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

being a student, being a teacher, being me, questions, student choice, Student dreams, student driven, student voice, Student-centered

A Most Important Question my students to reflect, to give feedback, to set goals and try to peek into their minds has been a mission of mine for the last many years.  The questions I ask change, but the purpose does not; to create a better educational experience for them.  To create a classroom they actually want to be a part of.  To find out how I can change so that I can be a better teacher.

For all of the questions I have asked, and it has been a lot so far,  there is one that stands out.  One that has given me the most significant answers.  One that has led me to question myself and what I focus on in the classroom, day after day, student upon student.

And it is one of the simplest ones indeed.

What do you wish I would notice?


Tucked at the end of the survey, when they are already thinking, when they have already shared.

Some write nothing, some say I am noticing what I need to.  But then there are the others, those whose answers always stop me, change me, and sometimes even keep me up at night.

I wish Mrs. Ripp would notice how hard I am trying.

I wish she would notice that I am funny.

I wish she would notice how tired I a.

How I need help.

How I don’t know what to say.

How shy I am.

And I am grateful for their answers, for their faith in me to now begin to notice so that I can be better.  So that we can be better.  So that school can be about them again, just the way it was meant to be.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

being a student, being a teacher, Literacy, questions, Reading, Student Engagement, students choice

How Do We Best Do Literacy Interventions?

Literacy intervention has been weighing heavily on my mind this year as I vow to do a better job for all of my students.  I think most of us would agree that we are willing to move heaven and earth to help students become successful, yet there are times where it seems like every great idea we have is simply not enough.

And I keep wondering; what do we first focus on; engagement or strategies?  I know I always tend to lean toward student engagement first and finding a way to combine it with strategies, but I still wonder is it okay to use a program that may teach students incredible strategies to bolster their reading skills, thus making reading more accessible, even though we hear students dislike the program?  Do we focus first on re-connecting students with a like or love of reading and writing and then worry about the strategies?  I know that ideally the programs that we use would be a combination of both, but is that even possible?  Are there intervention programs out there that students actually like?  Or is it on a case by case basis?

As you can see, I have more questions than answers.  I have thoughts, sure, and I know where I tend to fall; student engagement above all, but what if this isn’t enough?  What if a child will never be fully engaged until they have mastered better reading strategies that can only be taught through repetitive means?

Therefore I wonder; what would the ideal literacy intervention program look like?  I have seen many variations, some amazing, some not so much.  I have seen an incredible combination of ideas that have worked incredibly for some students, and not so much for others.  And while I doubt that there is one right answer, there has to be an overall approach that gives us a better result for many students.  I am hoping with this post that you will share your ideas.  Lend your thoughts.

Where do we start?  Do we worry about students loving reading or writing or do we worry more about giving them the tools to master the skills needed?  Is there a right way to bolster students?

If you are looking for a great book club to join to re-energize you in January, consider the Passionate Learners book club on Facebook.  We kick off January 10th.  

aha moment, being a teacher, being me, Literacy, questions, Reading, student choice

The Questions to Ask When The Kids Aren’t Reading (1).jpg

I met my first book abandoner my very first year of teaching.  Yet, he was not your average run of the mill book abandoner.  No, he was the “look you straight in the eye and ask you what you are going to do about it” kind of abandoner.  So I did what I knew best; forced him to read the book and not allow him to abandon it.  And he did what he knew best; fake read for a good amount of time, skimmed a few pages, and failed the book report as well as the presentation.  Repeat with every book.  I don’t think he ever read anything beside Diary of A Wimpy Kid that year, and that was even under the radar.

Everyone has these types of readers.  The ones that abandon because they hate to read.  The ones that abandon because they cannot find a great book.  The ones that abandon because they get bored.  Some years we have a lot, others not so many.  So how can we heal break the abandonment cycle?  How can we help these kids help themselves?  Well, there are a few questions we can ask.

Do they have choice?  Because if they don’t, then that is the very first place we start.  And not limited choice based on levels or lexiles, but real honest-to-goodness choice where they get to pick their reading materials.

Do they have time?  If little time is given to reading then we are expecting them to do something they may not like outside of school.  The chances of that happening are pretty slim.

Do they have access?  We know that students need great books in their hands.  We know students need great libraries, but they also need books in our classrooms.  And not old, worn out books, but new, enticing, high-interest books that they can check out easily.

Do they have people?  Is it cool to not be a reader in their friend group?  Who do they have to talk books to?  Do they have reading role models that extend beyond the teacher?  Get them connected in a meaningful way with others that read.

Do they have reason to read?  And by that, I don’t mean because of a prize or a reward.  Do they see any kind of gain from reading?  Is anything positive connected to the art of reading?  Will it actually make their lives better or is it just one more thing to do?

Do they have different ways to read?  Reading is not just done with our eyes but also with our ears, so if a child is constantly abandoning books get them hooked on an incredible audio book.  This has changed the reading path of several of my students in a profound way.

Are they hiding their true ability?  I have taught several students that could ace their reading assessment, mostly because it had been given to them so many times, and yet had a large gap in their skills.  So is their book abandonment masking a larger problem such as not actually understanding what they are reading or not having the stamina to stay with the story?

Are we making them do things that kill their love of reading?  When students abandon books a lot, it is a sure sign that we need to reflect on our own practices.  And not just skim over that reflection and pretend that everything must be ok.  Are reading logs killing their love of reading?  Are programs liked Accelerated Reader or LLI?  Are we constantly asking them to do things with their reading?

Have we asked them?  This is the biggest because too often we try to figure out why a child is abandoning books and we never ask them why.  Not beyond the “What didn’t you like about it?”  So instead we must give the students a chance to discuss or reflect and really start to study their own habits.  What patterns do they see?  What types of books might they like to read?  What can they do to change their habits?  Students need to feel empowered in their self-reflection because otherwise, their pattern won’t change.  They also need to set goals and then be able to honestly assess their own progress.

Do they see themselves in the books?  Such an important question asked by Dr. Jenn Davis Bowman.  Because we need diverse books for all of our kids and if students cannot connect with what we have in our library then they will not read.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  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.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.


being me, Passion, questions

Where Are All of the Female Leaders?

where are

One of the most asked questions I get wherever I go is; how do you do it all?  And by all they mean be a mother, wife, teacher, author, and speaker and still seem somewhat normal.  Not dazed, not frazzled, not crazy.  I wish I had an amazing answer or  a magical formula that would somehow give me more hours in the day and peace of mind to the person asking.  But I always answer honestly; I don’t.  There’s a balance and sometimes that balance shifts one way or another, but I never lose track of what is most important.  Yet, the many times I have been asked that question, I cannot help but wonder; how many times has that same question been asked to my male counterparts?  To those male educators that seem to have a million things going on as well.  Do they get asked how they do it all, or is it just a female question?

I ask, because this post does not have inspiration or answers, but it does have a lot of questions that I am hoping you will discuss with me.  Because I have started to notice that there seems to be a double standard when it comes to female educators in leadership.  That females who lead in some capacity are always assumed to be sacrificing something for that leadership, whether it be time with their husband,  time with their kids, or time from their job.  And that supposed  sacrifice means that we should feel guilty (which trust me I do) and at some point we need to apologize for the fact that we sacrificed something in the first place.  That we are not supposed to sacrifice time with our children to further our own learning.  That we are supposed to become leaders only after our children go to college, not whenever we want to.  (Just to make clear, I have no issue with women who choose to wait until later in life, I do take issue with being told I should wait).  Not while they live at home.  That we tend to say no to opportunities presented to us because we feel bad, and boy, are we good at feeling bad.

So I wonder if this is just a female thing?  Do males get asked how they do it all?  Are they supposed to feel guilty when they leave their families behind to pursue a leadership opportunity?  Or am I biased because I am obviously a female myself.

It is not just because I wonder about the whole notion of feeling guilty when we are away.  More importantly though, I wonder if this guilt is stopping us from speaking up, from going to conferences, from taking leadership positions that we know will swallow more of our time?  Are we creating a barricade to strong female leadership ourselves?  Because it seems like everywhere I go, males are dominating a lot of the leadership roles still.   And it can’t just be me,  I cannot be the only one noticing this.  So I wonder;  where are all of the female educational leaders?

Because I am surrounded by them in my daily life.  I am surrounded by them at my school, in my district, in my network of people.  And yet, the minute we are asked to point out leaders, how many times do our fingers point to males?  How many times when we see a new initiative being pushed out is there few females involved?  How many pictures of leadership meetings feature mostly males?  And what are we doing about it?

So what happens to those women who want to be more than “just” a teacher?  “Just” a principal?  Are there enough opportunities out there for them?  Are we holding ourselves back or is it a societal thing where conference committees, editors, and other people with opportunities tend to gravitate toward males rather than females because there is an assumption that women don’t want these opportunities?  Why in a profession that is mostly female are most leaders still male?  Did we do it to ourselves?  Or am I completely wrong here?

PS:  Kaye and Leah, this one’s for you.

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA but originally from Denmark,  who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children.  The second edition of my first book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students” is available for pre-order now.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Join our Passionate Learners community on Facebook and follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

questions, student driven

Why "I Don’t Know" is Powerful

Image form icanread

That first year of teaching when a child asked a questions I did not have the answer for I stalled.  I hemmed, I hummed, I did a little dance and then either hoped they would forget their question, that another child would know the answer or that class would be over so that I could quickly figure out what the answer was.

I didn’t think I could say, “I don’t know…”

Go to my second year of teaching and another question from another child, again; stalling, nervous glances, some vague reply hoping to satiate curious minds, but otherwise, same approach.  Glance at bell, dismiss the question, hope for a lifeline, wish that my principal or a parent wouldn’t see me in this position.  Anything but to admit my own inadequacy of not being the master teacher and simply not knowing something.

I never thought to say, “I don’t know…”

Third year of teaching and I realized I wasn’t the only expert in the room.  One child knew more about wars at 10 years old than I would ever be able to cram into my head.  Another was an expert on poetry.  The questions kept coming but my approach to them changed; I stopped being afraid of them and realized that not knowing something was powerful.  Not knowing something and admitting it  was a sign of strength, a learning opportunity to model how I would find out.  Now instead of nervous glances at the door, hoping no one would ever discover that I didn’t have all of the answers, I asked the students for help.  How would we find out, why was this a great question, did anyone else know?

This year, I am fully aware that I am not the only expert, I embrace it daily.  That I am not supposed to know everything.  That I am not supposed to pretend I do.  Instead, I am there to show what happens when we don’t know.  To show that even though I did my preparations for class I couldn’t put everything into my head but I have ways to help me through any question.  Now my students know to try to find the answer first using a multitude of sources instead of just asking me.  Now I ask my students questions that make them say, “I don’t know…”

I now know the power of “I don’t know…”