An Essential Question to Ground Our Inquiry

16 Mar

These last few weeks have been a little tricky. We’ve had snow days, delayed openings, half days, and PARCC testing disrupt the usual continuity of the start of our Othello unit in my sophomore English classes. In the midst of the disruptions, the students were introduced to the Inquiry Learning Plan and developed their first essential questions. They have created questions for Socratic seminars with their first semester, substitute teacher, but for the first time, they were creating something that could help them examine multiple sources, that was philosophical in nature, and that was broad enough to garner unique responses. Before we got into PARCC testing and before they would need to read a chunk of the text on their own, I wanted them to have a grounding question that they could continually refer to as they read.

We started with a brief mini-lesson in types of questions. I borrowed definitions from Giselle Martin-Kniep for divergent, convergent, and fact-based.

Types of Questions

I asked the students, first, what they thought the words might mean. I reminded them that they could draw from understandings in science or math classes as well as from the popular book series, Divergent, to formulate potential definitions. Students differentiated between divergent and convergent by saying that the former leads to multiple end points whereas the latter might start from multiple places that “converge” or yield to one end point. I asked them to apply that to a question, and using the symbols next to the words above, we created the common understanding that a divergent question requires someone to examine multiple resources and could have multiple responses, depending on perspective, resources, and personal experiences. Convergent questions have a specific answer that might require some analysis of resources and some careful interpretation, but no matter the perspective of the person responding, the answer is the same. Fact-based questions also have one answer, but they are more simplistic. They don’t require interpretation. Instead, these are the kinds of questions that can be answered by simply turning to a specific page. For example, if I asked who wrote the play, all students could look at the cover of the book and respond, “William Shakespeare.”

After reading Act I, I grouped students and asked them to identify thematic concepts they had seen emerging in the text so far. They listed revenge, jealousy, bravery, confidence, justice, treachery, love, betrayal, loyalty, trust, and racism. Next, each group identified two concepts that they wanted to explore further, and they wrote divergent questions for each.

Group representatives wrote their questions on the board for class review.

They shared questions like these:

  • Is trust always blind?
  • Is betraying your family worth it to be with the person you love?
  • How do rumors affect thoughts and actions?
  • Can love overpower anything or can the world and its obstacles eventually come between two people?
  • Why are people susceptible to manipulation?
  • Is trust in others a strength?

We then eliminated or reworked questions that were too specific to the text or that weren’t divergent. For example, the students thought the following question was too leading: “How has the value of loyalty decreased since the time period described in Othello?” Some thought it left out the possibility that the value of loyalty hasn’t decreased. They swapped out the word, “decreased” for “changed;” however, some were still not satisfied. They thought it was too specific, and they didn’t think that they could walk away with varying responses if they stuck to a compare/contrast structure. The class decided to nix it altogether.

They voted on the remaining questions, first selecting two favorites within the group (no group was allowed to vote for both of their own questions) to narrow down the selections. Finally, the groups voted on their ultimate favorite, and the question with the most votes in the class won:

When is revenge justifiable?

After the decision was made, I asked students to write down the other questions on the board that might want to explore and that will help them to answer the class question. They’re keeping those in their ILPs throughout the unit.

The class question will serve as our grounding focus as the students take control of selecting supplementary sources, studying individual standards, and developing unique activities. That will allow the whole class to come together at reflection points. This is especially important as they learn how to go through the ILP and navigate the emotions of inquiry. I’ll report back on our progress as we go!  

Articulating Growth and Setting Realistic Goals

18 Feb

Meg and I recently went back to our teaching jobs after a semester writing sabbatical. I took over two sections of a junior-level inclusion course and three sections of an honors sophomore course. After spending months pouring over former students’ work, I am seeing a key difference between those who worked with the ILP and my current students.The abilities to articulate learning, accurately assess work, and set realistic and challenging goals for improvement are hallmarks of student experiences when they use the ILP as a tool to guide their learning. Unfortunately, I am not yet seeing these qualities in my current students.

Because the ILP system is grounded by the close-reading of standards and unit/course objectives, students gain intimate familiarity with the requirements of the unit/course, and they have a hand in developing ways to express mastery of those requirements. They consistently compare their work to the requirements and articulate how and why their work matches, falls short of, or exceeds the standards. This often happens in teacher conferences, but the ILP also builds in points to reflect on progress after each round of practice with a skill. That means students are not only comparing their work to professional models or exemplary work but they’re also comparing their second attempts to their own first attempts and pinpointing elements that have improved and why. They are also recognizing aspects that remain stagnant and setting new goals for further growth.

Here are a couple of examples from my current students when they were asked to consider how they made progress toward goals they set at the beginning of the school year.

20150218_114355  20150218_115015

While there are elements of specificity, most vaguely reference some improvement without articulating what aspects of the broader skills needed improvement and, more importantly, what they see that’s different from their initial attempts.

In prior years, students were asked to reflect on their progress after each attempt at a skill. The example below from one of last year’s sophomores not only shows a deeper understanding of the skills’ elements, but it also shows how his second attempts were better than previous tries. And, this student clearly articulates where he can still improve.


Standard reflection from previous student after two rounds of skill practice

Continual self-assessment leads to a strong self-awareness that other students might not have. As a result, providing students with tools to help them assess and opportunities for deliberate practice has gained increasing importance in my classroom. I’m getting more and more excited to jump into that aspect of teaching. I took the first step in the process last week with my new groups of sophomores. They used their initial reflections to set goals for themselves going forward. Then, we put those goals to use immediately.

In small groups, students examined the standards for our next unit, and they selected those that echoed the goals they established. They will be their focus standards for the unit–the ones that they target with specific activities, receive the most feedback on, and reflect on throughout the course of the unit. Next, they performed close reads of the standards, using the model that Meg designed last year*. Already, they began to see intricacies of the skills that they identified as areas for growth, and they are fine-tuning the goals that they established.


Close-read of CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.9-10.5 by sophomore students

I’m excited to see what practice with reflection and self-assessment will yield, and I’m even more excited to help the students through the process. If these classes are anything like those that previously used the ILP and its accompanying tools, these students will walk away with the ability to thoughtfully and accurately assess their work and to hold themselves accountable for the goals they set.

“AASL 4.1.3 Standard Close-Read Activity Model” created by Meg Donhauser and previously published in School Library Monthly (Volume 31, No. 4, pages 8-11).

“I wish school curriculums let students create more.”

12 Nov

Last month, I observed a few classes at Lakeside, an independent school in Seattle, WA. There, teachers are moving toward, what they call, a playground model in which students are encouraged to take risks and experiment. While they of course still have a curriculum that they follow, students do have freedom to do things like design, tweak, and retry their own lab experiments and to play with programming software to figure out how chaos and order are a part of an author’s writing. It sounds awesome, doesn’t it?

Of course these things are not total anomalies in public education, but with increasing demands to produce evidence of student achievement, time dedicated to trying new things and allowing students the freedom to make and learn from mistakes can sometimes take a back seat to things like test prep. What seems more amazing is that students recognize that trend as well. They’re not naive in that they know acing an AP exam will put them in good standings for college admissions, but they also seem to crave more choice and more time to play.

This week, I’m reading through student reflections, in which they discuss their greatest takeaways from working with the ILP and the work in subsequent classes that makes them feel most accomplished. Here is one that seems to encapsulate what many of his peers are also thinking:

“NO other class has let me create my own work from the ground up, and this vertical growth has been enjoyable in that I have learned how to independently pursue relevant knowledge and also how to put my independent creative vision into this discovery of knowledge. Especially in my narrative writing. I found this unit to be most enjoyable because of this promotion of free creation. I don’t imagine I’ll get to use this skill again because AP classes are intensely geared towards taking a test, not promoting the free ideas and creation that all student all really need. I wish more people realized that creation is more important than just doing activities, like during this English class and in other classes as well (world language, especially), and that’s my greatest takeaway. I wish school curriculums let students create more…. This unit has made me realize that the current system of education desperately needs to reform for more independent creation.” (10th grade Honors Student)

The student’s terms, “vertical growth” and “free creation” really strike me because I see them echoed in the pleas of many other students.

During our STEM class, my partner and I developed detailed instructions for our peers to build piece of a steam engine. We failed! All of those red marks are questions from our peers. We tried again after knowing more about our audience's needs. The blue marks indicate our 2nd attempt with a focus on spacial dimensions.

During our STEM class, my partner and I developed detailed instructions for our peers to build a piece of a steam engine. We failed! All of those red marks are questions from our peers. So, we tried again after learning more about our audience’s needs. The blue marks indicate our 2nd attempt with a focus on spacial dimensions and different perspectives.

Of course, there are many, many teachers who are doing amazing things with student creation, but it seems increasingly saved for elective classes in public education. When I took a professional development course on STEM across the curriculum at my school, I had the pleasure of experiencing what those students are yearning for. While setting us off on a project of our own creation, Design and Applied Technology teacher, Michael McFadden gave three pieces of wisdom that I couldn’t help but write down:

  • In the engineering process, students have to fail before they can start. It’s not until they fail and have to figure out why something didn’t work that they have a real problem to solve.
  • You’re never finished.
  • The two biggest requirements for any project–be engaged in the process and be as ambitious as you want.

This makes me wonder, especially in highly-tested subject areas or content-heavy courses, how can we do more to let our students explore, be ambitious, and engage in the process? How can we reconcile the need for grades on “finished” products if students are forever vertically growing? And how can we allow for students to learn from mistakes?

Teacher Strategies: When Learning Gets Emotional

17 Sep

Undoubtedly, one of the toughest teacher responsibilities in an inquiry classroom is helping students past those moments of the Information Search Process where they feel frustrated and confused. If this strikes a majority of students simultaneously, it might feel easier to just return to a more traditional, predictable, and comfortable format rather than stick with the inquiry method. Below are some strategies we employ when our students hit those walls.

  1. Above all, make sure that you’re celebrating their accomplishments. Make sure that you tell students when they show growth or do something well. Maybe even share some examples with the class. Specifically, we like to share when a student gets us to consider something totally new. We can show them that we’re learning with them and that the teacher doesn’t have all the answers. You can also point out progress with specific skills. Showing them where you see real growth helps boost their spirits.
  2. For us, one of the most important pieces of building the classroom community is showing students that we understand their frustrations and that we want to help them work through those rough patches. At the same time, we also don’t want to bend so much that the integrity of the inquiry process goes down the drain. We make sure they they understand that we will not tell them what to do, and we will not give them the answers, but we will work with them to figure out some new strategies to better support them. This happens in one-on-one conferences, small group discussions, and full-class instruction.
  3. Cathy conferences with a student

    Cathy conferences with a student

    During each unit, we require three points of reflection where students consider what they’ve learned about their essential questions and what progress they’ve made with their standards. These also serve as points for the students to tell us how they’re doing with the inquiry process as a whole. We usually ask them to write in the margin of the learning plan one adjective that describes how they feel at that point in the process. We even provide a list from Dr. Carol Kuhlthau’s work on the Information Search Process. Then, when we conference with the students, we can use that to initiate conversation. If a kid is really frustrated, we can talk about why, and we can ask him to show where in the process that frustration is occurring. Usually, we can work through that point by problem solving together. For example, if he has trouble finding a resource, we can talk through potential search terms or how to use databases, and the teacher can clarify any questions he might have. We will sometimes even have students take notes during those conversations to track the process that he and the teacher go through together. That way, if the same student hits a wall the next time he goes to search for a source, he can go back to those notes and try to work through it on his own before coming to the teacher for help.

  4. We also group students up to help each other through those rough patches. If you have a student who is really good at something that others are struggling with, ask him to mentor others during those points of the process. Meg did a great job of this with one student, Doug, who had been through the inquiry process prior to her class, and he served as the expert in designing activities.
  5. If there is frustration with the skills, you can have them examine the standards. We do a lot of frontloading with the standards–have the students break down the language of the standard to see what they need to produce and what actions they need to take. We will also have the students create their own rubrics for select standards, so that they can see the variations between proficiency levels–they will get a better idea as to what is expected of them. We tell them that the standards tell them what to do; when they design their activities, they have to be sure they are always going back to that. And believe me, that takes a lot of time to click–we are always asking, “How does that fulfill the standard?” When they realize it doesn’t, they’re usually angry, but then they regroup and figure out a way to fulfill it.
  6. We also make sure the first two rounds of activities are formative, so that students are receiving feedback but not a grade. This is especially important because they’re trying a skill that’s new or that is an area of weakness for them, and that can be scary for them. With formative feedback, they’ll know where they fall on a rubric–what proficiency level they are–but we won’t count this towards their course average. It’s only the last round of activities that will receive a summative grade in the gradebook–and it’s always after they’ve completed the first two rounds. That alleviates some of the pressure and allows them to make mistakes without consequences. If they use the formative feedback to progress with each activity, their summative grade should reflect their true and best abilities. This isn’t a process where students can just complete the last round either–they have to through the entire plan in order to reap the benefits. We hold them accountable by giving them an overall grade on the learning plan, but they’re not receiving any completion grades.
  7. If your school has a librarian who assists with research projects or who is willing to co-teach a unit or a part of the lesson around inquiry, you may be able to have a second educator to work through the process with you.  See Heather’s post about the benefits of having a librarian assist with an inquiry unit.

Continue reading

The Text Assistance Request Form

7 Jul

Though we might imagine that giving students choice opens a beautiful rainbow-colored door through which they can’t wait to enter, students often struggle with the freedom that choice provides. Therefore, scaffolding is a necessity. We have created guides that provide resources for students to use as they make choices about their inquiry. For example, our American and British Literature LibGuides put all of the relevant resources into one place.  In addition to providing guides, we created a Text Assistance Request Form that students can use after trying all available resources. The first question ensures that they did indeed try to find resources on their own. The second question helps them to articulate their information need and prepare us to help them. Through these two questions, we are able to better understand how students are searching and to make our assistance more focused on their actual need.

text request form

We want to hear from you!

30 Jun

We hope you are all enjoying the start to the summer! We’ve been very lucky that Heather Hersey has been able to visit–though we’re lucky to be able to meet online each week, there’s nothing like meeting face to face over a cup of coffee (or in our case, ice cream!). There are some exciting updates for the Let Go To Learn team. This July, Marci Zane will start down a new path as the Education Librarian at The College of New Jersey! Hunterdon Central will definitely miss her, but we know she is going to do incredible work in her new job! Heather Hersey is now the Upper School Library Director at Lakeside School, in Seattle, where she has been working for the last three years. And Cathy and Meg are very excited to announce that during the Fall 2014 semester, they will be on sabbatical! During this time, they will both be researching how the Inquiry Learning Plan is being used across grade- and skill-levels, in disciplines outside of English, and in schools other than their own. Another goal of the sabbatical is to write a text to help teachers who are interested in implementing the Inquiry Learning Plan in their classrooms! And, of course, the four of us will continue to write and share our work on the blog and in a series of articles for School Library Monthly.

The sabbatical is a very unique opportunity, and we want to take advantage of fact that we can meet with other teachers that are pursuing inquiry and independent learning opportunities for their students. Meg and Cathy are hoping that as part of their research, they will be able to visit schools across the country that are currently using the ILP or a similar approach, so if you’re interested in having us observe your classes or even mentor you through the process, please let us know!

We know many of you are just out of school, but as you reflect on the past year, we’d love to learn about your using the ILP or implementing inquiry practices. This type of student work prepares them in so many ways and we would love to see what your students have been able to produce. Is there anything particularly successful or impactful? How did you or your students struggle? If you adapted the ILP in any way, we’d love to hear what you’re doing! We would also love to offer encouragement and answer any questions you might have!

If you’re interested in discussing your work in any way, please let us know. We’d love to email or Skype (or meet over ice cream!). We hope to hear from you soon! Happy Summer!

Confusion and Frustration were Rampant

3 Apr

Last time, I wrote about one point of frustration during my American Lit class’s first time through the Inquiry Learning Plan (ILP)–their first individualized unit where they were designing activities and assessments. About 2/3 of the way through, students hit another snag. They had already completed 6 activities, and we took a few minutes of class to look back at what they’ve done and figured out our next steps for the upcoming round of activities. Students seemed to be in a good place, recognizing that each activity connects an element of content and at least one standard as they aimed to learn more about their essential questions. And, after lots of practice breaking down standards into rubrics and developing activities in small groups, most students were pretty comfortable with designing their own activities during class workshop time. Their comfort was apparent in their self-assessments after their second round of activities. Using Dr. Carol Kuhlthau’s ISP continuum, I had asked students to identify emotions they were feeling about their work at that point. Many said they were feeling confidence and clarity. Several wrote that they had a sense of direction. Wahoo!

The next day in class, I complimented their progress and their resilience as they tried something new. I also spent some time reminding them about the requirements for their last three activities–they needed to use their long text in one of the activities, they had to use any remaining texts (of their original 7), and they had to cover all of their standards. I didn’t anticipate the reaction I got that day. After all, I thought, if they had put effort into their prior activities, and if they had learned from the mistakes that they made to improve for the final round, they would be in great shape.

However, the mood almost instantly changed in the room.They looked scared, baffled, and frustrated. Recognizing the distress, I did some quick conferencing with students. One student told me that he left class the prior day feeling clarity with both the content and the inquiry process. Today, he plummeted right back to doubt. Only this time, he said, he felt lower than when we started the process. A few students admitted that they were struggling to make sense of new source information, and even more were overwhelmed by the thought of coordinating everything in these last few activities. Confusion and frustration were rampant.   Continue reading


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