Thursday, 18 April 2013

"What's your inquiry Ms G?"

At our most recent collaborative planning day, the Elementary Connected Classroom (ECC) team spent some time looking at the focus for our professional development next year. I left the planning day feeling super excited that the focus for our professional learning next year is going to be centered around inquiry-based learning.

Thinking about that prompted me to write this post outlining a brief history of the Inquiry Project in the ECC. There is so much more that I want to write about this; I'm having a tough time deciding what to write next! But, before anything else, I need to thank Evander. It's important that I do that first.

Evander is a student in my class (not his real name). Recently, at the start of an inquiry block, I led students through a quick demo to show what a new, deeper layer of inquiry questions could look like. Afterwards, Evander came over and asked me a seemingly simple question.

"What's your inquiry Ms G?"

I thought for a minute. I stopped and honored that question - the first telling aspect to this little story is that I did stop and listen and think carefully before responding to this bright-eyed, curious, eager-looking ten year old standing in front of me. I started to say that two years ago I did my own inquiry for my Masters Degree, and then I started to say that a few years before that I did a few inquiries about technology in the classroom, but then I stopped myself. Again. The second stop? Also very telling.

I stopped and thought to myself, you know, that's a good question. Why don't I have an inquiry right now? And so I looked at Evander and answered him: "You know Evander, that's a great question and you know what else? I'm going to start an inquiry project right now and my inquiry project is that I want to learn more about the inquiry project."

That answer absolutely satisfied and thrilled him like it could only have satisfied and thrilled a ten year old. His serious and complete acceptance of my answer was absolutely precious - he was so excited, and so proud to be the one to have asked the question that prompted all this - have I said I love my job lately? I LOVE my job. That moment when he showed me how happy he was for me and his sincere acceptance of my response reminded me yet again that I love what I do each day.

So, Evander stood there and watched while I typed out a list of ten questions, ten things that I wonder about and want to learn about the Inquiry Project. He and I were both amazed at how quickly I was able to pour out ten decent questions; obviously this is something that's been on my mind and, interestingly enough, since writing out those ten questions, I have felt SO much better. I must have been overdue for some inquiry about inquiry.

I thanked Evander. He smiled one of those big, genuine smiles that fixes the world, if but for a second. And then off he went to work on his slideshow about poisonous snakes. He's WAY ahead of me, already working on his presentation while I've just written out my first set of questions. Guess I have some catching up to do...

Monday, 15 April 2013

Inquiring about the Inquiry Project

Similar version of this post is cross-posted in my own professional blogging space here.

For three years, the Elementary Connected Classrooms (ECC) project has run a year long, collaborative inquiry project. At my first planning meeting, as a brand new, member of the ECC, I was handed the article, 'Learning in Depth: Students as Experts' written by Kieran Egan. This article was the first piece I'd ever read on Egan's take on inquiry-based learning. While I had constantly enjoyed project-based learning before reading that article, and I had read An Imaginative Approach to Teaching, another of Egan's popular works, my practice since reading that article on 'Students as Experts' has not been the same!

The ECC team read through and discussed how we could integrate the whole idea of an inquiry project into our collaborative learning space. We decided to devote each Friday's video conferencing lesson to the inquiry project. We would take turns planning lessons and being the lead teacher, which meant that every three weeks each of us would be responsible to teach the next lesson in the unit. Student choice was built in as a crucial ingredient and we quickly realized the the context of the inquiry project would also be a great way to teach students a variety of other skills such as how to effectively search for information online and how to evaluate websites. We also recognized we could merge curricular content from Social Studies, English Language Arts, Science and more to create a truly cross-curricular learning opportunity full of multiple ways for students to connect ideas and experience deep learning.

One area that still proves to be a challenge is explaining how this all works to parents. They want to know how it's marked, what subject this fits into (a whole bunch depending on the topic the student chooses and the way in which they decide to learn about their topic!) and where this way of teaching/learning comes from. It's great to have all the questions and communication lines opening between home and school and it sure keeps me on my toes as far as being able to articulate exactly what we are doing, how it all comes together as the year goes along and why we are doing it.

A quick and accessible document created to help parents understand what the inquiry project is all about can be found here. It needs to be updated as the project has evolved each year based on the students but that document has proven to be an invaluable starting point for planning purposes as well as communicating with others. Thanks to my colleague, Brooke Haller, for giving me permission to share that as she's the one who originally wrote it up.

One tricky aspect to all this is that the inquiry project never looks the same two years in a row; it doesn't even look the same from student to student within one lesson, not to mention from week to week and class to class. Inquiry is a path of learning that leads into the unknown every, single time. It can be really challenging to lead thirty students down thirty completely separate learning paths, and it's about as non-traditional as any method I've explored as a teacher, but it is amazing when the learning starts to deepen and kids start getting super excited about what they're learning. It's the palpable positivity of the learning process during inquiry working time and the pride and ownership that students show once they get rolling along that makes it a tangible, worthwhile project to embark upon.

There's much more writing to come on this! I needed to start somewhere, but I'm thinking I need to stop somewhere too, for now, at least. If you have any experience teaching from an inquiry-based point of view, I'd love to hear from you. Or, send this along to anyone you think may have some thoughts to contribute. I'm officially embarking on my inquiry about inquiry-based learning, something I unofficially started three years ago when I read that first article. The fact that it's taken me three years to get to this point and actually write about it attests to the messiness of my own learning process here. I'm hoping that the writing will straighten out my path, just a little bit.

Imagery - Night Falls 3 by thebmag and Nature Trail #4 by Chalkie_CC, both accessed on April 15, 2013 from and used with Creative Commons permissions.