How can I start to Plan for Inquiry?

The following clip is part of an 8 video series that can be found on the OESSTA website that includes suggested discussion questions about the content. These videos are intended for groups of educators who wish to learn more about inquiry based teaching.


Setting up your classroom space

The following video looks at a classroom that is set up for inquiry-based learning. While we continue to evolve in thinking about our classroom set up, the basic structures such as small group and whole group areas remain constant.
You can find the video series on the OESSTA website.

The Inquiry Approach

The following video was produced by "Ontario Elementary Social Studies Teachers Association" (OESSTA) in association with "Ontario Association of Junior Educators" (OAJE). Please check out the OESSTA website to watch the rest of the video series.

This video looks at the steps involved to set up an inquiry-based classroom.
     I know, I know, you're way too busy as it is.  Especially in September.  Don't talk to me about September, you say, I'm way too busy to teach touch typing!  Well, you may want to re-think that strategy.  Planning for the long term in inquiry based teaching is enhanced by devising ways to get the students to be as independent as possible.  One sure way to generate great content in your room is to have a class of learners who are not 'throttled back' by the frustration of not having their thoughts and ideas efficiently presented.  This is where touch typing comes in.

     I can honestly say, one of the most important classes I ever took was typing (in modern times, keyboarding, I suppose).  I use this skill every day and have used it for the last 35 years.  How cool is that?  I am not restricted or frustrated by the process of getting my ideas down.  Nor should your students.  I take the time to in September to introduce and teach keyboarding skills because I know that by Christmas, they will all be fairly proficient typists and able to produce amazing amounts of work in short order. 
   You don't need a lot of equipment.  Even if you could scrounge together a few old computers and put one of the many free typing programs on them, you can teach typing.  It can be one of your regular stations for the day, or you can choose to dedicate the class time and have it as a whole-class activity, if you have enough machines.  I encourage my kids to practice at home, we have races and contests, and we enjoy the quiet, concentration of the period.  Best of all, absolutely everyone starts off on the same footing, so it can be a nice egalitarian way to begin the school year.

     By June, you should have a whole class of rockets.  Many of my students are typing at over 40 words per minute because they get a chance to practice so often for their inquiry work.  They love it, much like we all loved that feeling of accomplishment when we mastered handwriting.  It's a true skill and progress is almost guaranteed.  Very satisfying!  Start small and simple.  Teach the home row, posture, training the eye to look at the screen, not the keyboard.  I don't bother with much more than the alphabet and basic punctuation marks.  Getting into memorizing the number keys and special symbols is not really necessary for everyday communication.  Also, I ask the kids to find the most fun games they can to practice at home and the students exchange their discoveries and work outside of the school day. 

In my previous blog post,  I wrote about our daily schedule and explained the day in the life of our inquiry-based classroom.

This post outlines how we get started with an inquiry and how we organize the workstation blocks.
First, we spend up to two days building background knowledge, interest and curiosity around the content area that we will be exploring. During this time, the class builds a bank of questions and a list of vocabulary words that are connected to the topic.
Next, teachers create activity cards that are built around the questions and interests that the students showed during the background knowledge building.  These activity cards are designed to be open-ended and to allow for creativity.  The students are provided with a large block of time to complete the activity with the goal to present at the end of the day. 
The following chart is an example of how the groups (4 to 5 students per group) rotate through the stations. For this unit, we let the students pick their team members, then they picked a name connected to our topic.
You can find the activity cards for the First Nation Unit, along with lessons here.

This is a cross-post with our blog
     Okay, that was way too much alliteration in the title, but I'm in a punchy mood, what with the non-stop Olympics watching and all.  There is a lot to be said for allowing extra time for the students to finish up explorations in high interest projects.  I no longer can be locked into a rigid timetable because my students' interests are the most important determining factor in the quality of work they produce.  High interest almost invariably leads to high quality.
     Although a two week rotation of major explorations has been ideal and does allow me to feel in control of the curriculum requirements, we are regularly shortening or extending our timetable to accomodate groups that really want to polish up their presentations.  Also, the fun factor comes into play on a regular basis.  If a particular activity really hits a homerun, we may drop a less intriguing inquiry exploration and allow groups to double-up and spend twice the time on the more interesting pursuit.  
     This flexibility is important because it emphasizes the notion that the students come first.

Daily Schedule

8:40-9:10- Computer lab - keyboarding skills, researching and writing. 

9:10 – Mini-lesson – may include any of the following: a read-aloud/think aloud, teacher models reading/writing strategies, shared/interactive reading and writing. The lessons are connected to the theme or topic (curriculum content) we are exploring. We introduce new concepts and/or focus on certain skills that we notice the majority of students may need. (Most skill-based lessons & conferencing is done with small groups or with individuals, during workstation time.)
9:20- Workstations – All students work in groups to accomplish their station for the day. 
Students are: Collaborating, reading, writing, researching, questioning, creating, and preparing to share their learning. They are moving around, talking, engaged and motivated.
It should be noted here that this routine takes time to establish. In order for the workstations to run smoothly, we need our students to be independent. Setting rules and expectations about how to collaborate is the most challenging. This can take time and you need to be patient. It’s worth seeing a classroom work together like clockwork. To begin with, the focus of the teacher is to build a positive relationship, create a safe classroom environment and establish rules, routines and expectations for learning. This ensures that students become independent problem-solvers which then gives the teacher time to work with small groups or individual students without interruptions.

Teacher is: Conferencing, leading a guided lesson group, pushing thinking and learning, asking questions, teaching a mini-lesson to a group or to individuals. The teacher never sits down at a desk but is in constant motion facilitating the learning of his/her students.  
10:20 to 11:20 – Nutrition break and recess

11:20 to 12:00 – Planning time - we co-plan with the planning time teacher (prep teacher), the students continue working on stations from the morning block. Time is built in to allow students to share their culminating task. (Students realize they will have to present again to the classroom teacher and peers– but that’s OK, they love to share!)

12:00 to 1:00 – Math – Dedicated math time

1:00 to 1:40 – Lunch

1:40 to 2:20 – Gym A day only                        Presentations & Sharing – B day

2:20 – Independent Reading - We use the first 20 days of independent reading by Fountas and Pinnell as a guide for our reading routine.  
3:00 – Agenda & Dismissal
Our schedule is not perfect, but it works for now! We are always looking for ways to improve our practice and often that means change. We feel our success, in this inquiry classroom has been to give our students large blocks of time to go deeper, to explore and to create quality pieces of work. Transitions are few, which helps our students with autism.

Next post – I will share examples of the workstations we’ve used. While content/theme changes, there is always a (guided) reading group and writing group. The rest of the workstation may include, drama, art, religion, math, science, social studies, health…it depends. In other words, all areas of the curriculum are integrated into the workstation block.

We would love to hear about how you organize your day. Please leave a comment and share with us. Thanks

This post can also be found at
Too much imagination can be a killer.  I always over-think when we implement a new piece of technology into our classroom.  What if it doesn't work?  How do we connect it to our exploration?  Did we waste our money?  Is it just sitting on the shelf?  Worries like these are what keep you from trying new things and adopting new tech.  Our experience is that after an initial burst of enthusiasm for the new equipment, there's an awkward stage in which we try to graft it to our program, and finally, it becomes a regular tool for student learning.  It's almost always the same progression, so why worry?  It all works out in the end.

When we first bought a set of iPod touches, the kids went crazy with them.  We were using Tony Vincent's blog on 'Learning in Hand', downloading all kinds of apps, struggling with printers and moving files, and generally sifting through what works and what doesn't.  Then, after all of the processes and procedures had been mostly worked out, they just became a natural tool in the kids' hands.  No longer a flashy, dazzly, shouty new toy, the iPod Touch became a work-a-day communication tool.  Still fun, but more functional.
Next, we did some fundraising and purchased ten iPads.  These went through an almost identical progression from newfangled toy to functional workhorse.  The sizzle dies down, people relax, and the real learning-by-doing begins. I think it's always been the same.  I can remember my first calculator being about the size and weight of a brick and spending hours transfixed by it's magical calculation power.  How many hours of my life did I spend exploring computers when new innovations came along?  Now, the laptop is a household appliance, almost as common as a toaster. 

I'll never forget my first year with a Smartboard.  The kids went crazy with all the buttons, made the most ridiculous flashy projects just for the pure joy of trying all the gee-whiz features, and predictably, settled down and used it for the wonderful tool that it is.  Learning curves are steep when implementing new tech, but the effort is always worth it.  Twenty-first century learners become adept at exploring features and fearlessly pushing buttons.  My students can't wait to try new equipment and surprise me with the innovative ways they find to implement it into their project work.  Boldly go, I say.
It's Christmas season, so many of us are thinking about all of the things we have to get done for the holidays.  This is a pretty intense form of stress.  Me, I'm just happy to work my way through the daily inquiry work and to look forward to the holidays as a time to spend with friends and family.  School work rarely stresses me out anymore. Why is that?

To be completely honest, the days are no less busy teaching in the inquiry based approach, but they are a whole lot less stressful.  Here's why.  In traditional teaching, I always felt a lot of pressure to 'provide and guide'.  I was on the hook for where and how learning was taking place. Being rigidly locked into a set of long-range plans added the pressure of timelines to the mix and the resulting feeling of 'I'm never going to get all this done' was unpleasant at best.  

Once I adopted and somewhat refined an inquiry approach that works for me and my students, my whole teaching life became more manageable and remarkably less stressful.  There's a nice flow and hum to classroom work that is more akin to a functioning workshop.  People are happy.  Work is getting done.  Student presentations are a just reward for time well spent. Looking forward to going in to work every day, rather than sweating about how everything was going to 'get covered' is a refreshing and invigorating change.  Easily achievable, too.

The great seminal researcher and theorist, Hans Selye, talked about 'distress' and 'eustress'. For those of you who don't recall the basics, 'distress' results from feelings of loss of control and can be quite damaging to the human organism.  'Eustress' is more life-enhancing.  It's the culmination of internal forces that propels you to take on challenges and set goals.   Inquiry teaching has tilted me strongly towards "eustress'.  I love going to work, mostly because my days are now rational, I can meaningfully connect with all of my students, and explorations are engaging for everyone in the room.  
The following movies were created by students for the inquiry "What is life like in Canada's regions?"
Students worked on learning about the weather in different regions across Canada. Ian used the Tellagami app to report on the weather for his region.
This group created a claymation movie about the region they were studying.
There is the old saying 'variety is the spice of life' to consider when running an inquiry based classroom.  True.  But is it enough to provide variety without a focused goal?  I think this leads to confusion and a sense of disjointed, scattershot teaching.  Better to have a clear focus and to provide learning opportunities that reflect an overall theme.  I can provide a couple of examples from my own class to support this idea and which will highlight the importance of maintaining a certain rigour to the development of curriculum goals.

First, let me tell you about our most recent exploration.  We've been working on a project called Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast.  The kids came up with the guiding question, 'What's it like to live in other parts of Canada?'  This was just about perfect: open-ended enough to allow true inquiry, focussed enough to provide a clear framework for the work ahead.  Now, the creative and challenging part is to design tasks that will stay within the guiding spirit of the question, but not be too constricting.  We feel we really nailed this one with the following activities:

1.  Newscasts. (iMovie and Photo Booth) The kids wrote, recorded and presented a beautiful series of newscasts using iMovie.  They used the news from the Canadian region they were studying to explore current events, climate, and culture.  Photo Booth allows for the creation of endless backdrops and background videos using the effects tab.  The 'newscasters' can appear in the middle of a typhoon or in some exotic locate. 
2.  Tellagami Weather Reports.  The students strung together 30 second Tellagami (you have to check this app out for your class.  It's brilliant) avatar clips to explore weather phenomena from their region.  Absolutely hilarious, highly creative and the end product is so polished, it's perfect.  Script writing and using two apps (Tellagami and iMovie) to create a short avatar-based film is pretty rich stuff.  Wonderful to share with the group!
3.  Tourism brochures.  The students loved creating travel brochures for their region using the Pages templates.  Any word processor can be used and the students love the challenge of making a content-rich professional looking publication.
4. Stop Action Claymation.  This was a huge hit.  The students had to think of special recreation or occupation activities going on in their region and create a stop action movie.  It was a blast to see how creative they were in depicting all kinds of regional quirks.  We used the simplest app I could find, called Stop Animator. It's free on the App Store and couldn't be any easier to use.  Once again, the students can string their films together to make a whole-class movie.  What an amazingly fun and truly creative task!
5. Google Earth Tour Builder.  This new offering from Google is in beta form, apparently, but to me it's ready for prime time.  It was a very simple task to show the students how to add pictures and text for the various locations they were exploring.  Once imported, the material uses Google Earth as the guide to take everyone on a virtual tour of the area.  This is very rich in content and allows for refined research and editing.  
6.  iMovie.  The kids love making their own movies and are always intrigued by the process of assembling material from a wide variety of sources.  The goal was to take images from their region (hundreds in some groups' presentation) and overlay music and voiceover to create a true exploration of their region, highlighting important geographical features.  

This exploration hit all the right notes. At the end of each work day, we sat back and watched some truly amazing displays which were both rich in content and creativity.  The kids absolutely loved it.  In my next blog, I'll discuss what happens when things don't go so well.