Read-Alouds for Outdoor Learning

Over the summer our school yard got a massive make-over. We went from having a small concrete pen to a large, beautiful, natural play space. When I was constructing my schedule for this year, I wanted to make sure I left ample time in our day, every day, for outdoor learning. It is important to me that the children aren’t simply released into the outdoor classroom without guidance or explicit teaching, but that we use the outdoor classroom as a springboard for conversations about environmental stewardship and the development of inquiry skills like noticing, asking questions, and carrying out explorations.

I often use read-alouds as a starting point for classroom learning or inquiry projects. Outdoor learning is no different. Luckily, I have stumbled upon some truly wonderful children’s books that I have found to enhance the learning my students and I do together outdoors. Today I thought I’d share some with you. Here are some of my favourite books about nature and the outdoors:

Step Gently Out by Helen Frost step-gently-out

This book is a favourite because of its beautiful photography and lyrical text. The main message in this read-aloud is the need to be careful and gentle with nature. I love using this text at the beginning of the year when I am establishing expectations about our outdoor time with the children.

Quiet in the Garden by Aliki

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This is a beautiful book in which the main character talks about how to be still and quiet in the garden and how doing so will allow you to notice things in your surroundings. I love using this book to teach the children about the importance of being still in nature, looking closely at our surroundings, and making observations.

Nature Spy by Shelly Rotner and Ken Kreisler

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This is another gem of a book that teaches children about how to be a “nature spy” and look closely at one’s surroundings. The book includes several photographs with “zoomed in” images and creates a few opportunities for the children to make their own observations during the read-aloud. After reading this one with my class, several children identified themselves as “nature spies” when we returned to the outdoor classroom.

We’re Going on  a Nature Hunt by Steve Metzger

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This is one of those delightfully simple books that has a powerful message! In We’re Going on a Nature Hunt, the author presents several scenarios one might encounter on a nature hunt and in each one, adds a message about being gentle and kind to nature. I often use this book when teaching about point of view. When reading, I ask my students to pay close attention to the author’s message: “Look at the frog jump and swim. But don’t scare it.” “Look at the colourful flowers. But don’t pick them.” “Look at the eggs in the robin’s nest. But don’t touch.” This books sends the message that children need to respect nature.

Basil’s Birds by Lynn Rowe Reed

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I’ve done quite a few bird inquiries over the years (in part because we used to have a prime view of some beautiful sparrow nesting boxes outside our classroom window!) and this is always one of my go-to read alouds. Again, this book carries the theme of caring for and respecting nature. The main character, Basil, originally views the birds nesting around his school as a nuisance. But one day, after falling asleep outside, Basil wakes to find a bird nest on his head. Ultimately, he grows to love and care for his birds, until the eggs hatch and the birds fly away. This book is wonderful for highlighting different feelings/emotions and having “what would you do?” types of discussions.

Gummytoes by Sean Cassidy

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This is a book about a little tree frog who wants to be noticed and admired, but when he finds himself captured by a group of children and kept as a “pet” he realizes how much he wants to blend back in to his natural environment. Because this book is told from the point of view of the frog, you can’t help but imagine how terrible it is to be poked and prodded, yelled at and held captive in an inhospitable jar. I’ll never forget one of my students suddenly becoming concerned about her pet goldfish after hearing this story; namely, she was worried that perhaps her fish felt like Gummytoes and would prefer to be in a big pond in the wild. It’s a great resource for teaching children about the importance of returning their found creatures (like worms or snails) to nature after taking time to study them respectfully.

The Dandelion’s Tale by Kevin Sheehan and Rob Dunlavey

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This is the story of a dandelion who wishes to be remembered. A little sparrow helps her out by writing her story in the dirt. This is a magical little tale about friendship that my students are always captivated by! Dandelions are a focus of excitement nearly every spring, and every spring I find myself reaching for this book.

The Imaginary Garden by Andrew Larson

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I have blogged about this book before (you can read about it here). It is one of my all time favourite children’s books. In this story, Theo and her Poppa share many special days in Poppa’s garden. When Poppa downsizes to an apartment with a windy balcony, recreating that garden becomes a creative inspiration! Instead of plants in pots, Theo and Poppa set about painting an imaginary garden on a large canvas. This is a wonderful book to read during the last cold snap of winter when you are waiting for spring to arrive. We used this book as inspiration for our own garden mural, but it would just as easily work for any garden projects you are undertaking in your outdoor space. So many possibilities!

The Curious Garden by Peter Brown

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Another garden favourite, this book is a stunning example of the difference one person can make in the world. In the book, a grey drab city transforms into a lush green garden paradise after Liam discovers a bit of garden life and sets about nurturing it. This is a wonderful story about the power of human action and the importance of taking care of our environment.

Raindrops Roll by April Pulley Sayre

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This is a stunning book! It is a lovely book to read on a rainy day, particularly before heading outside to see how the world looks different after a rainstorm. Besides the gorgeous photographs, one of the things I like best about this book is its use of descriptive vocabulary: “Rain plops. It drops. It patters. It spatters.” 

Any book by Diana Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long

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I have every book written by Diana Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long: A Butterfly Is Patient, An Egg Is Quiet, A Nest Is Noisy, A Rock Is Lively, A Seed Is Sleepy,and A Beetle Is Shy. I love the scientific detail that has gone in to each of these books, but what I really love is the journal/sketchbook-type illustrations. These are beautiful books to look at and we always marvel at the information that is presented in each one!

I must say, it was very hard to narrow down this list! As a self-professed book lover, I do hope you will take some time to share your favourite books about nature and the outdoors in the comments below. I’m always looking for my next great read-aloud!

 

 

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Playdough Provocations: Emojis!

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Are your students interested in emojis? Mine are obsessed! We stumbled upon this interest after setting out some loose parts for the children to explore in the first few weeks of school. One student created a “winking emoji” with his loose parts which, when shared with the class, created an uproar of excited children all trying to talk at once about their knowledge of emojis.

Later that week I decided to include emojis in my modeled writing lesson during writer’s workshop. As I was drawing my picture, I drew a thinking bubble above the drawing of myself and put a “love” emoji inside it to show how I was feeling. Once again, my students erupted with excitement! Many children also included emojis in their writing work that day.

This got me thinking. What is it about emojis the children find interesting? How can I use the children’s obvious excitement about them to further our learning? I saw an opportunity to have rich discussions around how we can recognize and communicate our feelings in the modern world. I thought about how I could create an invitation for the children to demonstrate more about what they know.

I decided to go the route of creating a playdough provocation with an emoji focus. I found a printable emoji poster on Teachers Pay Teachers (you can access it here). I made bright yellow playdough (you can find my recipe here) and collected a variety of emoji-inspired objects: circle cookie cutters, blue drop gems, heart gems, black pipe cleaners, small black stones, and googly eyes. The children were VERY excited about this centre! While the children worked, we had an opportunity to talk about what feelings they were representing and what might make someone feel that way.

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A “queen emoji”

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An “extra extra loving emoji. For when you love someone SO MUCH.”

When sharing our emojis during reflection time, we also started playing a game called “Guess the Emoji” where the children would try to guess what kind of emoji had been created by examining its features. This emoji created some debate:

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“It looks like the laughing/crying emoji.”

“Yes. It has two tears.”

“No! It has a sad mouth! It’s a crying emoji!”

“It’s extra sad!”

We continue to talk about why we use emojis and why they are useful for communicating how we feel. The children think of emojis as a way to give someone else a clue about how they are feeling, especially when their face is not immediately visible. The children are now consistently adding emojis to their journal writing as a way of trying to communicate to others how they/others were feeling in their stories. They are also beginning to spot emojis everywhere, which is making them more aware of environmental print. Quite a few children have brought in emoji items from home or things they’ve found when out and about. Emoji lollipops, markers, balls, t-shirts, and stuffies are just some of the items that have come into school! I have a feeling this interest is going to last the whole year long!

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The Curious Kindergarten is on Instagram!


I love blogging about the discoveries my students and make together in Kindergarten! However, as a busy mom of two young boys I don’t always get a chance to write about the happenings in my classroom (at least not as often as I would like!). 

Though I will still continue to blog about my classroom, I have recently created an Instagram account so that I can document the daily provocations, discoveries, and conversations my students and I experience together. If you are interested in following the daily activity in my classroom, feel free to join me on Instagram! 

The Third Teacher: Classroom Layout 2016

I hope everyone has had a lovely summer! Whether you were taking a course, travelling, or relaxing with family and fiends, I hope it was a restful and restorative holiday for you!

I had a wonderful summer in the city with my husband and two boys (4 and 2 years old). I spent a lot of time relaxing , reading, and prepping for the new school year. I had the luxury of returning to the same school and same classroom this year so I didn’t have as much to set up or unpack. I am extremely fortunate that at my new school the caretaking staff are SO AMAZING that everything was put back exactly where I wanted it after the room was cleaned. It was a lovely surprise to find my room almost “first day ready” when I opened the door at the end of August.

That being said, I still spent my first day back trying to rearrange my room. Over the summer I had been thinking about trying centres out in new locations, thinking about the flow of the room, considering what areas seemed “busy” or “crowded” last year and which areas seemed under utilized. After all my lifting and switching around, I actually settled on almost the exact same floor plan as last year with a couple of small modifications. The centres stayed the same but I added in new ways of storing materials or added in tables/new seating to allow for different kinds of groupings.

So this is it! My classroom all ready for a new school year:

Our carpet area/meeting place. This is where we begin our day together, read stories, and reflect on our learning. During centre time, it also doubles as our space for big block play.

The Writing Centre. The materials on this shelf change throughout the year. The children can work at an adjacent table or may take any materials they need to other centres. We are beginning the year by studying different kinds of lines. This is also where we store our journals (they go in the basket on the white cart to the left).

The Math Centre. This is one of the centres that got a bit of a make-over. I moved out some heavy shelving and replaced it with the small tables and stools for quieter table top work with a partner. The children are also encouraged to work with materials on The Learning Carpet. In addition to the materials stored on the cart (which change depending on our learning goals) this is also where our Math Science Investigations materials (building blocks) are stored.

The Drama Centre. I always like to set the drama centre up as a house at the start of the school year. It provides some familiarity for the children and is generally quite an inviting space for young children. We will switch up the centre as the children’s interest change and develop.

Another view of the Drama Centre. Most of the accessories in this photo were sourced at Value Village, a thrift store in my city.

I think it’s the small details that make a space inviting!

The Quiet Centre. Sometimes we all need a cozy spot to rest or calm down. I had a few students last year that would arrive at school in the morning after ‘waking up on the wrong side of the bed’ as they say. The quiet centre was their go-to spot to sit in until they felt like joining the rest of the group. This area has cushions to sit on, books to read, lap desks to colour on, and buddies to snuggle. This space also doubles as a secondary light studio. I simply hang a white sheet on the wall at the back and set up an overhead projector for the children to explore light and shadow.

A closer look at the materials in the Quiet Centre.

I love this small bookshelf from IKEA. It’s just the right size for this small space! We will be spending a lot of time on how to recognize different emotions and the book selection here reflects that topic.

 

A closer look at some of the materials in the Quiet Centre. The light cube is a soothing addition to the space and also gets used when we transform the space into a light studio.

The Light Table. This is adjacent to the Quiet Centre/Light studio space.

 

 

The Sand Centre

 

 

A closer look at the Sand table materials.

 

 

Water Table materials.

The Water and Sand tables.

 

The Small Building Centre. The children use smaller blocks and loose parts to work on more intricate buildings and designs. Lego, small world play, and provocations that support our inquiries in Math Science Investigations happen here. Currently, the doll house is set up. I am hoping to encourage conversations around families and family life in an effort to get to know the children better. 

 

Materials for the small building centre.

More materials for the small building centre.

The Art Studio.

The “Teacher Centre.” Our mini school centre where the children often reenact our daily routines and conversations – storytelling, shared reading, and morning message all get recreated here!

 

 

The Science and Nature Centre. We will be creating our “Wonder Windows” at the windowsill next to the table.

I just love collecting beautiful magnifying glasses! I also have a class set of magnifiers from the dollar store.

The play dough centre. I always have play dough available in my classroom and it is by far one of the most popular centres during discovery time! We have currently set up a self-portrait provocation with loose parts.

 

 

The view from the doorway.

So, that is our room this year! I’m excited to greet my students next week (old and new!) and am most looking forward to seeing where their interests and discoveries take us this year!

Wishing everyone a wonderful start to the school year!

 

In the Art Studio: Plasticine Art Inspired by Barbara Reid

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This month we have been inspired by renowned Canadian author and illustrator Barbara Reid. Barbara Reid has worked on some of my class’s favourite read-alouds: Picture a Tree, Perfect Snow, and Subway Mouse. When reading, we often discuss how an artist may have created their illustrations. My students were very interested in how Barbara was able to achieve such realistic and detailed pictures using Plasticine.

Lucky for us, Barbara Reid has created a series of tutorial videos which you can find on YouTube (links below). In her videos, Barbara talks about how she goes about creating her artworks: from the planning stage (researching, sketching a picture), to creating a background, to adding fine details and textures to her work.

Video: Making Plasticine Pictures with Barbara Reid Part 1

Video: Making Plasticine Pictures with Barbara Reid Part 2

Video: Making Plasticine Pictures with Barbara Reid Part 3

For this project, I cut our Plasticine into very small pieces so it would be easy for the children to manipulate (and because a little goes a long way!). I arranged the pieces in small containers by colour. I also included some of Barbara Reid’s books and a non-fiction book about Barbara Reid herself. We also had dry cloths for wiping our hands (as Barbara suggested) and some tools for adding texture. For the planning process, the children had pieces of cardstock and pencils for sketching. We made our Plasticine pictures on small canvas boards I found at the dollar store. The children were extremely excited to do their work with “real artist materials.” For me, it is very important to give the children beautiful and authentic art materials to use and work with. Their art is more than deserving of quality materials and in my experience, they seem to take their art more seriously when they perceive materials to be “special.”  For this project, the strength of the canvas boards was an added advantage, as it made it easier for the children to spread the Plasticine.

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During the planning process, I really didn’t meddle too much in what the children were sketching or wanting to create, thinking the children would figure out on their own what was going to work and what wasn’t. For example, the first group of children who visited the studio realized that creating people with Plasticine was a big challenge, and advised their classmates accordingly during reflection time. Spreading the Plasticine was also a challenge for some (and a great fine motor muscle workout!). Some children took a few sessions to complete their backgrounds, pausing and coming back later to give their fingers a rest. Other children wanted to persevere and complete their backgrounds so they could get to adding their flowers or bugs or animals. If you’re wondering how long it took the children to complete their pictures, it varied between one session (about half an hour) to a few days, depending on each child.

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Y.A.: “I want to make a picture of a cat.” 

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A.J. spreads the Plasticine to make a sky. “I’m mixing the colours. A little bit of dark blue and a little bit of light blue.”

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Y.A.: “I’m making my grass like Barbara Reid. I’m rolling snakes and making them flat like grass. I’m doing a pattern: light green, dark green, light green, dark green…”

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R.A.: “I’m making a little mousey like Barbara Reid. It’s just like The Subway Mouse.”

Here are some of the children’s completed art works. I have them displayed on a low chalkboard ledge in our classroom and the children can often be found admiring them!

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S.C. “I made a rainbow and a little girl is camping in the tent.”

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Honestly, the children were SO proud of their completed art works. They loved showing them off during reflection time and talking about the process they used to make them. During one reflection session, we started talking about how Barbara Reid gets her Plasticine pictures in the pages of her books. One student remembered that Barbara’s husband photographs her art for her so the pictures can be used as illustrations. One student suggested that we take photographs of our work and use the pictures to make a book by writing our own stories. I loved that the children were inspired to create their own stories, so we set up a story-writing invitation.

At the writing table, I gave the children some mini easels to place their art on. I put out plain paper and some black pens. The children could choose to write about their own work or a classmate’s work that inspired them. This proved to be a popular invitation! Some children returned each day to write a new story! We loved listening to each other’s stories during reflection time – some children’s stories were so popular, the class asked them to read it aloud more than once.

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E.H. “Once there was a little ladybug. She wanted to rest on a flower. The red flower was wet but the purple flower was just right. The End.”

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“I went out on a stormy day.”

We are still in the midst of our story writing. I was interested to see the emergence of a narrative voice in the children’s work and am curious about exploring this further with the class. Stay tuned!

Noticing and Naming Our Learning: The Reflective Process in FDK

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I have been teaching kindergarten for over 10 years, and in that time, my program has evolved a lot! Actually, it continues to change and evolve each year as I connect with other educators, read professional resources, and collaborate with my students and their families. Without a doubt, the most important change I made to my classroom schedule when I embarked on an inquiry-based approach was adding in time to reflect daily with my students. I jokingly refer to reflection time as “free advertising” because it is the time when we can highlight the important learning goals/thinking routines/discoveries we want the children to be demonstrating, through the children’s own work. The decision about which children share is not random, but purposeful. Perhaps it might be a student who made a breakthrough or did their personal best, or it may be a child sharing an interesting way they interacted with materials at one of our provocations, or it may be a child sharing a problem they encountered while working and the class is invited to help them brainstorm a solution. Whatever the reason, the discussion that occurs during reflection time is what drives our classroom learning. Much of my planning for next steps is derived from our reflection conversations and the children are often involved in suggesting new materials or centres that would help with our inquiries. What I like about reflection time is that it is collaborative. While I sometimes help the children with their sharing (especially at the beginning of the year), reflection time is a part of the day that the children begin to take real ownership over.  Listening to them talk about what they’ve done, how they got their ideas, and what inspires them, I am constantly reminded of all the curiosity, knowledge, and determination each student possesses. I continue to be amazed by how thoughtful the children are in their questions and comments. They often speak of being ‘inspired’ by things they saw their classmates doing. I am often inspired too!

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The children in my class are extremely interested in sharing their learning with their peers. I often encourage them to record their learning on paper so the class can have a visual of what the student did or discovered. We also use photos or videos, but this way the students get to practice drawing and writing as well.

 

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The SmartBoard is particularly useful for drawing suggestions/next steps on photos of the children’s work, or the children will draw on an area to explain their thinking.

Last week the Ministry of Education in Ontario came out with an addendum to the Full Day Kindergarten Curriculum document. In it was a new phrase: “noticing and naming the learning,” which caught my eye immediately:

From Growing Success – The Kindergarten Addendum (2016):

“Noticing and naming the learning” in terms of learning goals and success criteria is a way in which educators can create a picture for children of what and how they are learning, and support them in moving forward, no matter what their developmental level. As the children participate in and reflect on a variety of learning experiences, they develop and deepen their understanding of what their learning looks like and what their next steps in learning might be. With educator support, children begin to participate in “noticing and naming the learning” and so contribute to their own, and their peers’, learning.

This “noticing and naming the learning” is a crucial part of the educator’s role in helping children understand what it is they are learning and why it is important. In a play-based program, much of our learning together hinges on the conversations we have while children are engaging with materials at centres. Reflection time is crucial for sharing those learning moments with the larger classroom community.

The other aspect to this discussion that I think is important is the idea that noticing and naming the learning “support[s] [children] in moving forward, no matter what their developmental level.” This is an important element to reflection time as well. We are sharing and discussing work that reflects a variety of learning stages. The children learn that we all work at our own pace and all progress, however small, can be a cause for celebration. I still remember one ELL student I had who did not speak a word in English all year…until one day she made a drawing on the light table that she wanted to share. The class was SO supportive at her first attempt to speak in front of the class and after she spoke about her drawing they clapped! They were all so proud of her breakthrough and they knew what a big step it was for her to share her learning with the class. This is the kind of supportive culture a reflective classroom can create.

If you want to do some further reading about the importance of creating a culture of thinking, I recommend this article on the KQED website that references the work done by Project Zero senior research associate Ron Ritchhart.

When Kids Have Structure for Thinking Better Learning Emerges

Do you take time to reflect daily? How do you feel the notion of “noticing and naming the learning” in the new document will change the way you communicate with your students?

The Mystery Object Inquiry Project

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Don’t you love a good mystery? I know whenever I’m reading a book or watching a film with an element of the unknown, I am always SO curious to see how things will turn out in the end. This year, I decided to spark some interest in a new inquiry by adding in an element of surprise: a “mystery object.” I started with an amaryllis bulb. You can really use anything for this project, but a plant was a great option because of the fact that a plant is always growing and changing. I knew the focus of this inquiry was going to be on building the children’s capacity for making good observations and predictions, and I wanted them to be able to revisit their predictions as the plant grew and changed. An amaryllis blooms in about 6-8 weeks from the time of planting so the children had plenty of time to practice their inquiry skills!

I introduced this project with a game that our music itinerant taught us: “What’s in the box?” I placed the bulb, pot, and bag of soil in a box marked with question marks. We passed the box around the circle asking each child in a sing-song voice, “What’s in the box?” and the children sang back their guesses in turn. After everyone had had a guess, we opened the box to reveal what was inside. I passed around the bulb and each child tried to guess what it was. I recorded their predictions in my notebook. After we had all had a turn at guessing, I asked the class what they thought we should do next. Since there were no instructions with our mystery object, we would have to figure out for ourselves what to do. Right away, many of the children suggested putting the object in the pot with the soil. One child suggested that we need to put water in it too…because that’s what you do when you put something in a pot of dirt.

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Our Mystery Object in its bed of dirt. One student suggested we leave it on the windowsill at the science table so it could catch some sunshine!

We placed our mystery object at the science table. It was the first place most children visited when they entered the classroom each day! Every time there was a change in the mystery object, we took time to discuss our observations as a group. The children had access to our See Think Wonder and “My Prediction” recording sheets throughout the project. It was interesting for me to see which children changed their predictions based on new information and observations as the mystery object grew (and which children held fast to their original ideas).

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A.R. records her thinking about the Mystery Object on a “See, Think, Wonder” recording sheet.

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Some of the children’s predictions about what the Mystery Object might be/grow into: beans, a blueberry, a beanstalk, onions, an apple, salad.

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Our object changes! The students were excited to see these “sprouts” emerge – first one, then two, then three, then four!

One of the interesting questions that arose from one of our reflection discussions was “Is our mystery object a living thing?” This was a question that divided the class! We decided to do some further research to find out. Our librarian gave us a book called “What is a living thing?” which we read in hopes of answering the question once and for all. Again, some children could see right away evidence that our object was indeed living (it was growing, changing, requiring our care and attention) while other children had difficulty connecting the information from the book to their observations of the mystery object.

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The discussion this day revolved around the growth coming from our object. Many children noticed that the new “sprout” looked different than the previous growth. I was encouraging the children to be specific with their observations and descriptions. The leaves were described as “smooth,” “flat,” “pointy” and the new growth as “fat,” “curvy,” and “round.” Many children felt there might be a surprise inside the new growth which caused them to rethink their original predictions.

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The children measure the mystery object to keep track of its growth. J.T. visited the science table every day to measure the mystery object and update the class on how much it had grown!

The day our mystery object bloomed was incredibly exciting! We decided to google “bulb plant that blooms after 8 weeks” and found a matching image for our flower in our search! Giving our plant a name (Amaryllis) was quite satisfying to the children. Every visitor to our classroom was immediately shown to the science table and told about our mystery object – “Do you wanna see our mystery object? It’s an AMARYLLIS!”

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Our beautiful amaryllis bloom. We were shocked to discover that each pod (we ended up with two) held not one, but 4 blooms inside! Amazing!

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Taking a closer look with the magnifiers…

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Counting the blooms…and wondering what might be inside this little pod??

Overall, I feel like the mysterious element to this inquiry was an asset to piquing the children’s initial interest and keeping it sustained throughout the project. My goal from the beginning was to provide an opportunity for the children to practice their inquiry skills – and in that, the mystery object inquiry was very successful!

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Documenting our work

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We thought we’d add a little element of mystery to our hallway display…

Have you ever tried teaching with a mystery object? I’d love to hear what you used as the spark for your learning!