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.

 

Communicating Student Learning: My Personal Journey

Three years ago, I wrote a post entitled Why I Hate Letter Grades. I figure it’s about time I write an update on my adventures…

In the fall of 2013, one brave soul (@BronwenHowden) decided to join me in the ride that was our district’s Communicating Student Learning pilot. We were two teachers in one of five schools that term to design our own report card template. We jumped on board very quickly and fumbled our way through implementation in first term. It was a very sudden shift for the community and in hindsight, there are many ways we could have communicated more clearly. However, we learned a great deal, and by second term, we were using feedback from parent surveys and a focus group to make changes to our template. By third term, we were finally gaining confidence in our methods of communicating student learning. While we knew all along that we were working to design assessment that promoted growth and learning, it was finally becoming more widely accepted in our community and we had evidence from students to support the shift that had taken place.

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We continued revising and using our template the following year alongside digital portfolios with Fresh Grade and approximately 8 more teachers and tons more schools in the district. We felt our confidence grow as we were more able to articulate our rationale for the changes and more students and parents began to see the benefits of assessing in alternative ways. Parents having access to ongoing communication of learning via Fresh Grade was hugely beneficial, and we referenced these learning samples in our CSL anecdotal assessment. We decided to maintain this formal paper communication in addition to the portfolios throughout the year, as we had already changed a lot in a short period of time, and it put many parents at ease. However, we did make some significant changes to our template, such as removing formal reporting of individual subject areas (other than Literacy and Numeracy) in favour of more cross-curricular approaches to learning and including personalized learning plans for each student. We also focused on improving the quality of our ongoing communication with parents.

Bronwen and I came out of that second year feeling there was no way we could ever return to the “old ways” and confident we could now move away from report cards altogether. Although there were a million and one factors that influenced our decisions throughout those transitional years, there were five main principles consistently guiding our practice:

  1. Formative Assessment
  2. Competencies
  3. Student Conferencing
  4. Self-Assessment
  5. Ongoing Communication with Parents

Experiencing this transition as educators provided us with the time we needed to truly explore what quality assessment looked like in practice. Looking back, we can see that learning intentions and criteria guided all of our assessment, students were involved in the learning process through co-creation of criteria and regular self-assessment, and we were focused on developing competencies through content knowledge. We improved our communication with parents through the use of Fresh Grade, email updates, class blogs, social media, and conferences. One on one conferences with students lasting 15-20 minutes every term were invaluable. It was a lot of work – we had to completely rethink how we structured our days – but somehow it felt like less work than before, as it all became so much more meaningful. We knew our students’ strengths and challenges inside and out. Even more importantly, so did our students.

Now in a new school (and desperately missing my original partner in crime!), I have finally made the complete shift to communicating student learning through Fresh Grade. I don’t think anyone can argue that it is valuable to have regular updates about their child’s learning, but change will always be difficult. I remain focused on quality assessment in my use of Fresh Grade, as it is not really about the technology, but a shift in mindset.

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cc Photo Credit: SevenSeventyFive via Flickr

There are numerous Surrey Schools educators who have already put together guidelines about the what, why, and how of digital portfolios, so I will refer you to to their brilliant work. You can find links to many of them in Elisa Carlson’s blog post here. What I have done is put together a few key pieces of advice, educator to educator, for those who are moving toward ongoing communication of student learning for the first time:

  • Be transparent! Students and parents need to know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how they can be involved. Let them know you are learning alongside them but also share resources to help them understand the transition. Ask them what they want and highlight connections between their input and best practice.
  • It’s all about the learning! If you are doing significantly more work than your students, STOP. Portfolios are not about including as much as humanly possible, but providing quality assessment of key learning throughout the year. Students should absolutely be involved in the process, no matter their age, and assessment should be moving their learning forward.
  • Learn to embrace change! Change is not meant to be comfortable but it should be meaningful. Don’t try to do the same thing in a new way; if you’ve committed to using portfolios or other alternatives to grades, you’ve committed to being a part of the change. It’s ok for your communication to look different… it should.
  • Be prepared to listen! Not everyone is ready for change at the same time. Focus on strengthening relationships by finding common ground. Actively listen to those who disagree with you. Take feedback for what it is – a learning opportunity. Remember that parents, teachers, and administrators all want what’s best for kids.
  • Find a partner in crime (or several)! Together, we are better. Collaborate. Share. Question. Collaborate some more. Support each other along the way.

I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to explore multiple ways of communicating student learning in my district. It’s been an amazing journey that I would not trade for anything. What are you doing to ensure quality assessment and communication of student learning?

CSL, Fresh Grade, and the draft BC curriculum provide me with so much flexibility in designing meaningful learning opportunities for my students. You can check out my visual presentation entitled “Redesigned Curriculum in Action” here as a sample of some things we do in Division 3.

Three Words for 2016

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Happy New Year! Once again, it’s been awhile since I have devoted time to blogging. I’ve written many a post in my head, but unfortunately, they have not often translated into actual posts for people to read. I would like this to change because writing brings me joy and provides me with an outlet for reflection. However, the highlights of my 2015, although not blogging related, were pretty awesome, so I’m going to tell myself I have a long list of very good excuses and forgive myself for the lapse in writing.

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Photo Credits: Patricia Gillespie, Moonrise Photography

I’m not usually one for New Year’s resolutions, but I have been inspired over the past several years by educators who have shared their “one word” for the year. While I like the idea of a guiding word, I never felt that one was enough. So rather than choose just one, I’ve carefully chosen three words that I feel will help guide me through 2016 – not to achieve goals necessarily, but to help me be my best self.

1. Balance

This is a word that I am choosing to remind myself that it is important to rest, rejuvenate, and restore. As someone who struggles with anxiety daily, I am prone to overworking myself in pursuit of approval and perfection. I hope that the word BALANCE will remind me to revisit my passions outside of education and to focus on my social and emotional needs. It represents my desire to act and to reflect, to share and to listen, to care for others and for myself.

2. Strength

This past year, I gave up a passion of mine that keeps me grounded and in good physical health. This year, I am reminding myself to revisit physical activities that make me feel strong – hiking, dance, yoga – because to me, STRENGTH means positive physical and mental health, a sense of self. It also reminds me to look for courage within myself when I am lonely, overwhelmed, or afraid. I hope I will have the STRENGTH to make healthy decisions for myself in 2016.

3. Relationships

This word is to remind me to revisit and strengthen the many meaningful RELATIONSHIPS I already have in my life. I often get wrapped up in my day to day life and forget to connect with those I would consider my closest friends and family. I am hoping to change this. I also feel this word represents the most important aspect of my educational philosophy; I hope it will remind me of my professional values in stressful times so I can choose care and compassion over reaction.

So those are my guiding words for the new year. There is so much right in front of us that we forget to nourish. Rather than planning for drastic changes, I’m hoping my #threewordsfor2016 will help me better understand myself and my role in the lives of those around me.

What words will guide you in 2016?

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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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?

Why My Comfort Zone is Not Important

Kids are amazing. Without fail, they exceed our expectations whenever given the opportunity to try something they’re interested in at school. Without fail, they step up to the plate and help each other learn in these instances so no one is left out. They usually do this when we have managed to shift their perspective of school from this thing they have to do every day to make it personally meaningful and relevant to their lives, passions, and curiosities.

This year, I’ve tried to have my kids learn things that make me uncomfortable. One example is coding. Not knowing where to start, we participated in the Hour of Code using tutorials from Khan Academy (available in French). The first experience was amazing for some and frustrating for others; however, they were all engaged in problem-solving and most were collaborating with a partner. Even though I know absolutely nothing about coding, I thought “Good, we tried it! I think we may do that again sometime.” What I learned 3 weeks later when we came back to it again was that the experience had sparked a passion in several of my students that I didn’t even know was there. One girl is pursuing coding daily in her spare time as part of her Genius Hour and thinks she may want to be a software developer. Another group of boys is trying to design their own video game using Scratch. How powerful is that? All because I was willing to give something that is outside my comfort zone a try.

It doesn’t take much effort, only a willingness to be the one without the answers. What have you tried with your kids lately that makes you uncomfortable?

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cc Photo Credit: Finn Vargas – Deviant Art

The Calm in the Storm

I am returning from a very long blogging hiatus. As in… over a year. A very long time. To be honest, I’ve stayed away from a lot of things in the past year. Last year was a rewarding but emotionally draining and difficult year for me professionally. Being mid-Masters degree with a spouse in grad school full-time didn’t help during job action either. The line between personal and professional stress was blurred; I was on edge and overwhelmed. It just felt like life was enough on it’s own without the added stress of maintaining my online presence. So I just stopped.

Sometimes we need to walk away for awhile to stay sane and healthy. Fortunately, my time away helped me refocus my energy this year. It’s allowed me to refocus on my students and devote a lot of time to communication with parents. Unfortunately, I missed blogging a lot and all of the deep self-reflection that comes along with it. So… I’m officially back at it! Life will never stand still and there will always be SOMETHING… but a bit of calm in the storm is sometimes all we need to get up and going again.

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Oral Language – How and Why?

Oral language development is always a hot topic in French Immersion, or any second language classroom. I can’t count the number of times someone has said to me “I took French all through high school and can’t speak a word!” As a French teacher, there is nothing that makes me more sad or disappointed. What is the point of pursuing language learning if we can’t interact with anyone else?

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Often we mean well, but there is a lack of understanding about how students best learn a new language. I would like to share my strategies for developing confidence in oral language amongst my Late French Immersion students.

Identify the Learning Intention

If we are not clear about our objective as teachers, how will students know what they are supposed to learn? I’m not talking about vocabulary here, either; I’m talking about what we want our students to be able to do. Try structuring your intention in the form of an “I can…” statement. For example, “I can use passé composé to share what I did on the weekend.” This will help provide you with context in which you can teach the language structure.

Context

Vocabulary taught in isolation is almost never meaningful for students; it relies on memorization and is not representative of any authentic communication situation. Grammar in isolation can be even more troublesome; what is the point of knowing how to conjugate the past tense (passé composé) if we have no idea when or how to use it in a real-life situation? Focus on what students want to talk about in the past: their weekends, their vacations, or what they did before coming to school that day. These are meaningful learning opportunities because students are actually applying the language structure in an authentic way.

Model

This step is so key! Teachers must model the language structure they want their students to learn before they ask students to use it or write it down. This means providing multiple examples along with actions and/or visuals to help cue students’ vocabulary. Using a simple structure repeatedly in context is most effective. For example, I might point to what I am wearing when I say: “Je porte un chandail bleu. Je porte des pantalons noirs.” Obviously the structure you choose to model and practice depends on the level of your students; in our class, we often focus on a specific verb tense or expression (e.g. passé composé or “J’ai hâte pour…”) The key in modeling is to avoid translating in favour of contextual cues and to take reading out of the equation; that can be learned later once the structure is internalized.

Partner Practice

Once we have modeled a language structure in a meaningful context and supported our model with actions or visuals, we can move on to offering students the chance to practice. However, this should be done in a very structured way. I will often share my model and then ask students to share their own personal phrase with a partner. This allows them to practice in a safe way as it does not put them on the spot in front of the whole class.

Once students have practiced in partners, I model a question such as “Qu’est-ce que tu portes?” and call on anywhere from 1-5 students to answer the question. This is the time to correct any errors in the targeted structure.

Developing Independence

Have the class repeat the question, such as “Qu’est-ce que tu portes?” chorally to ensure correct pronunciation. Then allow them the independence to practice the question and answer format with their peers. Inside/outside circles is a strategy that works really well with most students. It allows me the opportunity to circulate and formatively assess students’ abilities very quickly and easily; it also gives students the opportunity to practice the same language structure multiple times to increase

Know When To Intervene… and When Not To

With new language Learners, it is very easy to become intimidated or anxious. While of course the purpose of structured oral language practice is to target specific language structures, we need to know when to intervene or correct and when fluency is more important. If passé composé is what I am modeling, then that is the structure I will openly correct in students’ communication. Correction of errors is necessary and important, but building confidence is even more important! Don’t forget that it’s ok to leave them to fumble through expressing their thoughts as well, as they are developing different skills at different times.

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How Morning Meetings Have Transformed Our Learning

This year, for a variety of reasons, I decided to try morning meetings with my grade seven students. Every morning, we sit in a circle and one by one, we share how we are feeling that day. We rate our feelings on a scale of 1-10 and provide some reasons why we are feeling that way if we are comfortable doing so. This has been an incredibly powerful experience for me as an educator, as it provides us with dedicated time to listen to each other, builds trust within our classroom, and encourages students to take risks in sharing in a new language. It has also provided us with an avenue for oral language practice. Each day, we target a specific language structure. For example, Mondays are usually practicing past tense as we share what we did on the weekend and Fridays are a great opportunity to talk about “J’ai hâte…” It is amazing how many errors can be corrected when they are class learning intentions. Over time, students have become more comfortable correcting themselves and others as well. We are able to laugh about some of our mistakes while we develop common language understanding. Several initially shy students have come out of their shells during morning meetings! It’s been a wonderful experience that has greatly increased students’ confidence in French. I can no longer imagine not having morning meetings in our classroom.

I believe oral language development is essentially the most important skill we can help develop in our students. Without speaking and listening, they will always lack the ability to communicate meaningfully with others in real-life situations. By targeting specific language structures and modeling oral language on a regular basis, we can help our students open doors to new experiences.

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