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How Technology Supports Inquiry

8 Jul

Former Hunterdon Central Information Systems Supervisor, and current BrightBytes CEO and Co-Founder, Rob Mancabelli once said that the only piece of technology that is 100% reliable is a chalkboard. It doesn’t have a blue screen of death, connectivity issues, or other glitches. But, Rob reminded us, it also doesn’t permit students to share their learning with an audience, connect with resources, and communicate with each other outside of their classroom. Using technology requires a lot of flexibility and daring on the parts of both teachers and students. Although the first class to ever use the ILP did so via handwritten plans, a few other early iterations of our ILP work occurred in classes that were a part of a 1:1 computing pilot, and initiative that really opened the doors for us as educators. Teachers involved in the initial pilot received training in the summer prior to students receiving netbooks.  During the training sessions, the small cohort of teachers met to discuss ways to rethink our teaching practices to make the most of the technology that was now available. As Heather pointed out in a blog post written after these sessions, simply providing a means for students to collaborate or share their learning doesn’t mean that it’s easily done:

During our 1:1 sessions, [the facilitators] focused on two significant things: changing the way we teach and, more importantly, giving us the freedom from fear to make these changes. They realized that the 1:1 program wasn’t about the netbooks and that it couldn’t start with lesson reform. It had to start with psychology. It took quite a long time, a visit from our superintendent, and a lot of support, but they did indeed allow our small group to break through the walls that so many of us construct around ourselves.

Students and teachers alike need coaching, reassurance, freedom, and confidence in order to get past the vulnerability that a connected classroom experiences. It requires willingness to share work beyond the immediate learning community, and that can open the possibility or the perceived possibility for judgment–a scary notion for many students and teachers. At the same time, we know that standing in front of the classroom and dispensing information was not going to work anymore either. With information at their fingertips, it seemed a waste of our precious time with students to spend it giving them content that they could easily look up. And so, we focused a lot of our instruction reform on inquiry as a means to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities the technology offered. Web 2.0 tools and the netbooks were supplementary to turning over responsibility to students; we saw technology as means through which our students could achieve their best, often times with more efficiency and collaboration.

Although for financial reasons we have since abandoned the 1:1 model at Hunterdon Central, we have moved to a Bring-Your-Own-Device policy in which students can use their personal computing devices in classes. We are fortunate to have about 50% of our students participating, and we have several laptop carts and computer labs to support those who are not participating. However, we want to be clear that this is not required for the ILP. Remember, Meg’s first use of the ILP was done without computers. And since then, Meg and I have taught classes with only an occasional trip to the library for students to use the desktops to find resources. Despite technology’s growing pervasiveness, it remains a luxury for many schools and unreliable equipment in others. All of the strategies and pedagogy associated with the ILP can be done without technology, but, if available, web-based tools, computers, and reliable internet connections can enhance the experience by allowing for collaboration, communication, accountability, creativity, and accessibility beyond the classroom setting. In upcoming posts, we will highlight a few tools that we have used to heighten students’ learning experiences with the ILP.

Embrace Differences as Opportunities

9 Jun

In many traditional classes, students explore topics that have commonly accepted answers – causes and effects of the Civil War or symbols in To Kill a Mockingbird, for example. Inquiry can fall into a similar pattern if students ask questions they already have an answer to. They use their time to find sources that simply support their ideas, and they may ignore sources that contradict their thinking. Rather than discover what a wide range of people think about a certain topic, they limit their learning by finding something they already know (or think they know). With the ILP, we ultimately want students to find information from a variety of perspectives and synthesize them in the reflections. That means students need to see differences as unique opportunities to expand their thinking because they’re learning something new. In many ways, this goes against human nature. It’s a tough job, but Smith, Appleman, and Wilhelm (2014) argue, “It’s on us as teachers to create classroom environments that honor diversity, that require students to work together in various configurations, that confront them with multiple perspectives on various issues, and that help students interrogate themselves and their own positions to develop new angles of vision” (14). Hearing differing opinions is one thing, but “interrogating” ourselves is extremely difficult. So, how can we teach students to use differences to form “new angles of vision”? Let’s start at the beginning of a course.

Although it’s the end of the school year, and we’re thinking more about final projects than we are about the start of a course, it is a great time to consider how we can better set our students up for success, and for that, we have to go back to the start. Over the first few days of every course, teachers often orchestrate ice breaker activities to help students get to know each other–a great exercise in learning a little something about people who will eventually become a community of learners. In order to make the most of these activities, however, some teachers who use the ILP require students to connect with people who have different interests or people who surprised them in some way. I use an icebreaker adapted from an exercise that Giselle Martin-Kniep uses with adult learners. Students write the following on individual post-it notes:

  • Three experiences they have had – one on each post-it
  • Three passions they have – one on each post-it
  • Three areas of expertise – one on each post-it

All in all, students create nine post-it notes. On the sticky sides, participants write their names and then they hang them in designated areas throughout the room. Everyone else is then asked to survey the post-it notes and find one at each station (experiences, passions, expertise) that seem interesting to them but not the same as something they wrote down. Below are some samples from a junior-level English class. 

They can then look on the back of the post-it to see who wrote it and find that person. Next, they need to introduce themselves and ask two questions about the person’s response. After everyone has met three people, they return to their seats and share what they learned about their peers. At the end of the exercise, students write a brief reflection: If they spoke with  someone they already knew, they are asked to consider how this new information shifts the way they see that person. If they spoke with someone they didn’t know well, they are asked to consider what impression this makes on them. By going through this exercise, students begin to think about how perception can change based on information they gather and even how perceptions can stick if someone is unwilling to consider new information.

Misconceptions About the ILP

25 May

Not long ago, my good friend, Sarah, came to visit me at school. She’s an English teacher, too, and she was curious about this crazy Inquiry Learning Plan thing she’s been hearing about for 5 years. She sat in on my conferences with students, she observed their work habits, and she asked them lots of questions about their processes. The classes were finishing up a unit, and so much of their work was independently driven. According to every teacher evaluation model out there, this setup looks phenomenal – student led learning, self-assessment, choice, and ample peer and teacher feedback. But, it does take a lot of prep work to get to that independent stage, which is something Sarah recognized when she observed. This also debunks a common misconception about the ILP–that students are completely on their own or that there’s no structure to the approach.  

Yes, students do take on the responsibility of learning, but that doesn’t mean that teachers are hands-off. Rather, at the beginning of every unit, we are leading students through mini-lessons for question development, close-reads of standards, rubric creation, synthesis, writing techniques, and reading strategies. Students are also engaging with reading at the beginning of every single class period. The ILP becomes a routine–build skills, reflect, repeat. Toward the end of the unit though, at the time when Sarah visited, the class looked very different from the time when students were going through their first few rounds of activities. Here’s what Sarah saw:

  • students finishing reading activities–one was coloring, many were typing, some were reading, others were graphing.
  • students starting or revising essays.
  • students conferencing with each other using their own peer review questions that focus on standard-based rubric criteria.
  • students conferencing with me–they signed up for a time slot and led the conference by presenting what they had already accomplished and what they were stuck on and by asking specific questions about their work and its connection to the standards-based criteria for evaluation.


That sounds great, right? But, students were also:

  • playing around on their computers or chatting with their neighbors while I was busy with a conference.
  • feverishly trying to catch up after falling behind.
  • staring off into space.


This is where the second misconception–that the ILP solves all classroom problems–is clearly shattered. I’d love to say that the ILP magically allows every student to be engaged 100% of the time, but that’s just not accurate. Like with any class, there are still students whose lives outside of school limit their ability to complete work. There are still those who are unmotivated. And, there are those who are easily distracted in class workshop time.

But, the difference between this classroom approach and others is that the students share equal responsibility when motivation drags or when it comes to using time wisely. As part of our regular conferences with kids, we hold them accountable for their daily habits, and those habits are cumulatively assessed at the end of the every unit for a summative grade. With regular check-ins, students are very aware of their work ethic and the value of the workshop time that they are given in class. That doesn’t mean that goofing off is eliminated; students are just more aware of the repercussions of those unproductive days, and, for the most part, they cut back on them.

About midway through each unit, I ask students to reflect on their work using the criteria established in the ILP Rubric and to set personal goals for improvement in the second half of the unit. This gives them a chance to see what their grades might be if they were to continue in the same fashion and to recalibrate their behavior and work if they don’t feel that they are meeting their potential. For example, a student might be aligning activities to standards, but isn’t pushing himself to improve with each attempt at a skill. Or, a student might need reminders to stay focused on coursework. Those can both be marked as areas for improvement, becoming discussion points during teacher conferences. Then it is the student’s responsibility to demonstrate growth in those areas or admit that he is content with his current performance.

“Tell me something good”

12 Jan

When things get tough, as they often do in teaching and in life, my good friend Mary and I ask each other to “tell me something good.” Sometimes we struggle for a second or two, but we can always find something great to share. Let’s face it, even though we encounter a lot of challenges, teaching is a pretty awesome profession. In September, I started this practice with my students at the beginning of each week, too. From them, I’ve heard everything from “My sister had a baby last night!” to “I ate the most amazing ice cream” and “I woke up at 3:30 to watch a rocket launch.” It’s been awesome to open the week with fun stories because we get to learn so much about each other. So, one of my goals this year is to think about the “great” each day. I’ll be sharing some of my thoughts here and on Twitter using the hashtag #goodnewsedu. If you’re so inclined, feel free to comment on the blog or tweet at me (@stutz01) with something good happening in your classrooms. Let’s fill education chatter with great things.

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?

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