, additional reading and writing opportunities here.

    I’m curious about this contest. Were all of the kids interested? Did they all partake? Is it okay if some chose not to partake? I’d love to hear more. Excited to read about where your students lead you next.


    P.S. I really need to read this book!

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