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I think it’s time to bring God back into the classroom.

I had this revelation as my class and I were concluding an intense week looking at some of the research and literature around the idea of happiness – part of our semester-long inquiry, “What does it take to live a happy life?”  On one of the final days, we looked at the differences between meaning and happiness and whether it’s more important to have a meaningful life than a happy life; the research seems to say that the two ideas are definitely not synonymous.  It was during this discussion that I had the realization that we needed to talk about God.  Not a God.  Not the God.  Just God.  Whether you believe in some supreme power or not, there are billions of people in the world who find meaning in life through faith in a deity.

To introduce the topic of God, I showed the following videos to my class – both are worth a watch.

What I love about the clip from “The Great Kahuna” with Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito is its admission that to be human means to have questions about God.  To wonder about God.  It’s a profound clip.  To complement this video, I found one that examines the question, “Is God Useful?” in a much more philosophically rigorous way.  Both of these videos effectively opened up the door for my class to talk about their thoughts, fears, and ideas about God.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that all of my students (who come from a wide variety of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds) have thoughts about God, spirituality, and religion.  Some of my students are going through a profound period of time where they are critically analyzing what they believe, and their identities are hanging in the balance.  The discussion was rich, and the journals that were written afterwards were profound.

Nothing was decided at the end of the class; no conclusion was reached except for the fact that talking about God is important, and that our belief, or lack of belief in God has significant implications in our search for meaning and happiness.

I think that talking about God in school is important.  Not what to think, but how to think about God.  There seem to be very few opportunities for people, whether you’re a high school student or about to retire, to talk openly and honestly about God.  It seems to be a topic that makes people uncomfortable, perhaps because of their own unanswered questions.  But it’s those very questions and the unknowns that can make this conversation so rich.  It’s in the search for answers that we find meaning and purpose.  And if schools are to develop students into the critically-reflective individuals and citizens we want to see in the world, we need to provide the tools and space to address the deep things they’re thinking about.

What better place to do this than in school?

 

For the second year, my Adventure Co-op class is studying the idea of happiness in the English language arts component of the course.  The inquiry question that is guiding this process is, “What does it take to live a happy life?”  I’ve seen students’ lives changed in the process of better understanding this question because everyone is pursuing happiness in one way or another.  It’s perhaps the most relevant idea to study in school, especially as my students are currently laying foundations of being that will shape their decisions and interactions as they move from their high school context into other realms of life.  We started out by looking at some of the science and research that’s been done on happiness as well as some of the big ideas that contribute to a person’s level of happiness.  We are now starting to dig a little deeper.

Yesterday we delved into the importance that relationship has on a person’s happiness.  To do this, I started off by showing my students the final scene of the movie “Into the Wild” – a true story about a young man who starts a three year journey from America’s east coast to Alaska in order to fulfill his fanatic idealism.  Along the way, he cuts every meaningful relationship out of his life, including his parents who don’t hear from him for two years.  Unfortunately, when he arrives in Alaska he experiences a series of events that ultimately leads to his death, but not before he has a profound insight into what it means to be happy.

After watching the clip and having a short discussion on the connection between relationships and happiness, I got my students to record their thoughts in a journal reflection.  What I thought would take maybe ten minutes took forty.  What I thought might be a paragraph for most, turned into a page for many.  For young adults who are in a very visceral process of identity building, understanding who their friends are and the impact they have on their lives is a very real process.  One student wrote:

Even though I only watched a short part of the video, it hit me like a ton of bricks… the relevance of this story to my own life, today and in the past week has been on my mind for a while now.

Another wrote:

I’ve never had an opportunity to open my fun side and didnt get an opportunity to connect with people the way i do now, its like a whole new me i can now do things that i couldnt do before.  I make my own choices, i do whatever i want, because i found a set of friends that know what the meaning of life means, the friends that i had before didnt care about school…

It was made very clear to me in the all of the journal reflections I got that my students are very much thinking about their relationships and understanding what they mean.  They know and are surprisingly articulate about how much their friends influence their level of happiness.  For some of my students, having the opportunity to think and process some of these ideas may lead to real change.

question

About five years ago I came to the startling realization that my teaching lacked direction.  I didn’t really have any idea where I was going pedagogically and, as a result, my students didn’t either.  I was the captain of a ship that was guided by the whim of temperamental winds and leaderless currents.  Interestingly, none of my students ever really questioned me about where they were supposed to be by the end of the course – they simply assumed that I knew where I was going like sheep following a blind shepherd.  If a student ever did question the direction and purpose of a course, I could easily pull together some pat answer about learning how to read and write better.  Boring.  Uninspiring.  The hardest part about this realization was that I would’ve hated being a student in my class.  I would’ve hated not knowing where we were going and would’ve quickly lost motivation.

It was through backwards design and inquiry that I began to find direction in my teaching.  Backwards design helped me understand what I wanted students to know or be able to do after they completed a course with me and inquiry gave me the framework to reach these goals.  It took me four years to refine an inquiry question that had the longevity to inspire and engage my students for a whole semester – a story for another post.  To make a long story short, I found that the questions themselves need to engage – they can’t simply inform.  As such, I’ve tried to make my essential and inquiry questions somewhat provocative – questions that would capture the interest of a room full of teenagers.  The question that my students and I have pursued this semester is:

How can I live a happy life?

I also have four questions that guide the learning in my classroom:

1. How can I accurately interpret a text for meaning?

2. How can I manipulate others through effective communication?

3. How can I avoid being controlled by the media?

4. How can I become a powerful reflective and critical thinker?

These questions challenged, guided, and engaged my class this last semester and  there is still lots (LOTS) of room for improvement.  However, I feel like my class has a direction and purpose that was seriously lacking in my early career as teacher.

 

 

Here is another ‘postcard’ for my SFU masters – it is an artistic representation of my readings and/or inquiry project.  I’m taking a very open interpretation of the term postcard here; I replaced the traditional image with a very specific soundscape that both enhances and contributes to the meaning of the poem.  This postcard is a response to an article called “Cognition, co-emergence, curriculum” by Brent Davis, Dennis J. Sumara & Thomas E. Kieren.  I created this postcard using Windows Movie Maker.

 

One of the assignments I have to complete after each week’s readings (for my masters) is to create a ‘postcard’ that in some way incorporates the ideas from the texts we read.  I thought I’d upload this week’s postcard after reading Margaret Lattat and Jeong_Hee Kim’s article “Narrative Inquiry: Seeking Relations as Modes of Interaction” (2010) and Carl Leggo’s  “Astonishing Silence: Knowing in Poetry” (2007).  If you want the full annotation please contact me.

Connecting poetry and research

The following is the result of an assignment I had to do for my master’s class.  We had to look at the painting below and connect it to the process of inquiry.  This is what I came up with…

looped painting

Looped Painting Exercise

When I look at this painting and think about how it connects to my journey as a teacher inquirer, several thoughts come to mind.  The black loops that dominate the painting are an obvious connection to the spirals of inquiry that I am currently engaged in.  The loops are not static however, they tell a story of inquiry – a narrative that is both unequivocally personal and wholly relatable by those engaged in the inquiry process.  I find it interesting that the black line has an obvious beginning but no end.  The line disappears off the edge of the painting.  My personal journey in teacher inquiry definitely had a beginning, but now that I’ve started in it, I don’t know how I could ever go back to a time where I am not inquiring in some way.I like how the line leaves the painting in an upward trajectory, indicative that another inquiry might be on its way if the painting were elongated.

Beside each thick black loop are thin black loops that detach themselves from the bigger loops.  These are like the tangents one might follow in the process of data analysis; sometimes they connect back with the bigger inquiry question like in the first loop, but at other times they don’t connect to anything and simply end – perhaps to be rediscovered in another inquiry down the road.  I like how the line is blurred and almost disappears during the second loop, when the question the inquirer is pursuing might seem irrelevant, the data confusing, and for a time, the researcher may enter into a dark night experience where the  narrative is lost for a time, only to be found again later, stronger than ever.  There are also moments of illuminated clarity, sprinkled throughout the paining as yellowish-green dabs, and moments of sustained clarity and insight as seen in the third spiral.

The bleeding of the black line is important too, as our findings, insights, and revelations bleed into other spheres of our life both personally and professionally.  I like how this painting can be examined through both a macro and micro lens; currently, I’m engaged in an inquiry that looks at the connection points between portfolio assessment and student autonomy, but if I zoom out, my story of inquiry started many years ago when I first realized that I was unhappy with the way I was teaching.  It was from that initial unhappiness that gradually lead me to discover the power inquiry could have on revitalizing and changing my practice.  Perhaps, if you were to zoom out even further, life could be seen as a series of spirals of tension and enlightenment – another expression of the natural ebb and flow that is the story of our lives.

The background of this painting is a little more elusive to me.  There appears to be a figure inside the first circle, indicative perhaps of the people who help shape our thoughts and ideas in the process of inquiry, both before we ever started down this road and during the process.  The chosen colours aren’t bright but rather muted.  Perhaps this reveals that the process of inquiry isn’t glamorous but, using the words of Nietzsche “a long obedience in the same direction.”

A couple weeks ago I had what I think might be my biggest insight this school year.  For the last two years I’ve experimented with different forms of inquiry learning with my students with varying degrees of success.  For most of my students it has increased their level of engagement and some amazing learning has happened.  But during this last semester I began to see something that started to put up red flags for me, and for months I was unable to articulate why these flags were going up (partly too because I didn’t take the time to properly reflect on what was happening in my classroom).  My students were learning but it seemed too…haphazard.  It wasn’t focused learning.  For some it was distracted learning.  For others it was trying to prove their own biases.  There was a very small contingent of my students who truly possessed the skills necessary to learn effectively through inquiry learning.

Then one day it hit me.  I was doing some research online when I came across a chart outlining the habits of mind that are necessary to effectively learn.  It was then a 1000 watt light bulb was flipped on in my mind (seriously – light was shooting from my ears and my eyes started watering!) –

effective inquiry learning can only take place if students have the habits of mind to learn in this way.

By the time this insight illuminated my mind from the aforementioned 1000 watt light bulb it was too late to change what was happening in my classroom – the semester was almost over and my students were nearing the end of their inquiry projects.  It became abundantly clear to me though that things will have to change for next year.

One thing that I did really well this year was teach my students about how they can know if they’ve learned something.  I spent almost a full day teaching the six facets of understanding as outlined in Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s “Understanding by Design.”  We used their language of understanding over and over to reinforce how they can know if they’ve learned something.  The next step for me will be to teach the necessary dispositions to effectively reach these understandings.  I’ve come to realize that one of my overarching goals as a teacher is to create students who are self-regulated learners.  They will be able to take the skills, dispositions, and ideas learned in my class and be more effective students in all the other classrooms they visit throughout their high school career and beyond.

To be honest, I sometimes wish I didn’t have to teach these things.  I wish students came into my classroom – whether in grades 10, 11, or 12 – and already have the understandings about learning to jump right into the course without me having to bring them up to speed on how they know how to learn.  It takes a LOT of time to teach these things and then even more time to reinforce them while at the same time weeding out the jumping-thought-hoops learning that most of my students are so accustomed and comfortable with.  If these ideas were taught, reinforced, and validated in every class from grade one on with ever growing sophistication, imagine the learners we would graduate!

I feel like there is an ever growing movement towards inquiry based learning.  In fact, in almost every pedagogical workshop/presentation I’ve been too this year there has been some mention of inquiry learning.  This is a good thing and it reveals a fundamental shift in how educator think about teaching, learning, and school.  However, after my light bulb moment, my concern is that teachers are going to throw their students into inquiry based learning without laying a foundation that will enable their students to effectively use this model of learning.  Perhaps the cart is being put in from of the horse – which almost never ends well for the horse!

I look forward to my next season of learning about self-regulated learning and habits of mind to make this possible.  If you have any book, blog, article, or video suggestions that will help guide my thinking – please feel free to send them my way!

Watching this video was like having my eyes opened to a new dimension that I want to go to as an educator.  Although the ideas are not new, the way they’re communicated really resonated with me.  High Tech High is a school based out of San Diego that is changing the way school works.  Enjoy…but watch at your own risk!

 

Quotes that (really) connected with me:

“Rigour is being in the company of a passionate adult who is rigorously pursuing inquiry in the area of their subject matter and is inviting students along as peers in that adult discourse.”

“If your kids are producing work that’s worth doing and that has lasting value and learning that’s worth learning, you’re a good teacher.”

– Larry Rosenstock

One of the things I love to do in my spare time is introduce people to the mountains that are tantalizingly close to where I work and live.  I find that most people really enjoy getting out into the wilderness but may not know where to go or who to go with – that`s where I come in.  Seeing people’s expressions when standing at the top of some striking peak must be one of the best experiences ever!  Although I’ve done a number of different solo trips, I’ve found that enjoying a mountain top (or most anything in the great outdoors) is best done in the context of community.

Although I love leading people into the wilderness, it’s not always the most relaxing experience for me – especially if I’m on a trail I’ve never been on before.  Not only do I have to ensure that we stay on the right path, I also have to analyze the terrain, route-find if there is no trail, and have a pulse on how my fellow hikers are managing – both physically and emotionally.  To err in any of these areas can have a devastating effect on a trip.  Generally speaking though, the adventure and fun had on such a trip far outweighs any added stress.

I feel like I’m on a very similar journey in my classroom.  For the first time ever, my students are embarked on inquiry learning projects; although I have a rough idea of where I want them to end up, I’m still not sure what the trail looks like between where we’re at right now and our final destination.  In many ways this ‘newness’ adds to the adventure of the experience for everyone, but it’s also somewhat unnerving for me as I let go of some of my ‘teacher’ control.  Yet at the same time, I know I am on the right track when I see the enthusiasm and excitement as my students throw themselves into their questions. I also know I’m on the right track when my students tell me that this process is really hard – yet they continue to persevere.

For some of my students this is the first time I have observed them fully engaged in the learning process.

I still have a lot to learning about the process of inquiry learning and am constantly tweaking the process along the way (and even in the process of writing this I’m realizing that there are some issues I’ll have to address tomorrow in class).  Regardless, I thought I’d share the basic framework of how I’m structuring inquiry learning in my classroom.

Bring on the Inquiry Learning!

Since the beginning of the semester (starting sometime late September) I let my students know that they were going to do an inquiry based project and to start thinking about questions they might be interested in exploring.  I reminded them about this at different times throughout the semester which made it much easier when it came time to craft their question at the beginning of January – most students already had some idea of what they wanted to explore.

The Question

Crafting a question was their first task.  And with it came my first dilemma – how much input do I give them on their questions?  Several of my students had questions that were so big I could envision them getting frustrated by the sheer amount of information they would have to sift through.  In these cases I encouraged them to consider focusing their questions down to something that might be a bit more manageable.  The big thing I had to keep on reminding myself during this process was that these are my students questions – not mine.  Although in many cases I could word their questions in a more powerful or convincing way (and my perfectionist English side was prodding me to do so), I felt that I needed to let them own their question.  In some cases I did offer suggestions to help clarify their question and I also asked numerous questions for them to consider – in some cases it prompted students to change their question.  By and large though, I’ve tried to keep my own vision for their questions to the side and let the process of learning take over.

Planning

After students had their question established, I had them work on putting together a basic plan for how they were going to pursue their inquiry.  They had to brainstorm about possible ways to do research, how they might want to present what they found, and how they would keep a record of their learnings throughout the whole process.

Research

Then the research started.  After a several days of research went by I could tell that the initial enthusiasm my students showed signs of waning.  Some of my students where having trouble finding reliable research and some where getting lost in the sheer amount of information that’s available online.  I gave a number of mini-workshops on how to find reliable information online and in some cases I would sit down with a student and help them find research online.  In other cases I taught students how to skim through large amounts of information and to glean only what they needed for their inquiry.  As the research portion of their inquiry is coming to a close, my students are much more adept at navigating the web and finding relevant, credible information.

The Missing Link

Last week my students began to wrap up their research and started working on how they were going to represent their learnings.  However, as the week progressed I felt strongly that something was missing.  After reflecting about what this niggling feeling could be, I suddenly realized that my students had jumped from their research straight into creating without processing and thinking about what the information they discovered means.  I had not allowed any time to make conclusions from their research.  So the next day I ground the entire inquiry train to a screeching halt and we talked about the missing link – reflection.  To help them in this process I’m getting my students to write informational essays where they are able to draw up some of their own conclusions about their inquiry.  Through the essay, I’m not only teaching my students how to write in a systematic and organized way, I’m also teaching them how to THINK in a systematic and organized way, which will hopefully allow them to make better conclusions from their research.

And that’s where we’re at so far.  The next part will be creating projects where students share their knowledge in a real way with an authentic audience.  I know one student is planning on creating a blog, another will create a series of posters that will go up in the school, and another is thinking about putting together the framework for a video game.  Others are undecided.  It’s been an interesting journey so far and I am looking forward to how all of this will wrap up in the next two weeks.

This past week I’ve thrown myself (and my students) into the brave new world of inquiry.  Although in many ways I feel totally unprepared this whole new way of teaching (and learning), the time was right and my students were ready, so I made the jump!  As with all new endeavors, there are the combined feelings of exhilaration and anxiety, trepidation and boldness – all jostling for top spot.  Sounds like an adventure!  After spending only two days on their inquiries, my students left for the weekend excited.  It’s their excitement, along with my beliefs about how inquiry can change the classroom environment that are driving this new teaching initiative forward.

Before I jumped into inquiry learning, I thought it might be a good idea to do some research; after all, I’m not going to jump into the pool until I know how deep it is (just so you know – it’s deep!).  Although I’ve found many articles advocating for inquiry teaching and learning, I’ve had a tough time finding information on how to actually implement an inquiry into the classroom.  Several resources that have been incredibly useful for me in this regard are linked below:

  1. “Focus on Inquiry” “A teacher’s guide to implementing inquiry based learning” developed by the ministry of education in Alberta.  Invaluable.
  2. “Inquiring Mind” is a user friendly site created by a teacher, educational consultant, and ICT facilitator in New Zealand.  This is a great place to get started thinking about how to structure inquiry learning in the classroom.
  3. “Wright’s Room” is a blog created by high school teacher Shelley Wright who is living and breathing inquiry in her classroom.  The things she’s doing with her students is inspirational and her authentic writing has helped me envision and plan out my own inquiry.

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