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.
On October 24, Pete and I presented a workshop on inquiry. You can view our slideshow presentation below.
Sometimes inquiry based teaching leads you. You're just along for the ride, so to speak. I wanted to give my students some freedom to suggest ideas for our next inquiry. They had been working hard and producing wonderful pieces but I had some curriculum to address and had guided our last couple of inquiries. We opened up a discussion around that great debate topic, 'Should There be Zoos?'. We filled a board with possible inquiry questions. Then, a bit of magic. One of my students asked a truly great question: "Why doesn't our town have an outdoor ice surface?" And we were off!
We began by researching everything we could about outdoor ice pads. We looked at sample rinks, explored ice making equipment, examined building costs and generally built a rich background knowledge about what goes into constructing outdoor rinks.
Next, we broke up into groups and completed a series of exploration rotations on key components. Each group was responsible for researching their topic, reporting back to the class and moving forward to a proposal to our local town council. We felt we needed to be really convincing and serious, or nothing would come of it and so we set up a production that would include all kinds of reports. Budget, construction types, surveys of local successfully operating rinks and finally, models to show town council. We each wrote letters to our councilors and included a bound book of spreadsheets, photos and research. Then, we phoned the mayor.
Our mayor visited the class, listened to the students' presentations, watched some commercials we made, and then addressed the group. He was excellent, relating how the council goes about making such serious decisions, how a budget is created and what was the responsibility of the petitioners to council. And then he did a truly amazing thing. He promised he would return in one month's time to talk about the possibility of establishing a rink!
At the next meeting, the local papers sent reporters and the ball was now truly rolling. The mayor brought with him plans of the town and discussed possible sites with us. The kids were very respectful, considering how excited they were. The mayor was very realistic, suggesting that the most likely scenario was the least expensive option we had outlined. More importantly, he committed budget money to the upkeep and construction of the rink, once a site had been chosen. Currently, the students are working on their presentation before town council. We are creating a video and have 10 minutes of council time to discuss the process. Amazing!
The whole process really showed the students how democracy responds to the needs and desires of the people. It is a great lesson for the students to learn, one which will hopefully eliminate or reduce cynicism later in life. It was and is, a wonderful experience to watch the kids grow in confidence and civic responsibility.
Planning for the individual needs of your students in the modern classroom can be paralysis-inducing. You want to meet everyone where they are and move them along in the most efficient way. You want to address their individual learning needs. You want to modify your course materials and assignments to mirror their abilities. You want to set up assessment tasks that are fair and meaningful. But let's be realistic for a minute here, how do you actually achieve this?
Well, one way to look at is this: you can only do what you can do. You need help. You are only one person. Thankfully, you have a rich source of differentiation help you may not be tapping into, your students. If we assume that one of the most important elements of differentiated instruction is to create activities that are relevant to the students at their current ability level, then who better to assess that level than the kids themselves? This may sound a little far-fetched, but let me explain with an example from my classroom.
My students are always working in groups. They sit in groups, plan collaboratively, and negotiate roles on a daily basis. They know each other very, very well. Thankfully, there is a true culture of kindness in the room and the kids really take care of each other. When explorations are underway, I no longer have to worry about whether a particular activity is meeting the current level of achievement of my students because they have a constant stream of meaningful feedback from their own group members. I would never be able to provide as many and varied comments about what looks good, how to approach the job in an easily understood way, how to understand the task at hand or simply ask the simple question, 'Are you getting it?" When the students work in teams, they pull together, helping each other along at a level that makes sense to them. There's true differentiation.
Where do I step in? Usually, one of the students will quietly let me know one of their team members is struggling. I love this, because inquiry based learning has freed me up to go and spend meaningful amounts of time with kids to truly address their needs. The rest of the class is so caught up in their work, they hardly ever miss me. I can delve into the learning styles and interests of my students because I have the time for individual assessment in the course of any given day. Because exploration work is done over the course of days or weeks, nothing is so time-sensitive that I can't take the time to deal with a struggling student and provide true support.
Some of the constant comments we hear after a workshop are that the teachers love the techniques, can't believe how engaged their kids were, and how motivated the students were to complete the explorations. Unfortunately, close on the heels of these positive comments is a tepid suggestion that 'maybe I'll try it next year when I have more time'. The truth is, it's not difficult to make the change from a coverage approach to an inquiry approach.
Start off small. Think of some really neat topic in your curriculum that you enjoy teaching. Ask your class to create a list of questions that they have always wondered about the topic, or ask them to create a mind-map of ideas or questions they associate with the topic. Then, ask them to think of ways you might explore together. You, the teacher, will be learning along with them. (As an aside, I can honestly say that in my classroom we have now tipped the balance: the students end up teaching me more than I teach them on new explorations. After all, there are 27 of them researching and writing, and only one of me.)
Gather some simple materials to get started. Show a few videos, read a few books together, or take a field trip to build some excitement and background knowledge. This gives you lots of time to determine what mini-lessons you might want to include (we are responsible for a curriculum, after all). Now the real fun begins.
Set up some teams or groups in your room and give them fun names. Mix and match like crazy and don't worry about setting up just the right combination. The students will all bring something to the table that is going to build a satisfying whole. Create a rotation of activities that the group can rotate through and make sure of one vitally important element: every group presents their work to the class. The students will feel the excitement of preparing to teach their peers and rise to the challenge, I guarantee it. They may stumble and hesitate, but end result will be that their work has an audience, is appreciated, and is the stepping stone for greater success down the line.
See, it's not that hard. Get started today!
We all know teaching can be an overwhelming job. Sometimes the constant pressure to keep up with all the minutia of the school day, plan for long-term projects, and maintain a good set of assessment strategies can be draining, to say the least. This is when the job can seem too much and despair can set in. How can I get all of this done, you might ask yourself. The truth is, you simply can't do everything well all of the time. You need to let things slide sometimes to give yourself some breathing room. I have found this is the best time to lean on a colleague for support.I am relatively new to team teaching. My partner in this project, Louise, has vastly more experience working closely with a fellow teacher, so for her, it's just a natural way to order her day. I found teaming up with
Louise difficult at first. I was concerned I wasn't pulling my weight in organizing TLLP (Teachers Learning and Leadership Program) and PKE (Provincial Knowledge Exchange)
inservices, managing budgets, booking appointments, and moving the project along smoothly. But when I really thought about it, the differences in our personalities and teaching styles allowed us to carve out different, but essential roles. When we prepare for an event we 'fill in' for each other. I love the creative tasks of writing assignment cards, finding exploration topics and materials, and the actual running of the workshop. The actual day is, to be honest, a real thrill. Going into someone's classroom and learning with a new group of students is truly exciting. Much of background work is done by Louise. She excels at it.This is the classic inquiry-based model. Both of us follow our own interests and enthusiasms while contributing to the whole. Inquiry based teaching confirms that this essentially true for the classroom. Every kid in your class has something to offer and has their own set of strong interests. And they all want to learn, even if it doesn't seem so on particular days.
Find out what these strong interests are, allow them to pursue them, and watch amazing collaboration happen in your room!
The new Social Studies/Geography/History curriculum document will soon be released in Ontario. We are very excited about the direction this new document will be taking teachers and students. It will shift from content only to disciplinary thinking and it's focus will be on the Social Studies Inquiry Model. The Ontario Elementary Social Studies Teachers' Association (OESSTA) will involved in activities and events that will support teachers with implementation.
Please find attached the OESSTA newsletter for more information about Social Studies/Geography/History in Ontario.
Visits by classroom teachers and administrators from our board has ended and we loved having everyone in the room working and engaging with the kids. Our students did a remarkable job explaining how the inquiry-based teaching methods have affected them this year. We heard echoed back to us the very goals we hoped to accomplish. The kids love the group work, being able to select from a variety of topics, exploring concepts in detail, using technology, and developing problem-solving strategies. We know we are on the right track.
One particularly rewarding element was a simple technique I've been using for years called 'responding to text'. The 'text' is anything the students are currently working on. It can be in any form: print, website, podcast, video, or live performance. What's really magical is how they learn to discuss the topics at hand in a mature, fun, and respectful way. Here's how it works (it's very simple):
Following a lesson or experience, four to five students stand in a casual line in front of the class.
One member is chosen to provide an introduction in which the main idea or focus is summarized in an exciting way.
Each member is expected to follow a simple set of rules. First, only one voice is ever speaking at a time. If someone is explaining something and begins to 'run out of steam', it's the responsibility of the other members to fill in any awkward pauses with fresh material. In this way, the students learn to work collaboratively and to care for each other.
Lastly, a different member is expected to conclude with something for the listeners to think about or a good wrap up statement which summarizes the main ideas put forth. This is followed by a quick thank-you.
Try it with your class. You'll be amazed at how effective it is and how easy it is to gauge your students understanding. Great for assessment, too!
The best PD is embedded in the classroom, not on a stage. The excitement of professional teachers engaging with each other is profound when it occurs in the real world. People need to see models to feel comfortable with new practices. To this end, it was so great to hear fellow teachers say they loved visiting our classroom and having the time to study inquiry-based methods IN THE REAL WORLD!
Louise and I have been very busy in the past few weeks as we roll out the demonstration classroom, thanks to our TLLP project. Teachers from around our board were invited to come spend the morning with us and experience our class in action. Our project budget allowed for supply teachers to free up our guests and it was therefore a relaxed and fun morning of joining the kids and later talking about the experience. Our colleagues arrived in groups of two to four over a number of days and the format was simple: Introduction to Inquiry-based learning, join the students in the classroom in action and ask questions of the kids while circulating, return to have a small group discussion, a presentation of work from the students, followed by a question and answer period (with the students), and finally an open-ended exchange of ideas.
I was very impressed with the level of enthusiasm the guest teachers exhibited. It was exciting to see the students engage so maturely with the adults as they shared their honest feelings about the inquiry process. Because we are so completely sold on this learning method, it was not difficult to talk about our successes and challenges. Alleviating the concerns about inquiry-based teaching was helped along by all of the good work the students presented and the caring concern they showed each other. After that, it was more a matter of helping the teachers see how they could implement the techniques in their classroom rather than convincing them it was a solid system.
Many teachers are hesitant to adopt a new format without seeing it in action. It was suggested that we 'take the show on the road' and offer to visit fellow teachers at their schools and help them get started. We are pursuing this goal with our board administrators for next year.
Teachers found it fascinating to see how well the students effectively used technology. Whether it was the comfort level of the students using modern tools or the creativity of the presentations that resulted, the feeling amongst the guests was that a skillful use of modern learning tools created a basis for dynamic learning. I felt it important to point out that any inquiry-based classroom is surely to benefit from good use of tech but that it wasn't a requirement. Asking great questions and working in a group do not rely on technical aids. What does help is the creative use of visually rich presentations. This can occur with or without tech.