Sprint, Leash, Dive: Teaching ELA at KLS

Khan Lab School
November 14, 2019 / 5 mins read

How do we teach English Language Arts (ELA) in a mixed-aged, mixed-ability class while fostering self-direction?


We sprint. We leash. We dive.

Sprinting, leashing, and diving are thought exercises that we practice in ELA with our Level 4(the oldest upper elementary group). As we prepare to use these exercises it helps to first imagine our brains in tacky neon leotards, lifting weights, stretching in leg warmers, and sweating on a treadmill. Are you ready?


There are times when your brain wants to run. It wants to shoot out of its starting block and head to a finish line that is draped with ribbon and a cheering crowd.

As a teacher, I help my students sprint by knowing where to line up the starting blocks and have the finishing line ready. At KLS, we use tools such as Wit & Wisdom from the nonprofit Great Minds to provide access to rich knowledge-building content (texts, media, curriculum, and evaluations). By using a sequenced and standards-based curriculum, I can track each student's progression and personalize each lesson as needed.With this foundation, my focus can shift from teaching the subject to teaching the student.

Students leap off their starting blocks and know where they're headed while I get to focus on helping each student enjoy their sprints.


Sometimes my students' minds are like that of an excited puppy who spots a squirrel and runs away, abandoning all common sense. This may look like interrupting each other, changing topics three times in one sentence, or spotting a word that launches everyone into a random song.

When a dog is on a leash, he has a given perimeter to examine and explore. During writing and reading, I sometimes will use the phrase “put a leash on it” which means for students to examine that page, that paragraph, or that scene, and stay with it so that detailed discovery can appear.

By providing our students with a variety of historical, modern, and relevant topics, we provide “leashes” for their brains to explore while guiding their focus.


Dive is a thinking exercise we do that allows us to explain the back story, provide details the reader may not see, or get into the meaning and purpose of that piece. It is a piece of the iceberg that cannot be seen from the surface. And it is huge.

Having a curriculum that is scoped to repeat essential topics allows students to build their understanding as they grow in skills and maturity. The definition of courage that a student wrote about in Lower School will be very different from their definition of courage when they get to Upper School.

A deep dive may look like a Socratic seminar, essay rewrite, or teaching another student (or even another teacher!), It allows layering of knowledge as we grow into individuality. It requires us to ask the same WHY question with different lenses, and go deeper each time to get a closer look.

With a foundation set, there is more room for creation, design, and personalization. As a teacher, this sounds like excited questions, shared laughter, and “a-ha” discovery. All the fun reasons why we love to teach.