Whether or not you’re using the ILP or some of its individual strategies, approaching learning through inquiry can be time consuming. This is especially true in the beginning stages as students learn how to go through the process and overcome challenges and frustrations. But in order for students to progress in their inquiry, we need to provide timely feedback on activities and reflections which can be overwhelming, particularly when a teacher has 100 students all turning in about an activity a day. That’s not to say that the responsibility should rest solely on the teacher’s shoulders; there are strategies for peer assessment and even group or self-assessment that should be used to prevent the teacher from being overloaded and unable to provide timely feedback. However, when kids need their teacher’s expertise, there are several technology tools that can make this part of the process much more manageable and efficient while also providing easy ways to document student progress.
What we love about this type of student-driven learning is that often, students are making connections to their personal lives and creating meaning in a way that we would not be able to engineer. When we first created and began implementing the ILP, I’m not sure we foresaw how students would be moving beyond content to uncover bigger truths about life and themselves, but since then we’ve realized that creating an open atmosphere for learning allows students the space for these sort of discoveries.
For many students, it isn’t until they to think about the ideas revealed in their activities that they discovered a greater takeaway. By having multiple points of reflection, one student, Miles was able to synthesize multiple sources, develop respect for the sometimes arduous task of narrative writing, and eventually see how his learning during that particular unit taught him so much more than World War I or about Paul Baumer and his buddies in All Quiet on the Western Front. In his final reflection for the unit, Miles wrote that his work helped him to see the need for education reform.
His final reflection, while not especially specific to his progress in answering his essential question or his progress with specific skills, does reveal his understanding of the creative process as well as the dispositions that helped him get to an obviously optimistic and satisfied place by the end of his inquiry. His takeaway of self-guided, “vertical growth” led him to a “So What?” proposal to change the way students are educated at his school, advocating for more of what he calls “free creation.” This call to action about education is not something we would have predicted from a unit about WWI and narrative writing; however, because the content combined with Miles’ unique view of the world, he was able to create something truly individual.
A couple weeks ago, I sat down with one of my seniors to conference with her about her reading activities. I started by asking, “What are you learning?” She dove right in, talking about how the author had introduced the main character and explaining what she thought the theme might be. The ideas spilled out quickly, until she started to question why he included certain details. She grew frustrated, saying, “Well, have you read this book?” I knew she wanted the answer to be “yes,” so that I could come to her rescue and guide her to some understanding about the author’s choices. But I hadn’t the read the book, so I couldn’t ask her the exact guiding question to get her there. I had to think broader, asking lots of “Why?” and “How do you know that?” questions. Eventually, our discussion led her to some resolution and she felt satisfied and prepared enough to move on to her next activity.
In reflecting on this experience, I’m so excited that my student even got to ask that question. When I first started the ILP and my students were venturing into independent reading, they had the expectation that I had somehow read every book; they were absolutely gobsmacked that I couldn’t tell them the answer. But now the culture at Hunterdon Central is shifting to the student as the expert on the text, not the teacher. This speaks to the comfort that my colleagues and our students are starting to feel about letting go of the traditional model that the teacher is all-knowing about the text. This shift started with student choice in terms of reading but is now a part of learning in general. My students are finding information about ideas I know nothing about— how cool is it that I get to learn as much as they do?
In Cathy’s last post, she encouraged educators to find something great each day. Her post coincided with my starting a class on teacher leadership through Walden University, and in our weekly discussion, my classmates and I reflected on roadblocks to being a leader in our schools and what we can do to overcome those issues. We all had the usual complaints: not enough time, disconnected administrators, unsupportive colleagues. But over and over again, the solutions came back to the individual and her response to the setback. Certainly easier said than done, but crucial nonetheless.
Dr. Roland Barth, founder of the Principals’ Center at Harvard Graduate School of Education, wrote something that really stood out to me: “…the teacher leaders who succeed, in addition to being purposeful and persistent, seem to be able to settle for, and to even celebrate, small, partial success” (“The Teacher Leader: Words of Wisdom From Those Who Know Best”). This is really tough for me–both personally and professionally. I dream big! I chucked my entire curriculum to go totally student- and inquiry-driven. I co-wrote a book about my favorite tv show (anybody a LOST fan?). I’ve seen 49 of the 50 states (I’m coming for you Alaska!). This means I now have goals like publishing a book and getting a doctorate. So, when a proposal gets rejected or I do poorly on a paper, how can I possibly find the good? We certainly have those moments with students, and we would never dismiss any triumphs. I remember my first year teaching when a student really wanted to raise his failing grade, but ended up with a C. I told him how proud I was of how he was able to change his habits to improve his work. His tears let me know that he was still disappointed, but I hope that lesson settled in, that it’s the hard work we should celebrate.
This isn’t to say that we should celebrate every moment of improvement or hard work (even Carol Dweck is telling us to rethink that strategy). But I want my students to see that setting a goal and learning to overcome obstacles to get to it are even more valuable than writing the perfect poem. And, of course, I need to do this for myself. It’s okay to encounter setbacks–to have to continually revise a piece of writing or to be told the new class I wanted to teach won’t be running. Instead, I’ll focus on the “something good”– the ability to collaborate with two of my best friends or how nine years into teaching, I’m still learning!
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!
If you were unable to attend our session Sunday morning or if we ran out of handouts, here are the materials for the session Letting Go: A Demonstration of the Inquiry Learning Plan. Please let us know if you have any questions!
This weekend, Cathy, Marci, and I were lucky enough to present our ILP at the American Association of School Librarian’s National Conference in Hartford, CT. Tony Wagner, the first Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard, was the speaker at the Opening General Session on Thursday and delivered a powerful message centered around his seven survival skills. During his discussion on innovation, he talked about the importance of failure as a learning tool. Our schools have been built on a system of rewards and punishments in the form of grades, and failure, unfortunately, is too often an option that doesn’t lead anywhere. When a student fails an assignment, they move on to the next one, without the opportunity to learn from the previous experience. Continue reading