being a student, being a teacher, questions, Reading, student choice, student driven, Student Engagement

Stepping Into Inquiry – How to Write an Inquiry Question

Last year, after we finished our first read aloud, we released our kids into their first inquiry project. While we had scaffolds in place, there was plenty of choice, and also specific lessons targeting research skills, my special ed teacher, Kelly, and I still stood back and felt like what we were doing was simply not enough. Or perhaps that it was too much. That somehow we were simply pushing kids through research and yet there were so many executive functioning skills and also simple research skills that we were assuming kids already had a handle of. And yet, they didn’t not all of the kids, despite the wonderful teaching that had happened before 7th grade. We saw it fall apart a bit when kids were really worried about the end product but not focused on what they were learning throughout the unit and they weren’t fully grasping the research skill lessons we were teaching because there was this larger pressure to produce a speech answering their inquiry question.

So this year, we knew we had to do something different. Rather than have students do a full inquiry project into a topic tied in with The Bridge Home, our read aloud, we wanted to create an inquiry project into the art of research itself, not worrying about a final product but instead walk students through specific research skills in separate modules. Sounds great, right? Yet what we quickly were reminded of was that the art of research itself is vast, which we knew, so we had decisions to make; which 7 or 8 research skills did we really want to focus on as a baseline for the kids as we introduced 7th grade inquiry skills.

Knowing that this was a great chance to cross-collaborate between other subject areas , we did just that; surveyed other teachers to see what they thought was important to establish a baseline in, as well as brought it up as a problem of practice in our consultancies with colleagues. The results were clear, we would love 7th graders to be able to have an initial understanding of:

  • How to write an inquiry question
  • How to take notes using the Cornell Method of notetaking
  • How to cite their sources using Easybib – MLA
  • How to avoid plagiarism and understanding what plagiarism was
  • How to use Google Search better
  • How to use our databases
  • How to potentially revise their inquiry question
  • How to use the C.R.A.A.P method to check for reliability
  • How to check for bias in their sources
  • How to find the main idea and supporting details
  • How to synthesize their information into original thought – a primer
  • How to evaluate whose voices are missing and how do those missing voices impact the validity of the research

But that’s a lot so how do we do all that without losing kids in the process? Enter in discussion with my new wonderful colleague, Chris, my fabulous literacy coach, Andrea, and also our incredible librarian, Christine. With the help of them I was able to synthesize some of the thoughts we had about what kids would be able to do as, well as look at which standards this would even cover because we would also need to find a way to assess what kids were doing. After looking at all 9 standards for the year, we pulled the following standards out:

  • Standard 2:  Draw and cite evidence from texts to support written analysis.
  • Standard 3: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.
  • Standard 5: Evaluate claims in a text; assess and express the soundness and relevance of reasoning.

Knowing this led us to creating 8 different modules for students to work on throughout the month of November. We knew we wanted choice throughout and also for students to feel supported and not feel ashamed if they wanted to work in a small group with the teacher and instead embrace the knowledge that they knew what they needed at that time to be successful.

So the final modules with their standards assessed became:

  • Module 1: How to formulate an inquiry question – Standard 3 
  • Module 2: What is Plagiarism and How to Do Citations – Standard 3 
  • Module 3: How to use Google Search better – Standard 3 and 2
  • Module 4: How to use our databases (taught by our librarian) – Standard 2 and 3
  • Module 5: How to assess the credibility of a source – CRAAP method ALSO Do you need to revise your inquiry question  Reg – Standard 5, Enriched Standard 2
  • Module 6: How to recognize bias – Standard 2 and 5 
  • Module 7: How to pull out a main idea and supporting details that tie in with your inquiry question – Standard 3
  • Module 8: How to synthesize information without plagiarizing – Standard 3

We launched the inquiry unit while still immersed in our read aloud, The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman. While we did a lot of reading work, we also kept an I wonder page that we would visit now and again. We wrote down large questions we had about society as it tied in with the story we were listening to and moved away from predictions.

Sample wonderings included:

  • What do parents do when their children run away?
  • How does being homeless affect your mental health?
  • Who started the idea of landfills?
  • How can we reduce our waste as a family?
  • Which types of diseases affects children living on the streets of India?

Then it was time to launch our very first unit and what better way than to use a picture book?

Bringing us together with our readers’ notebooks we laughed at the whimsy within the pages and then I asked; what do you wonder about within the pages of our read aloud? As students shared, I encouraged others to write down the questions they also had as potential inquiry questions. I love when students nodded and agreed that they had questions about something similar. This also afforded me an opportunity to reiterate that their inquiry question should somehow be connected to the read aloud but should not be answered by the book, but that they instead needed to do research in order to come up with their own answer. We also stressed the importance of this being of interest to them, and while we had potential inquiry questions ready for those who refused or found it hard, we have found we haven’t needed them. This discussion then planted the seed for how to come up with a proper inquiry question.

Our next component of the day was taking notes on a video using a modified version of the Cornell notetaking method. We wanted to introduce kids to a way of taking notes that they can easily use in other classes and also encourage them to make them their own. Rather than do a stand alone lesson, my colleague, Chris, suggested having students take notes throughout as an integrated part of the units which is what we did. This has worked really well and much better than if I had done a separate unit on just note-taking. I explained how to set up their notebook and we watched the first video, How to Develop an Inquiry Question, uploaded to Youtube by Kansas State Libraries. The video was a good introduction to why developing a strong inquiry question was important before kids went any further with their work. We took some notes throughout as I paused the video and then introduced the final component; the reflection questions.

One of the things we discussed in our planning was that a major reason for this unit was for students to understand the transfer of these skills to other subject areas, and also to life outside of school. However, this doesn’t always happen without the proper time and reflection. Therefore, our students have four questions to answer every time they finish a module. They are collected in a packet that I hold on to for ease:

  • What do you think you will remember learning from this module?
  • How is this skill useful to you in life?
  • How is this skill you useful to you in school?
  • How could you use what you have learned in this module in geography/STEAM/or science when you have to do a research project?

After this, we released students into their student module 1 – note this was over the course of two days with 90 minute blocks of English and each student was given a copy of the slides to fill in. The student module 1 allowed them to watch another video that discussed the levels of inquiry questions, look at examples of inquiry questions, and then write different levels of inquiry questions. At the end, I asked them to please come up with a potential level 3 inquiry question that they would be interested in pursuing the next few weeks and then submit it to me. And then I held my breath, how would it go?

Reflection back:

After my first ELA block, I tweaked the student slides to make them easier for them to use and took out some unnecessary steps. There was general confusion between level 2 and 3, which I had suspected would happen and so we discussed as needed and I stressed that as long as they were out of “level 1” territory then I was happy. Some kids created much too broad or much too narrow questions and so I left them feedback or had conversations as needed, however, this is also something that will be assessed more in module 5.

One major thing we are still working on is overall time management, some kids are using all of their time well and thus working through everything with time to spare while others are not. Starting tomorrow, I will be asking students to join me in the small group to do the slides together in order for them to stay on track and not fall further behind.

I also tweaked my teaching slides, in order to get to their work time faster and not have so much talking from me.

Teaching Slides Day 1

Teaching Slides Day 2

The next module is Module 2 – What is Plagiarism and How to Do Citations – a one day module, hopefully.

I will continue to share as I work through all of this, the sharing helps me reflect on what I am missing and at times others share great resources as well, so feel free to ask questions or share resources.

If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.. If you like what you read here, consider reading my latest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students

7 thoughts on “Stepping Into Inquiry – How to Write an Inquiry Question”

  1. Seems awesome! I’m sure your teacher librarian is ecstatic that you’re doing this unit (along with the other 7th grade teachers). Even our high school students could use a unit on this!

  2. I very much want to do this with my 3rd graders and their informational writing unit.

    I will need to scale and focus for them, but I don’t really want to make it so narrow that I take all of the choice away.

    I appreciate your thinking!! We won’t start this until January so I will be able to shadow your process.

    Thank you so much for sharing your thinking.

    Julie Dwyer
    Latham Ridge Elementary School
    Third Grade

    From: Pernille Ripp
    Reply-To: Pernille Ripp
    Date: Monday, November 11, 2019 at 7:23 PM
    To: jdwyer
    Subject: [New post] Stepping Into Inquiry – How to Write an Inquiry Question

    Caution: This email originated from outside North Colonie CSD. Do not open attachments or click on links from unknown senders.
    Pernille Ripp posted: ” Last year, after we finished our first read aloud, we released our kids into their first inquiry project. While we had scaffolds in place, there was plenty of choice, and also specific lessons targeting research skills, my special ed teacher, Kelly, and”

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