Be the change, being a student, being a teacher, new year, PD, student choice, Student Engagement, student voice

Final Free PD Masterclass: Getting Ready for Going Back – How Do We Learn Best?

This summer has been one of worry. Of anxiousness. Of too much time spent thinking about possibilities that seemed to shift every day. Of waiting for answers. Of too many times trying to not think about the fall. But the countdown to go back to school has started for many of us, the future, while still uncertain, has at least been hinted at, and I still have so many questions.

A few weeks ago we were told we would be fully virtual for the first quarter and with that information I knew that I could stay overwhelmed and anxious or I could move into solution mode. To take it day by day, rather than try to figure out my whole quarter; focus on the first week, and then have an idea for what might come after. It has helped calm me as I think of all of the unknowns. (Not that I am feeling calm by any means).

And so, as I move ideas into action, it is time to invite you into the thoughts and discussion in my final masterclass of the summer: Masterclass – How Do We Learn Best – Embedding Authentic Choice and Voice. While some of the underlying research and ideas will not have changed from May when I offered it last, I have updated it with ideas of how I plan on establishing conditions to build community, to determine how we can feel safe with one another, how I will embed choice and space for students to speak up and change our time together as we start fully online. This class dives into why it is vital that we center the voices and identities of students as we plan on our instruction and interrogate the systems we have in place. It is meant to inspire, spark discussions, and also offer practical ideas. The accompanying office hours will allow you to ask follow up questions, to share your ideas, and also to have a collective of experts help you with your problems of practice.

So join me for this free PD session offered through CUE and sponsored by Microsoft, just hit the “Join this Session” at the time listed and it will allow you access. Spread the word if you think this masterclass will be helpful to others. This will also be the final free PD I offer for a while as the school year looms large and I have to balance the virtual schooling of my own four kids with the needs of my 80+ students while also trying to keep my sanity.

The class sessions will be:

  • August 13th 7 PM PST/9 PM CST
  • August 20th 7 PM PST/9 PM CST
  • August 27th 7 PM PST/9 PM CST

The office hour sessions will be:

  • August 15th 8 AM PST/10 AM CST
  • August 16th 8 AM PST/10 AM CST
  • August 23rd 8 AM PST/10 AM CST
  • August 30th 8 AM PST/10 AM CST

Don’t forget to check out the other incredible free PD sessions as well that are still being offering during the month of August.

Also, if your district or conference are interested in bringing me in virtually throughout the school year, please see information here. I have been supporting teachers remotely and in-person as they plan for meaningful literacy instruction in an in-person, virtual or hybrid model throughout the years and would love to help others as well.

being a student, Literacy, new year, Reading, Reading Identity, student choice, Student dreams, student driven, Student-Led, tools

A Work in Progress: Digital Notebooks for Reading Identity Development

Just the front cover, to see the whole notebook, press this link

While my district gathers information as we try to determine what the fall can look like my wheels have been spinning. While I may not know whether I will be in a hybrid setting or completely virtual, I know that it will not be school as usual and so a huge question I am wrestling with is how do I translate what we do as a community face-to-face into this new mode of teaching? How do I continue to center our classroom on reading and writing identity when we won’t have the same opportunity for daily discussion and community exploration? When I won’t be right there to kid-watch and adjust my instruction and care of them accordingly?

Every year our readers’ notebooks become a trusted place for many of our students to reflect on who they are as readers, how reading impacts them, and how reading fits into their lives. It is all-year work that ties in with the overall focus on identity, how they see the world, how the world sees them, and how our lens of the world impacts our action. It is at the heart of what we do and yet, this year, I don’t know when I will be with them to do this work. How do we still do meaningful work in our notebooks without kids having to upload every image into our learning hub, how do we center our work in our identity and see how we grow throughout the year?

Enter digital notebooks which really are just fancy templates to make slide shows look like notebooks as my husband pointed out. And yet within the fancy template also comes a familiarity. These templates look like the notebooks we would use with kids, they can be organized in ways that will hopefully make it easier for kids to navigate the work and will ground our work for the year whether we are face-to-face or online.

And so last night, I created a digital notebook for our reading identity work based on a template created by Laura Cahill and while it is a work in progress I wanted to share it here as I know a lot of people are trying to wrap their heads around this work as well. As I write this, my former students are assessing it to give me feedback, I have also asked for feedback from other educators. I know it could be better, I know that collaboration will always improve my teaching.

In this work, I also know that I need to be careful with my students’ reading lives. That year after year they tell me how much they hate to write about their reading, how when we attach to-do’s to their reading it becomes a chore rather than a journey. That when we are constantly asking kids to prove that they are reading they start to not read. This is not anything new, I have written and shared the words of my students for years and it grounds me in every decision I make as the teacher who starts our journey and guides it throughout our year.

With this in mind, I had components in my instruction that I wanted to address as I created this tool.

How will I support kids through this tool? Each component is a separate lesson that we place the foundation for in the beginning of our year together and then return to throughout the year. I have written about all of them on this blog throughout the years as well as gathered all of my thoughts in my book Passionate Readers. So when I ask students to use their to-be-read list or reflect on who they are as a reader, they are not going into this unsupported, instead we weave lessons throughout these conversations such as about our reading journey, which emotions tied in with reading we carry, and many other things. It is also so much bigger than this notebook, this is work embedded in the conversations we have, the media we surround ourselves with, the quiet reflections, the surveys, the connections, the trust, the community, and everything else that we do with the realizations and questions we have. Please do not think that this notebook is all we do or encapsulates all of the work that happens throughout our year, it can’t be and it won’t be.

How will I know whether they are actually reading? I won’t. That comes down to trust, where they are on their journey, as well as which role reading plays in their life. There is no single tool that is worth me implementing for all kids that may not cause more long-term damage to their reading identity. When we are face-to-face, I usually have kids sign in for attendance with their page number that day, this allows me to get a quick glance at their reading that then is deepened in our reading conferences, that is not a fully viable option this year. So instead, the “Accountability” tab offers them an option to choose a way to show me when they have finished a book, and the “Reading data” tab gives them a way to keep track of what they are reading. I will be stressing to kids that their reading data is not meant to capture every minute or page read like a traditional reading log would, but instead to let them give a broad statement about their reading life the previous week. It is the two sections in particular I am still not loving, that will probably change as the year gets going and that I will be keeping a deep eye on as far as potential harm to reading habits. I also know that some kids will not want to use this reading notebook at all, that they would rather refuse than engage, so then that will simply be where we start our conversation. I will be utilizing reading check-in conferences as well, I am just not sure what they will look like yet since I don’t know my school year will look like. I will share my ideas for that when I have them.

How can we get ideas for what to read? Book shopping and surrounding kids with books is a cornerstone of what we do and kids need more than audio and digital books to really continue their reading journey. I have already written about ideas of how to help kids get books in their hands if in a hybrid or virtual learning environment and I will be sharing more ideas as I plan with our incredible librarian and other colleagues for when we know more. I know I will be doing live book talks whenever possible, but also dedicating time in our instruction for kids to book browse virtually, as well as continue to suggest books whenever I can to individual kids. Another idea that I am loving is that when students pick up or drop off books, we add extra books to the bag that they may also like, so that instead of just one or two books, kids get a bag of five or so.

How can students set reading goals that matter to them? For too long, I set the reading goals for my students. Luckily, I saw the light several years ago and I haven’t looked back since. Having students set meaningful reading goals, though, takes time. Many kids, even kids who have fantastic relationships to reading, want to hurry through the goal part and set it just so their teacher will check it off on their to-do-list. This is why setting a 6-week goal at a time and following it up with conversation will be so important in our year together. This is why our goal is not just focused on quantity but habits. Yes, they should read more than they have in the past if they can, but “more” encompasses many different things not just quantity. Kids can use the same goal for more than one round of 6-weeks as needed, some of my students work on the same goal all year. I just want to ensure that we have built in reflection time for the goals and will add dates when I know what my school year calendar looks like.

How will they develop their thinking about who they are as a reader? “Who are you as a reader?” is a question we have used for a few years now in our work with students. At first, many of my students have no idea what to answer, they don’t know necessarily what the question means or are not sure what I am looking for in their answer. That is why this is a year-long reflection question and one that we unpack together, especially because reading identity really just equals identity and so when I ask who are you as a reader what I am really asking is who are you? Since trust is something we build, I see a significant change in students’ responses throughout our year together.

While this is not a finished tool, it won’t be finished until we start using it because my new students will surely impact the work we do and how we do it. For now, this is my best draft and so I share it with the world in the sense of collaboration. That also means that you can certainly make a copy of it and use it, but please do not sell it or forget attribution. This is the work that I along with others have developed over several years. I am grateful that Laura Cahill shared the template for free, so this work is shared, as always, in the same spirit. Feel free to leave questions or comments for me.

To see the full reading identity notebook, click this link.

Also, if your district or conference are interested in bringing me in virtually throughout the school year, please see information here. I have been supporting teachers remotely as they plan for meaningful literacy instruction in a virtual and hybrid model throughout the summer and would love to help others as well.

being a student, being a teacher, being me, hopes, Passionate Readers, Reading, Reading Identity, student choice, Student Engagement, teaching, Writing Identity

Creating Passionate Writers – Next Masterclass Kicks Off Tomorrow

Moving to America at the age of 18, gave me a whole new education. An education in privilege, in control, in power, and how to know your place. To pursue your dreams but only if others see you as worthy of that dream.

Becoming a teacher in the American public school system has been one of my greatest joys but also one of my biggest frustrations, my biggest moments of failure, of regret. The power handed those of us with teaching degrees is immeasurable; I can continue the systemic inequities of the structures we work within, or I can learn, listen, question, dismantle, disturb, and create an education that is truly for all kids. I didn’t know that when I started as an educator, my own privilege awarded me blinders and ear muffs. But 10 years ago I started to wake up, a little at a time, although not fast enough, and I recognized that how I used control as a way to ascertain my power in the classroom meant that not all kids could thrive, that not all kids were cared for. That my classroom might have said “Welcome” but those were shallow words. And it was echoed in the curriculum we did and how I helped students grow, how I used choice, how I used rewards and punishment.

And so I started to change the way I taught, the way I thought of education, of my own power within the classroom. I immersed myself in the expertise and wisdom of others who have been on this journey so much longer than I have, I started to ask my students questions I should have been asking from the start and I started writing this blog; sharing my thoughts out loud, inviting others on the journey as I stumbled through and tried to create an education that might work for all kids. A shared experience that would center on the identity of each child rather than the curriculum. It is the work I continue to do and will for a long time. I continue to stumble through on this journey, I continue to share on here, I continue to learn and grow from others while offering my own journey up and now I have been invited by CUE and Microsoft to share through their channels as well as a way to invite you into the journey.

And so I invite you into a conversation surrounding the writing we do in our classrooms with students and how we can use storytelling not just as a way to teach standards but to help students examine and find power within their own identity and story. To come along with me as I share the questions we discuss in our community, the writing we do, and also the resources I have learned from so perhaps you can learn from them as well. So if you have space in your life or a desire to go on this journey with me, please go here to register

The Masterclass will be three parts much like the other masterclass I have done this summer, you can join live or access the recording when it is posted here. I will also be finishing up Embedding Authentic Choice and Voice. part 3 this week, on Thursday at 11 AM PST.

Posting this today, I also know that not everyone is in a place for PD or perhaps that this is not the type of PD you want to immerse yourself in, this is okay. The world is rightfully continuing to need our attention and perhaps you are putting in your energy elsewhere or fully taking a break. I know I have been taking many breaks the last few weeks as I plan for actions in the fall and right now, but for those of you who want to learn with and from me, please know that there will be several offerings all the way through summer.

Live office hours will start up next week – my first drop in one is on the 22nd at 8 AM PST. This is a great opportunity for you to bring problems of practice and we can brainstorm together for an hour or so. If you participate in the Global Read Aloud, you can also use the office hours to brainstorm with me or just ask questions.

All of these sessions are free and the sessions are recorded (office hours are not) so even if you can’t or don’t want to be there live, you can access them later.

The schedule for the rest of the summer’s free PD from me looks like so:

Sessions:

  • 6/17 7 AM PST – Masterclass: Passionate Writers Pt1
  • 6/18 10:30 AM PST – Choice and Voice Pt 3
  • 6/24 7 AM PST – Masterclass: Passionate Writers Pt 2
  • 7/1 7AM PST – Masterclass: Passionate Writers Pt 3
  • 7/8 11 AM PST – Passionate Readers – stand-alone session
  • 7/15 11 AM PST – Masterclass: But They Still Hate Reading – Supporting and Developing Student Reading Identity Pt 1
  • 7/22 11 AM PST – Masterclass: But They Still Hate Reading – Supporting and Developing Student Reading Identity Pt 2
  • 7/29 11 AM PST – Masterclass: But They Still Hate Reading – Supporting and Developing Student Reading Identity Pt 3
  • 8/6 7 PM PST – Passionate Learners – stand alone session
  • 8/13 7 PM PST – Repeat Masterclass: Embedding Authentic Choice and Voice as we get ready for a new year Pt 1
  • 8/20 7 PM PST – Repeat Masterclass: Embedding Authentic Choice and Voice as we get ready for a new year Pt 2
  • 8/27 7 PM PST – Repeat Masterclass: Embedding Authentic Choice and Voice as we get ready for a new year Pt 3


Office hours:

  • 6/22 – 8 AM PST
  • 6/28 – 8 AM PST
  • 7/2 – 7 PM PST
  • 7/5 – 8 AM PST
  • 7/12 – 8 AM PST
  • 7/19 – 8 AM PST
  • 7/26 – 8 AM PST
  • 7/29 – 7 PM PST
  • 8/7 – 8 AM PST
  • 8/15 – 8 AM PST
  • 8/16 – 8 AM PST
  • 8/23 – 8 AM PST

I hope I can be of service through these sessions. I hope to see some of you there.

If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page. I offer up workshops and presentations both live and virtually that are based on the work I do with my own students as we pursue engaging, personalized, and independent learning opportunities. I also write more about the design of my classroom and how to give control of their learning back to students in my first book, Passionate Learners.

authentic learning, being a student, being a teacher, being me, Personalized Learning

Re-thinking Our Learning to Infuse More Joy and Choice

One of many things I love when on break is the chance to simply reconnect with amazing people, and when said amazing people are fellow educators, you can bet that it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to how to make the educational experience better for all kids.

After dinner, I was left thinking about how often we get so caught up in all that we need to do that so many of those grand ideas, the ideals we dreamt up this summer or whenever we have room to be inspired seem to be forgotten as the year starts and the pressure resumes. That while we implement many things, tweak many others, there are many notions and ideas that simply don’t happen. And who can blame us? There are so many days that I am just keeping my head afloat trying to stay a few steps ahead of the students in order to create and sustain relevant educational experiences.

Last night, the conversation turned to joy and play. How little there seems to be purposefully implemented throughout especially older students’ daily routines in school. How the minute they come to us in the upper years there are few opportunities for infusing joy and allowing more creative approaches to learning. And while both of those concepts are foundations of learning I hold dear, I also look back at my own curricular choices for the year and see how easily those two tenets of learning get siphoned away as I feel the need to do more, dig deeper, and make sure that the learning is “serious.” However, the siphoning itself relies on a untruth – joy and creative choice does not equate easier learning and is serious business, in fact, often purposefully creating moments for joy and creative choice requires a broader commitment and self-reliance within the learning happening. So with this in mind, I have done some restructuring of a few upcoming units and also rededicated efforts in other places, so what might that look like coming up in room 203?

The main questions I focused on in my reflection is: how might this spark joy and engagement and how do students have creative choice?

Re-committing to picture books. I usually read a lot of picture books aloud to my 7th graders and also use them in a variety of ways throughout our curriculum and yet, this year, I feel like with the busyness of it all, picture books have been less of a central tenet to us. It’s time to change that. In a little more than a week we kick off our Mock Caldecott unit for the year, a two week investigation into twelve incredible picture books for the year that will lead into a persuasive speech in which students will try to sway others to their choice of winner of the Caldecott. Reading picture books together is something that we already see as joyful and doing it in small groups will hopefully bolster that. Creative choice comes in how students want to persuade their peers – how will they deliver a message that is persuasive in nature and which tools will they use?

Bringing back our immersion project. Two years ago, I did an extended genius hour project in which students got to pick something to learn for themselves in order to teach others about it through a mini-lesson. This consisted of identifying an area to immerse themselves in and then spending time figuring out how to create an enticing lesson for others to learn from them. The topics were broad: How to do a card trick properly, what integration methods are necessary to integrate any function and how are they used, how do you play guitar and so on? These were all catered to student interests and were very broad on purpose. We then infused note-taking skills, how to find sources to teach them how to do the skills, and how to engage an audience in order to help them understand a concept, as well as created a speech rubric in order to practice public speaking. This year, I will finetune it with a few more scaffolds for those who are not sure what they would like to teach, as well as opportunities to tandem-research. This project sparked a lot of joy the first time we did it because students got to self-select their learning, immerse themselves into something they found relevant, as well as show off their knowledge in a fun way. There was a lot of natural choice embedded throughout.

Re-thinking our TED talk unit. Every year, the students get an opportunity to create a TED talk on a chosen topic and then give it to the class, and while the unit itself is solid, I want to spend more time helping students choose topics that they are invested in already. This year many of our students have expressed a deep interest and commitment to social justice work, as well as the overlooked history we have explored. This will, therefore, be my starting point in reminding students of what they already know and which questions they may have to push their thinking further. So often we push students into new learning without realizing how much work it is to research and then synthesize and process all of the information into a brilliant short speech. With the re-introduction of our immersion project, I want to implement more time for students to dive into their identity and what they are already interested in so that their TED talk work can be more focused on filling in knowledge gaps, rather than starting all over with research. This will also be an opportunity to jump into persuasion, how advertisement plays on our biases, and how we are influenced by social media. Choice plays into topic, as well as the angle they want to take in their talk.

Asking for more student input and taking the proper time for it. In the Enriched English class I teach, we have 6 vocabulary lessons consisting of 25 vocabulary words each that we need to somehow process, understand, and implement into our vocabulary. While I have gamified it in the past and also allowed for choice in how students show mastery, I have never really loved what we did. The words seem like a chore no matter how I spin it This year, I plan on showing students the vocabulary and then having them come up with opportunities for how we can learn it together. While there will undoubtedly be traditional methods for students to choose from such as rote memorization with a quiz, I also want to give them the opportunity to come up with other methods for learning that they will be able to choose from as we move into the vocabulary. While I already try to get as much student input as possible, I feel it often gets rushed, so this is a reminder for me to slow down and let it take the time it takes, and this goes for all classes, not just the Enriched English class.

Re-committing to free writing. We have been dabbling with free-writing throughout the year but due to book clubs in December, we changed our process. While students continued to write on their own, the community piece was lacking and so as we enter into January, I want to bring back the prompts and self-selected choice and the time to then share the creations we have. I also want to bring back the notion of playing with writing that so often gets lost as we write. Students so often fear that they have to write great pieces every single time which is an incredibly damaging notion for anyone trying to work through the emotions of writing and so I want to model my own not-so-great writing that tends to happen when we do a free-write. Students don’t need perfect role models, they need real ones.

Skyping with authors. Talking with actual authors is magical at any age and the advent of World Read Aloud Day reminded me to sign up to bring authors into our classrooms more. This is something I used to do a lot but once again seem to have gotten away from. I cannot wait for students to hear from Kevin Sylvester, Juana Martinez-Neal and Ishta Mercurio as they discuss their writing process.

Participating in Global School Play Day again. I love this initiative created by Scott and Tim Bedley with the idea to infuse more play into schools again. I have done this day before with 7th graders and while I am not able to do it the day it is scheduled for this year, I will do it instead on February 7th where students will get all of English to simply play with each other. You should sign up as well.

While this is not an exhaustive list, I am glad to be bringing this lens back to our work together this year to hopefully create experiences where it is not just students learning from me, but more from each other. Where there is more cooperative problem solving, more relevance, and more choice. Where maybe, just maybe, students can think of English class as a class that is meaningful to them beyond developing a love of reading and writing and helping them find themselves. Who knows, but I will keep trying.

I posted the following question on Twitter last night and the responses are definitely worth checking out – so many great ideas for infusing more play and creativity into our work.

And now I ask you as well; how will you restructure or continue to reinforce the notion of play and creative choice in your class these upcoming months?

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

being a student, being a teacher, Reading, student choice, student driven

Stepping Into Inquiry – How to Use Google Search Better and Whose Voices are Missing?

Note: This is a continuation of the blog series I am doing detailing the work I am doing with students in an inquiry project into how to research better. The first post detailing the set-up and our first module, How to Write an Inquiry Question, can be found here.

Module 3 was a big one for us, spread over two days, not so much for the tips on how to use Google Search better although they were helpful, but more because we wanted our students to think about the types of sources they were finding, as well as whose voice was missing from their sources, so they could consider the impact of those missing voices.

This question; whose voices are missing, is a question we center our work around all year. Throughout the year, I have been actively trying to expand students’ historical knowledge of the world using an “overlooked history” segment every Friday for discussion and reflection, as well as spending a lot of time selecting the media that our students will be immersed in, in order for them to experience as many voices as we can. So we knew that searching for reliable sources to use would be a brilliant opportunity to put this more into their hands as our students don’t automatically consider whose voices they are using an dhow that will impact the knowledge they gain and the direction they take.

There are so many tips for how to use Google Search better, many can be Googled, so we wanted to introduce just a few that would potentially limit their results and bring them more specific results. We watched a video together that discussed some of the limiters, I didn’t love it and will probably search for a better video for next year. The students continued to practice their note-taking skills along with the video and then I walked them through a search so they could see how my results changed.

The limiters we decided to focus on were:

  • Using quotation marks for an exact phrase
  • Using boolean operators.
  • Eliminating unnecessary words.
  • Excluding words.
  • Including year range.
  • and using specific sites to limit their search – this one we just showed but didn’t expect them to use.

Teaching slides day 1

Then they started their work in their student slides (note, there are duplicate slides in here because I was out with sick kids and so they worked through slides I would have taught otherwise). We wanted them to specifically consider:

  • What they actually were searching for, so to clarify their inquiry question.
  • Which types of sources they would search for, we reminded them that video, infographics, and podcasts can also make for excellent resources.
  • We discussed the difference between primary and secondary sources in order for them to think of whose voices they should be listening to.
  • Then led a specific conversation about whose voices they would search for urging them to think of how someone’s perspective is going to change based on many factors such as their economic situation.

Once they had found the sources they wanted to use, they needed to consider whose voices were being represented so they could think of whose voices were missing. You could see a lot of aha moments here as students considered their sources and how they were incomplete. Then they had to consider whose voices they needed to add as well as the the impact those missing voices would have on their research. Honestly, this is the largest point I wanted students to walk away; getting to think about whose voice holds power and who is not represented. My teaching slides for day two had introduced this concept more fully and many students were spot on in theirintial analysis of whose voices were missing and why they needed to find better sources.

For my 2nd day of teaching, I had specific discussion points about changing perspective and why it is so vital we recognize our limitations of what we know and then try to learn more. This was a great discussion supported by the teaching slides and set them up for further work within their own slides.

Day 2 Teaching Slides

Reflection Back

I am still pondering what I need to change as there were many things I liked and some I didn’t. Like I said, I need to find a better video for them to take notes on. We also had our small groups work together on one inquiry question and find sources together for that question, but I don’t love how that limits their choice when it comes to what they are pursuing. Some of the limiters were not particularly helpful and actually increased their results rather than decreased them. But the conversation about perspective, missing voices, and the impact it will have on our knowledge were powerful and will be continued throughout the year because the few days of work we did around it here is simply not enough. It was a taste and something I am still actively working through as an adult.

The one area I want to work on through discussion is why we should be worried about whose voices are given authority and how power is given to certain voices and not others. While I touched on it, it was not enough (I am not sure what “enough” would look like), so I am mulling over how this can be added further.

Note: The unit after this was a lesson on how to use databases led by our librarian so I will not be sharing those slides as they are not mine to share.

After that came another big one: How to check reliability using the CRAAP method.

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

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