Category Archives: Inquiry

A New Chapter

This past spring, I made the decision to leave the classroom and try something new. I accepted a new role working with Teacher Candidates in the B.Ed. program at the University of British Columbia. While I will continue teaching Intro to Teaching and Learning Core French as I’ve done for the past couple of years, I am also be coordinating the Social Emotional Learning cohort. This means I am responsible for teaching Inquiry courses, embedding the theme of SEL into our cohort throughout the year, and acting as Faculty Advisor for a group of Teacher Candidates.

When I made this decision, I felt nothing but excitement. What an awesome new challenge! However, while saying my goodbyes in June, I started to second guess myself. By the time summer was in full swing, I was sure I had made a mistake… What was I thinking? I love my kids! Knowing that I wouldn’t return to my school or to any classroom in September made me very emotional.

Most of us enter the teaching profession because we want to make a difference in the lives of kids and I was no different. Those pre-teen years in particular come with a lot of angst, social awkwardness, and sarcasm that I secretly love. Those years are when I felt most disconnected from adults in my own life, so I’ve always wanted to help those who are looking for a positive role model and a bit of empathy while maintaining the facade of nonchalance and grown-up-ness. Little people in big bodies who just need to know they are loved…

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However, having met my group of Teacher Candidates this week, I am feeling much more optimistic. They are a wonderful group of people who, like all of us, are in this to make a difference in the lives of kids. Their hearts are in it and they are authentic, intelligent, compassionate people. I already feel like I am getting to know many of them and I haven’t even had to give up my addiction to bad jokes and sarcasm!

I can tell that it will be a fantastic year of learning and I know they will all make a difference in the lives of kids. I can see the potential for far reaching impact in this new role and that is exciting. I can also see that I am going to learn so much from them. But most of all, I can now see that although I may not have a physical classroom this year, I have met my new “kids.” And I couldn’t be more excited to see where this new adventure takes me…

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Cross-Curricular Connections

Whenever I’m asked to share about our redesigned BC curriculum with other teachers, the first question I’m often asked is: “Can you show us examples of planning?” I struggle to answer this question for a few different reasons. First of all, planning is personal. I don’t think there is a one size fits all approach to planning, regardless of what your curriculum looks like. Secondly, if I truly shared my mind’s journey as I plan, I think I would frighten people. Finally, finding cross-curricular connections is something that I feel is crucial to planning with this redesigned curriculum. This takes some effort and thoughtfulness on the part of the teacher who will, in fact, be teaching whatever is being planned.

I’m lucky to have the opportunity this year to be working with teacher candidates one day per week at UBC. This means I get to play with different ways to think about this redesigned curriculum in addition to what I am trying in my own Grade 6/7 classroom. Last week, we explored how mind maps might help us visualize connections between Core French and other disciplines. Through facilitating this exercise, I realized that this simple method of brainstorming could be a powerful tool for helping all teachers beginning to think about cross-curricular connections that could eventually lead to large scale inquiry.

Learning Intention:

I can create a mind map that highlights opportunities for cross-curricular connections between Core French and other content areas.

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By simply identifying curricular competencies and content that work together from a couple of different disciplines, we can begin to understand how this way of approaching teaching and learning is more efficient and more effective for our learners. For example, teacher candidates quickly realized that francophone culture – a big idea in most Core French curriculum – is a great entry point for inquiry. This can be combined easily with competencies in Social Studies or Language Arts to create a deeper, more meaningful understanding of cultural stereotypes, traditions, or historical events. Cross-curricular connections are also what free up time to allow for other creative experiments such as Maker Spaces and Genius Hour, so it’s a win/win situation.

The key to finding solid cross-curricular connections is being intentional. How can we scaffold student learning to ensure we’re targeting all disciplines involved? How can competencies be combined to allow for a single learning intention? With Core French, it’s about connecting communication with context. For example, using language structures such as les verbes à l’impératif with directional vocabulary in French can help us teach communication through P.E. skills. Students practice giving and responding to instructions while focusing on movement. Other disciplines and other classes may look different and that’s ok. Ultimately, it’s about exploring these connections so we can create the most powerful learning experiences for our students. So pull out some art supplies and start envisioning the possibilities! Exploration leads to innovation.

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Photo Credit: Questions to consider when planning @beverleybunker

How Do We “Do” Inquiry?

Inquiry-based learning has been quite the buzzword in education for some time now, but what exactly does it mean? There seems to be a lot of confusion about what inquiry ought to look like. Harvey and Daniels outline four types of inquiry in their book Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action: Mini Inquiry, Curricular Inquiry, Lit Circles Inquiry, and Open Inquiry. There are many others out there who have also attempted to define inquiry in some sort of practical way. Regardless of the specific inquiry model or approach, there are a few key factors to consider when deciding on an inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning.

What are your students’ interests?

Engagement comes from being invested in the learning process, so students’ interests are key to developing engaging inquiries. However, it’s perfectly ok to start small and within a given curricular area. For example, if life cycles are in your primary Science curriculum and you’ve been learning about butterflies, why not start by simply asking students what they are wondering about the life of a butterfly? For older students, consider sharing a video, article, or photo to spark their curiosity about a topic and develop wonders from there. This could be anything from social justice to ocean life to story writing. Simple curiosity is the birthplace of inquiry. By asking students what they want to learn, even within a given content area, we provide them with voice and choice in their learning. Mini Inquiry – asking questions and finding answers – is a great introduction to the inquiry process for teachers and students, as it can be as structured and guided as you would like.

How flexible is your time?

I feel I am so lucky to work Grade 6/7 students in an elementary school context. We have a ton of freedom in how we organize our day, which allows for powerful cross-curricular connections to be made and sometimes, time to explore Open Inquiry. However, even within a block system in a middle or high school context, there is room for inquiry. Whether it is Lit Circles in Language Arts or Curricular Inquiry in a content area like Social Studies or Science, there is an approach that will work for you and your students. Contrary to popular belief, structure is not a bad thing when it comes to inquiry, and in fact, it is essential to developing key skills and competencies in our students. However, inquiry is ultimately a frame of mind; students simply need modeling and encouragement to develop such a mindset. I find Getting Started With Student Inquiry a good place to start understanding the role of the teacher and the student in the inquiry process.

How will you help students access resources?

This one comes up often and, unfortunately, it  can be the factor that scares teachers off of inquiry. If students are pursuing different questions, how am I supposed to support them in their learning? Where do I access resources? What if I don’t know anything about their topic? The answer to all of these questions is that you are not an expert, but you can figure it out. With amazing online resources like Discovery Education and access to experts all over the world through social media, the information students need and want is out there somewhere. For those who don’t have easy access to technology, there are still plenty of books, magazines, and guest speakers out there. Regardless of the medium used, teachers roles are shifting from being experts to curators, and this is a very exciting place to be! It’s also a great opportunity to model an inquiry mindset for your students, as you ask questions and learn alongside them.

Inquiry doesn’t have to be scary. It can start small and be designed by the teacher. It can also be entirely student-driven and open-ended. The possibilities are endless, but the competencies developed throughout the inquiry process are what make this approach so valuable.

How might you “do” inquiry in your classroom this week?

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Photo Credit: Milos Milosevic via Flickr

If you’re still not sure what inquiry might look like in a classroom setting, check out Galileo Educational Network for some examples. You can also read about some of the things my students are doing this year on our class blog.

 

Musing Over Maker Spaces

So here’s the deal… I think Maker Spaces are very cool. I also think they provide a time and a place for us to reach some kids we couldn’t reach otherwise, whether they struggle with traditional academics or they need a challenge. However, many conversations I’ve had with other educators over the past couple of years have focused on how you need the necessary funds to create the initial space. While I agree that access to a creative space as well as tools like Makey Makey, squishy circuits, and electronics are awesome, I do not at all believe that they are necessary for inspiring a maker mindset in our learners.

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Photo Credit: Penningtron via Compfight cc

Do you have a bunch of cardboard? Some recycled plastic or wood? Some tape? Then you have a maker space. As for the room… Our current learning space is just fine, thank you. This is exactly how I started out with my kids a couple of years ago. What could you build with cardboard and tape that you could then measure the surface area of? Kids are designing and building, which is ultimately what the maker movement is all about. If you’re looking for some inspiration for your students, Caine’s Arcade is a great place to start.

Having said that, I have also borrowed Little Bits from the very gracious Shelagh Lim and used them for maker “projects” with my kids. Last year, Bronwen Howden and I collaborated to help guide our kids through the creation process. Some were very engaged and successful, and others not. The important thing was that we were willing to try and the kids had an opportunity to design and create.

This year, I knew no more about Little Bits, but because inquiry has become an integral part of my classroom and we are intentionally focused on core competencies across disciplines, my kids are more comfortable taking risks and focusing on process over product. Below are a few clips of their creations.

Having worked with Little Bits, I can absolutely see the power in tools that provide kids with an opportunity to create functional, innovative designs that are relevant to them. A dedicated Maker Space is a wonderful, lovely place to be, and if your school is there, please share what you’re doing to inspire others! All I’m saying is that if you have to start with cardboard or clay or plastic milk jugs, there’s no shame in that either. It’s all about taking the maker movement philosophy and finding a way to make it work within your particular context.

How do you allow your kids opportunities to create?

Open Questions in Math

With a background in high school Music and French, I was definitely terrified of teaching Math when I started teaching five years ago. I “succeeded” in Math in school, but I never enjoyed it or fully understood why I was doing what I was doing. However, as part of the Numeracy Project in our district, my school participated in a lot of professional development surrounding Numeracy and over the course of my first two years of teaching, I began to love the subject that I had hated growing up. By year three, I thought I had it figured out. I spent my time filling in students’ gaps, working with small groups, and offering choice in the problems students tackled. I was differentiating, for sure, and students were experiencing success in learning, but I don’t think I helped ignite a passion for Math in many students that year. The following year, I explored project-based learning in Math with some success although I didn’t feel I was addressing those knowledge gaps quite as effectively. I had completely shifted my teaching style, yet somehow, I lost my passion for teaching Math along the way. What was missing?

The problem isn’t that my students weren’t learning; it’s that I forgot about the big ideas. With so many learning outcomes in Math, it’s easy to become focussed on the minutiae of what students are supposed to learn and to forget about the big picture. However, it is the big ideas that should guide our instruction from K-12; by focussing on the big picture, we can encourage critical thinking and creativity in a domain traditionally seen as rigid and procedural.

I read Marian Small’s book “Good Questions: Great Ways to Differentiate Mathematics Instruction” about 3 years ago, but I don’t think I effectively put it into practice at that time. Now that my enthusiasm has been revived, I’ve been begun re-exploring how open questions impact student learning and student engagement.

Here are some examples of open questions we’ve tackled in our Math class over the past couple of weeks…

Using 12 base ten blocks, which decimal numbers can you represent?


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While some students came up with three possible answers for these questions, others came up with fifty. The point is that everyone could enter into the problem. Some students are just beginning to understand tents and hundredths, so they worked on using all of the same type of block. Others could easily see patterns in numbers and were challenged to find as many answers as possible and to represent them in different ways.

___ + ___ = 4.32 OR ___ – ___ = 4.32

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Again, this open question offered choice. Students could choose addition or subtraction. They could show their understanding with whatever tool they wanted. Some chose to work symbolically while others made visual patterns concretely with the base ten blocks. They were all on task, collaborating, and learning.

Sometimes teachers get bogged down with the PLOs and forget about the big ideas. Here, we are focused on representing numbers in different ways. Without explicitly talking about it yet, students are beginning to see how decimal numbers and fractions are connected through questions like “Represent one fraction and one decimal number in as many ways as you can. Which is bigger and how do you know?” They are already discovering that fractions and decimal numbers are closely connected, that there are ways we can represent both such as fraction circles and number lines, and that finding equivalent fractions is helpful when comparing and ordering. But most of all, I’m just excited to see kids engaged in Math, especially those who struggle. One simple change can sometimes make a bigger impact than trying to completely redesign the way we teach and learn.

How do you differentiate Math instruction for your students? What has worked well for you?

C3 Inquiry and Assessment for Learning

I am embarking on a new learning journey. A few short weeks ago, I met my M.Ed. cohort for the first time. For the next two years, we will be learning together, exploring the concepts of creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration and how they relate to the inquiry process. I must say that my initial reaction was a positive one as everyone seems open to respectful dialogue and listening to new ideas. I was challenged and I felt excited! However, I was also overwhelmed on the first day with social anxiety, worries of inadequacy, and wonder about how this would relate to my professional practice. Before we left on Saturday, we were assigned learning tasks to complete in between sessions.

I left my first weekend of classes feeling totally energized and inspired because of my colleagues and our rich discussions. However, once I had time to sit down and review our learning tasks, I felt an overwhelming sense of disappointment that I was returning to my days as a university student with readings and assignments that were not relevant or meaningful to me. Although we had said that it is all about the learning process and not the product, it seemed like another case of talking the talk but not walking the walk.

Tonight we began our second session together, and I am so relieved to say that this is not the case! While we had each written a critique, the importance was not at all placed on what we had written, but rather on sharing, discussing our work with colleagues, and self-assessment. We spent several hours constructing meaning as a group about the many conceptions of creativity that exist and how our personal and social contexts influence our conceptions. We practiced how to offer a balanced critique of someone else’s thoughts while being fair and charitable. But most important of all, we were given time and space to reflect and self-assess our own thinking.

No assignments to be handed in or graded.

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Photo Credit: giulia.forsythe via Compfight cc

It is such a relief to know that there are education programs out there that are actually using assessment for learning. This past week, I felt some of the anxiety about assignment criteria and expectations that many of our students experience when something is to be graded. While I thoroughly enjoyed thinking critically, reflecting on my own conceptions of creativity, and discussions with friends, the thoughts of submitting my ideas on paper to be assessed made me nervous. I was reminded that many students feel that way all the time and it saddened me to think that my learning might be limited because of assignment format or criteria. Tonight, it was freeing to hear that there will be no grades given until we have mastered concepts and can submit our best work. We will continue to share, discuss, and transform our thinking and when we are ready, share and submit our best. We will all be involved in each other’s learning to help provide guidance and feedback. We will all help each other make our learning relevant to our teaching context.

I am excited to experience assessment for learning firsthand and the power it can have to transform student learning. I know the experience will help me grow as an educator and I hope I will learn how to make formative assessment more impactful for my students.

As part of an ongoing learning diary, I will blog about creative, critical, and collaborative inquiry using the tag C3 Inquiry. I look forward to sharing my learning with you 🙂

Powerful Connections

Plans rarely work out how we hope they will. I often feel defeated at this time of year as I reflect on everything I didn’t do for my students. So many wonderful plans have not worked out either because they were poorly executed on my part or because of a lack of time.

One of those plans up until last week was a science inquiry on the impact of humans on local ecosystems. We had developed inquiry questions but hadn’t really taken it anywhere. My goal was to have my students interact with the general public outside of our classroom either to interview an expert, collect data, or to convey a message.

This week, we’ve finally managed to get the ball rolling. It’s strange, really, as my kids were not initially enthusiastic about moving forward with a project so late in the year… But one tweet can make all the difference!

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The group quickly learned that their tweet would be more effective if they targeted a specific audience…

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Within a couple of days, we had responses from both the City of Surrey and the Vancouver Aquarium. How cool is that! Students are now interviewing a scientist about the ozone layer and sharing resources with the city about construction projects and population growth. When less enthusiastic groups saw that others were actually getting valuable information from Twitter, they decided to try it too.

Once we had made it through this learning curve, I threw out the idea of making Google Docs surveys to gather information that would help guide their inquiry. By tweeting to #comments4kids #sd36learn and #cityofsurrey, one group had several responses within 10 minutes. Now the students are starting to see the power of connecting outside of the classroom! They are also beginning to see that both French and English can be used to communicate with an outside audience, so many of our projects are bilingual.

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Photo Credit: ~Aphrodite via Compfight cc

Students are using everything from blog posts, poster campaigns, and public service ads for YouTube to understand and explore their inquiry questions. All are using Twitter to communicate in some way.

Students using Twitter is not a new concept, but for us it has been a very exciting week. I am most proud of those who are taking chances and trying new things even when they’re uncertain. It is so important to make learning meaningful for kids. At this time of year, many classes begin winding down, but this inquiry project is one way I feel we are winding up. Who can argue with excitement that is connected to learning?