That Time I Failed At Inquiry: 5 Missing Elements

Years ago, toward the end of the school year, I felt like our class was in a rut. I wasn’t sure what we were missing–Autonomy? Inspiration? Creativity? All of the above?

Whatever it was, I decided to do something drastic. I had recently come across a story online of a teacher who encouraged her students to create videos, and it seemed like a great idea to me.

So the next day, I checked out the laptop carts and dived head-long. I told them they had to work in small groups. I told them they could create any commercial they wanted. I might have had slightly more structure than I can recall, but if there was, it wasn’t much. And I stepped back, awaiting the student-centered magic to come to life.

It was bedlam.

Shocked and dismayed at the chaos and the discord and the aimlessness, I cancelled the whole thing the next day.

Today, a small part of me still wants to leave this experience forever buried in the corner of my memory labeled, “I-can’t-believe-you-actually-tried-that.”

But the rest of me knows that our failures are rich with learning opportunities. It reminds me of a teacher’s remarks during a PD session on inquiry this fall in which she expressed a wish to hear more about inquiry attempts that have crashed and burned. So, having come a long way since then (I hope!), I think I’m ready to finally retrieve that memory from its dark recesses and shed light and learning on it instead.

Here are 5 major elements that I now realize I was missing:

What Featured Images Taught Me About Creativity

Stock photos have always made me giggle a bit. I think that’s why I fell in love with My Imaginary Well-Dressed Toddler Quinoa (I’ve included an example below in case you are not yet familiar with Tiffany Beveridge’s Pinterest wit):

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Yet when I first started blogging, I found myself using them because, well, isn’t that what bloggers do?

Thankfully, that ended the day it finally dawned on me that, at best, they were doing nothing for the meaning I wanted to convey (and at worst, they were a possible detraction). This revelation had me ready to ditch featured images in general.

Fortunately, that was around the time I also discovered Death To The Stock Photo, a company committed to sharing high quality, artistic images.

I was immediately impressed. Though (because?) there were no shots of smiling students raising their hands, I sensed an opportunity.

My initial thought was that using these photos would enhance the general aesthetic of the blog. That certainly was an instant effect.

But over time, I realized that something more was happening. I had gone from thinking that posts about classrooms/students required images of classrooms/students, to realizing that when I featured an image that I found genuinely inspiring, it matters.

It matters because it makes me think about making connections that are less obvious (such as this image of a tool display to go along with my post on curation).

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It matters because it makes me wonder. Unlike stock photos, each of these images clearly tell a story, and I love imagining what those stories might be (like the image below that I used for a post on refugees).

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And it matters because it makes me feel. The photos are no longer filler. They have real soul and significance and authenticity (I really loved selecting this image from the “Tactile” photopack for my post on helping students discover more personal meaning).

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All of this makes me consider how we go about teaching and learning. 

Are there any practices we do arbitrarily?

Are there ways we can dig deeper to get away from practices that feel too obvious and spoon-fed?

Are there ways we can use passion and creativity to invite rather than push learning more often?

Can we turn more often to sources that make us think, wonder, and feel?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

What We’re Still Not Getting About How Teaching & Learning Has Changed

Last month, I followed Pernille Ripp’s 7th grade English class’ progress through a project on refugees. I even pointed to it in a recent post as an example of Twitter’s potential for learning. And on Tuesday, Microsoft shared a beautiful Youtube video of their experience:

After witnessing how all this learning and growing has unfolded, I was saddened to encounter the following comment on the Youtube video:

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It’s not the first time we’ve heard this kind of rhetoric, nor will it be the last. The “reading, writing, ‘rithmatic” camp is still alive and well.

However, what those who are of this mindset still don’t understand is that this is English in today’s world.

A world in which we’re flooded with false, misleading, and clickbait-y “news.”

A world in which current events no longer sit quietly in the morning paper, and instead are loudly debated at all times from the devices in our pockets.

A world in which the negative is amplified and distorted truths go viral.

So when the standards instruct us to “engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners on grade 7 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.7.1), is it beyond English instruction to tackle an issue that is very much a part of their lives?

Or when we’re to teach students to “Delineate a speaker’s argument and specific claims, evaluating the soundness of the reasoning and the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.7.3), is it beyond English instruction to seek out civility and compassion to help bring clarity to current events fraught with misinformation?

The truth is, we can’t just direct our students to the encyclopedia anymore. The volume and quality of the information our students receive every day from the Internet is staggering, and we simply cannot pretend that it does not shape their learning process. Especially since with greater global access comes greater global citizenship. Thus, dramatic is the difference between asking a student from 1990 vs. 2016 to “Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.7.8).

In the complexity of teaching and learning today, 21st century educators know that we are tasked to teach our students how to think, not what to think.

Or, as Pernille put it so well herself at the onset of this project,

“My job is not to make you think a certain way, my job is to make you think.  So whatever your opinion may be, all I ask of you is to have one based on fact, rather than what others believe.  Keep your ears open and ask a lot of questions.  That is the least you can do as the future of this country.”

Keep up the great work, Pernille, and all other teachers dedicated to helping their students make sense of this dynamic and exponentially shifting world!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

 

Meeting Your Students’ Authentic Reading Needs with Goodreads

I recently started reading Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer. Two quotes stand out sharply to me. The first:

“I believe that this corporate machinery of scripted programs, comprehension worksheets (reproducibles, handouts, printables, whatever you want to call them), computer-based incentive packages, and test practice curriculum facilitates a solid bottom-line for the companies that sell them, and give schools proof they can point to that they are using every available resource to teach reading, but these efforts are doomed to fail a large number of students because they leave out the most important factor. When you take a forklift and shovel off the programs, underneath it all is a child reading a book.”

Amen!

“I am a reader, a flashlight-under-the-covers, carries-a-book-everywhere-I-go, don’t-look-at-my-Amazon-bill. I choose purses based on whether I can cram a paperback into them, and my books are the first items I pack into a suitcase. I am the person who family and friends call when they need a book recommendation or cannot remember who wrote Heidi. My identity as a person is so entwined with my love of reading and books that I cannot separate the two.”

The best literacy teachers I know of are these kinds of readers. And they do it without the “corporate machinery” of literacy instruction.

It’s obvious why, isn’t it? For one thing, they are able to give timely book recommendations tailored to students’ needs and interests; their kids don’t need those drill-and-kill comprehension worksheets when they are already talking excitedly about that book you helped them find! More importantly, these teachers have thoroughly shaken off the hypocrisy of teaching students to embrace something they themselves do not. They keep literary enthusiasm front and center, regarding books as familiar friends, rather than as benchmarks to “pass off.” They are the embodiment of those “not the filling…a pail, but the lighting…a fire” (William Butler Yeats). Our literacy teachers should be the best readers around.

Yet, for me personally, I admit that I have felt overwhelmed by these prodigious teacher-readers. I love reading, but I have limitations that make me worry that I wouldn’t be able to meet my students’ needs as well as they can.

For me, those limitations here boil down to problems: #1) I’m a slow reader. #2) I have a terrible memory for book titles.

Enter Goodreads. Though I’ve had an account for years, I’d always considered it to be too cumbersome to use regularly. But the two features below have at last shown me how my efforts there can be richly rewarded and magnified to meet my students’ and my own reading needs.

Problem #1: Slow reading 

I don’t read the volume of books that these teacher-readers that I admire do. Without that volume, it’s difficult to offer suggestions that sufficiently meet their needs and interests. But as I sort books that I have read into custom digital shelves on Goodreads (see below), it generates recommendations based on the genres/levels of those shelves. This allows me to leverage the reading/reviews of millions of other readers to help me get that perfect book in my students’ hands.

Problem #2: Memory for titles

For the still-many books I am able to read, the titles tend to swirl together over time, making it difficult to pull one out for a timely student recommendation. Goodreads solves this problem by allowing me to sort and “shelve” these books into a personalized library with custom categories.

To an outsider, my many shelves may seem like madness, but for me, I know they will help me pick out the trees in the forest, so to speak. Some of my current shelves include:

  • 5th grade: Friendship (titles like WonderFlora and UlyssesThe Inquisitor’s Tale: Or the Three Magical Children and their Holy Dog, Three Times Lucky…)
  • 5th grade: Other-Worldly-Whimsical (The Magician’s Elephant, The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas, The Wild Robot)
  • 5th grade: Overcoming Odds (Rules, Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller, Holes)
  • Picture books: Challenging Status Quo (“In Mary’s Garden,” “Rosie Revere, Engineer,” “Cinder Edna,” “Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music”)
  • Picture books: Loss and Emotion (“The Heart and the Bottle,” “Boats for Papa,” “Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgois”)
  • Picture books: Unexpected Endings & Humor (“Stuck,” “The Skunk,” “The Wolf’s Chicken Stew”)

Bonus feature: Integrate your search with your local library’s database!

Today, I added a button to my account that takes me from a book page on Goodreads directly to the book on my library’s online catalog. This allows me to check availability and to place a hold that much more easily! Here’s a link to help you learn how to add the button. If you run into any trouble, just contact Goodread’s customer support and they will add your library for you so you can select it from their list! 🙂

Whatever your strategy–whether through Goodreads or more regularly scheduled library visits–our students will reap the benefits when we choose to commit to move toward greater authenticity as readers ourselves.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Collaboration: #BetterTogether

I recently came across an excellent post by Mr Jonathan So about reflection. One particularly honest and humorous line jumped out to me:

“…reflection for me started off as that one off we did with our kids or some fancy worksheet that made me look like I was reflecting but you know you weren’t.”

We are so good at this as human beings, aren’t we? Doing that token, “See-I’m-doing-it” thing without really gaining any (lasting) benefit from it (I’m looking at you, underused gym passes!). But we’re also really good at seeing right through the smokescreen; we know when something is really making a difference in our lives.

I feel like collaboration can be a lot like this. Most people laud its benefits, but when it comes down to it, how often do our work relationships feel truly symbiotic and meaningful? I know I have definitely been guilty of going through the motions to look more collaboration-y than I really felt in the past, especially when I didn’t feel like my ideas held a lot of value to others.

However, lately, I’ve been thinking about examples I’ve seen of collaboration with truly beautiful results. Many of my favorite Youtubers often come together to enhance one another’s talents, work, and reach. For instance:

Some might view this as simple commercial tactics. But I appreciate the collaboration for two key reasons: #1–it yields new creations that would never had been possible if everyone continued to be islands unto themselves. #2–I receive the opportunity to connect with new artists, innovators, and ideas through individuals I already admire and respect.

As I’ve contemplated all this, more examples of teachers achieving this #BetterTogether concept have caught my eye:

  • The concept behind this site‘s “Give one, Take one” for Hyperdocs lessons.
  • This co-written blog post by Cori Orlando and Kevin Feramisco.

Most recently, I have decided accept a challenge to work more closely with other educational bloggers to help us draw together, improve our own blogs, and benefit our readers. I’m looking forward to greater levels of authentic and meaningful collaboration through this challenge!

Here are their blogs. Take a look!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

An Inquiry Into Inquiry Planning…

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to run a few PD sessions at my old school, one of which was a session on inquiry planning–specifically, starting with our students first, rather than the content/curriculum. My first step in preparation, of course, was to consult my PLN:

Here were the responses:

And then, after some additional direct message chatting/advice, Edna Sackson posed one of her trademark call-to-action challenges:

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It made complete sense, so I immediately accepted. But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous!

But I knew that to really be there for my colleagues and their concerns about planning this way, modeling was really the way to go.

So we started with the following provocation:

I jotted down a few questions beforehand, including:

  • What are our limitations from an education stance?
  • What if we don’t embrace the “Shake” or what if our students do not?
  • How can being creative within our confines transform ourselves, our students, and our world?
  • What accepted norms do we challenge when we plan around our students instead of content?
  • How is inquiry be seen as “seizing the limitation” instead of “seizing the day?”

Then, knowing the concerns that often surround this topic, I chose to conduct the Compass Points protocol to bring those to the surface (another pointer from Edna)!
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What excited our group about planning from an inquiry stance:

  • Students come up with and create learning
  • Allowing the students to teach their peers as well as me as the teacher
  • Kids are excited and chattering about the concept
  • Student centered
  • New fresh ideas from little minds
  • Freedom for creativity & flexible thinking
  • Kids just come alive and are excited to share their learning in meaningful ways
  • Continue learning trial and error
  • It allows students to be more invested in what they’re learning. Memorable & relevant.

Their worries:

  • Classroom management
  • Getting in content and making it all work together
  • Time limited
  • Kids don’t participate or stay on task. Lose control.
  • Chaos–students putting forth no effort to learn.
  • Students won’t come up with ideas or be silent about the concept.
  • Not meeting expectations. Some failed lessons as wasted time?
  • Lots of planning and unsure where to lead lesson.
  • Having 825 kids for only 30 minutes once a week (specials teachers).
  • Students miss out on valuable time to be active (from the PE teacher)

Their “Need to Knows:”

  • Methods I can take and use right away
  • How to make it all day long and put in the content in a way that can be easily accessed.
  • How to set up behavior expectations without squelching thinking.
  • What counts as an inquiry lesson or activity?
  • The process of guiding and directing the students better.
  • What will excite and engage students.
  • My students–their personalities, limitations/struggles, where they need to go next.
  • Be more familiar with process and what it looks like in my situation

Their Stances (how we might move forward in our opinions):

  • Being flexible and allowing things to get maybe more out of hand than usual
  • Continue learning trial and error
  • Being balanced
  • Ask myself the questions
  • Bring inquiry into more subjects
  • It’s a great idea but often conflicts with how I need to run my classroom

Next, we sorted each of the categories. We focused on the worries for this, and decided we were most concerned about not meeting expectations (ie “covering” curriculum), classroom management, time management, and the logistics of planning this way.

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We were at the “where do we go next” juncture, and together, we decided to look at examples of individuals who are addressing these concerns in their teaching:

  • A couple of first grade teachers examined this literacy example of Jessica Lifshitz allowing her students’ questions to drive the planning.
  • The art teacher read Taryn Bondclegg’s A Class Misunderstood because she was especially interested in what it looks like when issues arise in an inquiry approach, and how we deal with them.
  • Some first grade teachers also looked at Taryn Bondclegg’s summary of her first month of all-in inquiry.
  • A couple of second grade teachers looked at math examples from this grade 2 class and Simon Gregg’s class.
  • Several others browsed Kath Murdoch’s downloads, particularly her “What do Inquiry Teachers Do?”

Unfortunately, we ran out of time to have a proper wrap-up (it was only an hour session and they were in the thralls of exploring the above resources), but I heard some wonderful conversations happening, ranging from how teachers really use their students’ questions, to realizations that giving up teacher control does not mean allowing chaos to rule in the classroom.

And I learned/reaffirmed…

…a solid provocation and relevant visible thinking routine are powerful tools to elicit serious thinking.

…deciding “where do we go from here?” with our students is an act of trust in them and in ourselves as professionals.

…collaboration and curation are essential skills for inquiry teachers. We can lean on one another both for our initial planning (a huge thank you to my PLN!) and subsequent decisions on where to go with our learners.

I think the next step for this group involves a closer look at the daily process of student-responsive planning. What do you think?

featured image: shehan peruma

Digital Citizenship: A Richer Perspective on #Edtech

Digital empowerment through digital citizenship. This will be the main focus of my upcoming professional development training sessions I’ll have the opportunity to conduct at my old school.

Inspired by the idea of providing differentiation in PD, I decided to run one K-2 session and one 3-5 session. Hopefully that will resolve the issue we encountered during last year’s technology PD when teachers of younger students voiced concern over applying more complex resources to their students.

As I reflect on my personal journey with classroom tech application, the good, the bad, and the ugly come back to mind:

  • Like that time I required every student in my class to create a Prezi for a unit summative assignment. And then we watched them all.
  • Or when I created a diy interactive whiteboard with my students so we could more easily select answers for some gameshow-like software.
  • Or when we decided to collaborate on Google Docs by having everyone revise others’ writing pieces and parts kept getting accidentally deleted. (this was before I was aware of the “See Revision History” feature…  
  • Or when I introduced students to Storybird and they created beautiful digitally illustrated fantasy stories.
  • Or when my students started blogging and sharing their work/commenting on peers, including their quadblogging pals in England and China.

The list goes on and on. But now that I have had time away from the classroom to reflect and research, I’ve gained a couple of key perspectives that I believe will make a big impact on how I use technology with future students:

Digital citizenship is about leveraging our opportunities to enhance connections.

I used to think that when it came to technology, I needed to spend a lot of time teaching my students to use it efficiently and effectively (ie, learning to type, navigating interfaces, etc.).  While these skills are still important, I now realize that it’s more important to spend time opening my students’ eyes to the possibilities available to them today.  I want them to know that they can gather perspectives from around the world, share interests with peers well beyond their classrooms, curate resources that matter to them, and enjoy stories with a global audience. Once they have that spark lit, the other skills will come as they dive in.

Digital citizenship is more about empowerment than caution.

We teach about identity theft, cyberbullying, and password security. And with good reason. But there is much more to the conversation on what it means to be a digital citizen! As George Couros often preaches, we must “find the awesome, create the awesome.” A Twitter exchange with Edna Sackson further illuminated the idea:

 

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Just as in citizenship in general, the opportunities for good are too overwhelming to wallow in excessive hesitation and fear for what might happen. We are empowered when we are encouraged to see what’s possible, to take ownership over our available resources, and to collaborate positively with other learners throughout the world.

I think one of my favorite aspects of our students developing a strong self-identity as digital citizens is that we can’t fathom what they will do with it. With the exponential nature of tech resources and access, if we give them confidence to explore, create, and contribute, the possibilities are truly boundless.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto