I’d never heard of a coulee before I visited Monica Huebner’s classroom on my recent trip to Eric Harvie School in Calgary.

“They’re a kind of land formation,” she told me, and I found myself struggling to process this. I’d just spent the better part of a week exploring Banff National Park, the Canadian Badlands, and the prairies in between with my husband, who joined me on this particular trip.

Alberta’s quickly shifting landscapes–from snow-covered mountains to flat, flooded fields and the desert-like terrain surrounding the HooDoos had me reeling. I felt as if I’d visited three different planets within the space of three days. I knew better than to assume what kind of land formation was Monica referring to.


“The 12 Mile Coulee is near our school, and we’ve been learning about it all year,” she said.

Then, she and a handful of her students took me on a brief learning walk through their classroom.

In a matter of moments, I learned that her students had not only visited the coulee to capture observations, they’d documented their learning there beautifully. They studied the history of the place, it’s environmental features, and the connection of their people to their land. They listened to stories and wrote their own. They made maps, gathered data, and reflected on the meaning of that space. They made meaning using a wild mix of modalities, and the results weren’t communicated via flat, static screens or through tests or essays or tightly executed projects.

In short, Monica’s students didn’t travel a linear line through a prefabricated “coulee unit” that she developed  behind closed doors without her students’ input. Rather, she and her students wove a rich learning experience around the coulee–a place of great historical, spiritual, and environmental importance in their community. It was clear that they pursued shared learning targets, but what emerged from that pursuit was far more complex….and compelling.

Their careful documentation enabled them to capture and share so many stories with so many different audiences–including me. I only had a moment to visit and listen, but that moment filled up my senses. By the end of my visit, I not only knew what a coulee was–I began to revere it in much the same way that Monica and her students did.

The class prototyped and then published a book that told the story of their learning. And so much of what I saw inside of their classroom brought the breadth of that story to life.

It reminded me of everything that I love about the learning that’s inspired by the #dtk12chat community on Twitter.

Monica’s students were steeped in empathy. They wondered, how might we? They sought diverse perspectives.

This experience reminded me of so much that I saw in Reggio as well.

There, our pedagogistas inspired us to appreciate the woven nature of high quality learning experiences.

Monica may have held one thread, but her students had their own.

The learning wasn’t linear, but it wasn’t chaotic or confused or without purpose, either.

It was woven.

How might we begin to replicate this process? Some quick thoughts, based upon my observations at Eric Harvie, in Reggio Emilia, and in other classrooms and schools in New York State, where some of the teachers that I support are beginning to tinker with traditional structures:

  1. We begin with relevant and deeply meaningful purposes for learning.
  2. We begin with just a few clear but very powerful shared learning targets.
  3. We begin with frameworks rather than hyper-detailed unit or lesson plans.
  4. We begin by creating rich contexts and environments for learning.
  5. We begin by inviting inquiry, exploration, and experimentation within the framework and the context we’ve established.
  6. We begin by asking better questions that inspire deeper curiosities and refined research approaches.
  7. We begin by pushing perspective taking and valuing the unexpected conclusions that are drawn.
  8. We begin by understanding that we each hold our own thread.
  9. We begin by welcoming opportunities for weaving.
  10. We begin by sharing the fabric that emerges from our learning and our work.

When I bump these ideas up against the way things “have always been done” inside of more traditional classrooms and schools, necessary shifts in practice begin to emerge. It’s quite like me to leave a detailed “how-to” inside of posts like these, but I’m no longer sure that’s a good thing anymore.

I’m holding my thread.

You have yours.

How might we begin to weave them together?





  1. I, too, have begun to “tinker with traditional structures”. I welcome this post and truly appreciate your thoughts on how we might begin. Conversations and collaborations are a way to begin to weave these threads together. I look forward to connecting via your Facebook group and your blog.

    • I just saw this, Katie. I apologize for the delayed reply. I’m so glad that you found this helpful in some way, and I hope you will continue to stay connected here or there in the new year! I’m happy to be connected to those who are tinkering around. 🙂

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