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:

Zipcodes: A “How We Organize Ourselves” Provocation

A while back, I shared a provocation to support one of the IB Primary Years Programme Units known as Who We Are. This week, I want to share one that can be used with How We Organize Ourselves. Take a look at this fascinating video to find out how the US went about the problem of an exponentially growing volume of mail.

Provocation Questions:

  • How are problem-solving and organization connected?
  • How did the zip-code solution change over time?
  • How might future zip code solutions impact people?
  • Why do we keep changing the way we organize systems?
  • What is our responsibility to keep changing the way we organize systems?

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

A Provocation Into Who We Are & Reflection

In the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (IB PYP), teachers organize their curriculum into six units of inquiry with broad titles. One of them is designated as the “Who We Are” unit, and it’s always a pleasure to watch my students investigate the central idea within this framework. A powerful resource to help provoke their thinking is a photo series by Tom Hussey called, “Reflections” (see his site for more).

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Provocation Questions

  • What does reflection look like for you?
  • How does reflection help us figure out who we are?
  • How does looking back help us move forward?
  • Why is reflection sometimes difficult for people?
  • How does the process of reflection change for people over time?
  • What causes people to become more interested in reflecting?

featured image: Shin-ichi Ueda

Provocation: To Thine Own Self Be True

I want to start this week’s provocation article by re-sharing a quote from Paul Solarz that was included in Adam Hill’s post on launching Genius Hour with his students:

“Too many children today go to school only to bide their time until they get home and do something that truly interests them.”

Paul Solarz, Learn like a PIRATE

The more I think about this, the more it makes sense that those same children grow up to continue to spend large blocks of their lives–even careers–“biding their time until they get…to do something that truly interests them.”

Meanwhile, they might never truly learn what their own passions are, let alone practice them.

To me, it all comes down to assumptions. How we should spend our time, our money, our relationships, our energy, our intelligence–it’s all dictated based on preconceived notions from, well, almost everyone around us.

Today, I want to share two resources that rock that idea to the core. The first is a beautiful autobiographical comic from Bill Watterson–a man who turned down millions of dollars to authentically pursue his passion and craft.

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The second is a video entitled “The Millennial Rebuttal.”

You might take a look at these provocation resources and think, “Yeah, but tomorrow, I need to teach fractions, phonics, and the anatomy of an apple. What place does this have in my instruction?”

The answer is, the highest place. Untraining students from the dependency on others’ assumptions will help them better familiarize themselves with their passions, develop their critical thinking, unlock their ability to problem-solve creatively, and own their learning process.  We have trained our students to sit passively and wait to be told what the priority is long enough. It’s time to help them look at the big picture, and to discover what matters most.

Provocation Questions:

  • Why are cultural messages (“they say”) often at odds with reality? Where do they come from?
  • What are other cultural messages you’ve heard that don’t line up with your experience/values?
  • What does it mean to “invent your own life’s meaning?”
  • To assume means to act like you know something about a person or how something should look based on your experiences. How do assumptions impact individuals and societies?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Inspiring Inquiry: Popping the Monday-Friday Bubble

A Monday-Friday workweek is so commonplace that it has created a culture of its own. #TGIF, Hump Day, Garfield’s animosity toward Mondays–the list goes on. But what about people for whom it’s not the reality?

As members of my PLN stretch around the globe, I’ve become more familiar with people posting back-to-school Tweets in January, or starting school each week on Sundays. But recently, these differences have intrigued me enough to do some research.

For example, did you know that almost a third of countries listed on Wikipedia do not use the Monday-Friday workweek?

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Stats calculated from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workweek_and_weekend

I had a great time pondering the questions this simple concept elicited for me–I can only imagine where this would take students.

Provocation questions for students:

  • Why do some people start school on Saturdays or Sundays instead of Mondays?
  • Why do some countries have 6 day work weeks, while others have 5 day work weeks?
  • What is the history of the workweek and weekend? How have these concepts changed over time?
  • Why does Brunei Darussalam have the unique workweek of Monday-Thursday and Saturday?
  • What patterns do you see among countries with the same workweek?

Come back next Monday for another “Inspiring Inquiry” post. Read here for the rest of my weekly blogging topic schedule/background. 

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

An Epiphany: Blog Posting Topic Schedule

You know when you get those moments of clarity that make you giddy with excitement? I’m currently in the thralls of one of those right here!

I’ve been reflecting lately about my blogging habits that I know are holding me back. Like the fact that my brainstorming process reminds me of chicken feed scattered thin across a yard (I have several dozen Google Documents of ideas I start and then abandon to jump to something else). Or the time I waste second-guessing myself before I hit publish. Or the mental energy I squander with worry that since I’m not currently in a classroom, my ideas are less valuable.

But today, I’ve had a stroke of inspiration that I hope will help me better organize, focus, and refresh my thoughts and time. I’ve decided to try joining those bloggers who create weekly topic schedules for their posts:

Mondays: Inspiring Inquiry

Wednesdays: #TeacherMom

Friday: Learning Through Reflecting

Some background on each topic:

Mondays: Inspiring Inquiry

I feel like I’m constantly stumbling across beautiful and thought-provoking images, articles, or videos that I think would make incredible Provocations or conversation-starters for students (for those not familiar with International Baccalaureate or the PYP–Primary Years Program–a Provocation is a component of an inquiry unit that provokes students’ questions and thinking, hopefully orienting them toward that unit). Sometimes I’ll tweet them and sometimes I’ll bookmark them. But I’m generally left with a nagging, back-of-mind worry that I’ll want to find that one resource again for my future students, only to be thwarted by my hopeless lack of organization.

So I’m setting aside Mondays as “Inspiring Inquiry” as a personal goal to not only better organize provocation-worthy material, but to share with my fellow teachers. In addition to publishing my favorite resource of the week, I’ll also plan on listing open-ended questions you can have students consider.

Wednesdays: #TeacherMom

I’m particularly excited about this one. I’ve often heard the advice for bloggers to “write what you know.” As a teacher writing for an educational blog, I never anticipated this being an issue (after all, despite being on year two of my extended parental leave, I still can’t seem to turn off “teacher mode”).  But the longer I’m away from my classroom, the more difficult it’s becoming to reach back to write about my experiences in the classroom. And if I’m not reflecting about personal teaching experiences, I worry about originality–I don’t want to just recycle other people’s ideas.

What’s more, child-rearing has taken center stage on the “what I know” front while I’m home with our three little ones. And I don’t often turn to this all-encompassing aspect of my life for writing inspiration because it’s not the classroom.  

But I recently realized how very silly this has been. Though my students are much smaller, they still offer rich learning opportunities every day. And not only run-of-the-mill parenthood learning (ie, don’t lay down on your picnic blanket during a crowded library storytime, or the toddler behind you might try to pick your nose), but learning that very much uses and extends my professional development as a teacher. So it’s time for those #TeacherMom stories to come to light. Buckle up!

Friday: Learning Through Reflecting

I’m setting this aside to reflect on lightbulb moments on my previous teaching practices. These “aha” moments usually come as I connect with and learn from my PLN–their tweets, blogs, and photos. They also come through keeping up with educational journals and news. 


I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about making this kind of commitment. I know there will be days or even weeks where it just doesn’t happen. But since I want to continue to model important learner qualities to my students (current small ones and future bigger ones), I refuse to let fear of failure keep me from taking a chance that might help me grow and improve.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear from you! Have you ever tried a blogging topic schedule? What worked for you and what did not? What are your thoughts on the topics I’ve chosen? And I’d also love to hear your feedback on these themed posts as they start rolling out next week!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto