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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.

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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

“Why can’t you just tell us what to do?!”

23 Mar

My 11th-12th grade American Lit class just finished up their first full unit with the Inquiry Learning Plan (ILP). As I assess their work, I have been thinking a lot about the ups and downs of their learning experience. As I expected, there were several points where students met challenges and where they felt uncomfortable. Looking ahead to the next unit, I thought it might be helpful for me to write a few posts about dealing with challenges of the inquiry process and share some of the strategies I’ve used to help students work through those moments of frustration and doubt.

The first of those moments came when they were developing activities on their own for the first time. They were really struggling with the idea that they have little direction about the final product–what they will ultimately work toward. So, in order to help ease their minds and give them a little insight into the philosophy behind what we were doing in this class, I decided to start one class period with a little troubleshooting session. It went something like this… Continue reading

Starting Over

16 Feb

A new semester is upon us, and because there’s something that keeps me from doing the same thing with each class, I’m switching things up a little bit this quarter. In the past, I’ve grounded my American Literature classes around literary movements. Even though students asked entirely unique questions and they may have each selected different books, they were always exploring those things under umbrellas like Romanticism or Modernism. And, that’s always worked fine. But I noticed that they weren’t doing as well as I would’ve liked on the common final exam, which is a synthesis essay defining what it means to be an American. So,  I’m pushing myself into something new this quarter with my American Lit class–a new structure to better prepare them for a common final exam, to help them more aptly synthesize what they learn, and to allow them more time to reflect and prepare a course-level “So What?” artifact. I ask my students to push themselves outside of their comfort zones to work on skills that are challenging to them; why not challenge myself with something a little new, too?

The class began with a diagnostic unit, kicked off with a personal response piece that answers the final exam question–what does it mean to be an American? Next, I split them up into small groups, each assigned a single literary era to study. I maintained a lot of control over this mini-unit–assigning an essential question, the standards, the activities, and the assessment. However, students still documented their process through an adapted Inquiry Learning Plan template, and they were in charge of creating guiding questions as well as choosing their texts. Each group presented their findings to the class (a diagnostic for a few speaking and listening standards), and all students noted their greatest takeaways from each presentation. The kids took us through information they discovered from various texts about their literary eras: Colonial, Enlightenment, Romanticism, Realism, Modernism, and Postmodernism.

Afterwards, I handed out a list of thesis statements from their diagnostic essays–a sampling of voices from our contemporary literary era. I asked them to determine what their theses say about us now. Then, we applied their guiding questions to our experiences as Americans including:

  • What important events took place?

  • Who were the important authors?

  • Who were the most influential people?

  • What is the general tone of the period, and/or what emotions were expressed?

I recorded their responses as they spoke, and that became a basic list of themes or topics from our contemporary literary era. Our next step is to develop essential questions from those topics that will lead students into our first theme-based unit for which they will select one text from each era to study the theme’s treatment and/or development over time.

I will be posting periodically throughout the unit to let you know how it’s going. If you have any questions or thoughts on the process, please post in the comments below. I hope you will join us on this exciting adventure! I’m very much looking forward to learning in a new way with my students, and I welcome any feedback you might give.

Nobody Does it Alone

22 Nov

Trying the ILP and its process for the first time (and even the second or third time) is a little terrifying. You don’t know where your students will go, you don’t know what they will ask, and you might not even know what texts they’re going to study. Helping them through moments of frustration and confusion can be equally frustrating and confusing for you as you go through the learning process along with your students. We have to remember what Dr. Kuhlthau tells us about the affective domain of learning–we have to go through moments of frustration and doubt before we can reach clarity. When those moments hit, and they absolutely will, it seems easy to go back to more traditional, teacher-delivered curriculum. That’s why we highly recommend trying this for the first time with someone else–even if that someone else is one of us. Continue reading

Boston Bound

20 Nov

We’re very excited to be heading up to Boston this weekend for the NCTE Annual Convention! It’s always fun to catch up with and learn from other English-teacher types, and there are tons of great presentations we’re looking forward to.  I know I’ll be checking out Michael Smith’s presentation on close reading, and I’m hoping to make it to Peter Smagorinsky’s roundtable session, “Writing to the Community.” Meg will be attending a panel discussion “Teaching to the Future: Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s World” with Jim Burke, et al. Both of us will be at NCLE‘s session with the Institute of Play from 4-5:30 on Friday in the Sheraton’s Ballroom B. 

If you’re looking to meet up with us, Meg and I will be presenting a couple of times this weekend. On Friday, we will give an overview of the ILP at 9:30am in the Hampton Room at the Sheraton. During that session, we will give the background and pedagogy behind the ILP. The real stars of that presentation are the students, parents, administrators, librarians, and teachers who will share their stories of success and struggle. If you want to know about the benefits and challenges of the process, this is the session for you! For those looking to see the ILP in action, we will also do a classroom demonstration on Sunday morning at 8:30 in room 210 of the Convention Center.  Participants will get a feel for how we help students make sense of the CCSS, develop guiding and essential questions, and create activities that support their skill progression and their understanding of the content. This is a chance for you to experience the process through the students’ eyes. We invite you to participate and provide feedback.

If you’re attending the conference this weekend, what are you hoping to see and learn? Let us know which sessions you’re attending. We hope to see you there!

Coping with Curriculum

17 Nov

One of our session’s attendees asked us about the pressure to cover the host of skills and content that a course’s curriculum calls for. This is absolutely a real and difficult challenge in our school and in many schools as the expectations to cover and assess Common Core, discipline-specific state standards, 21st Century Skills, and other content requirements increase. It’s exhausting to think about! In my American Lit course, for example, I need to cover all of America’s literary history in only 9 weeks of 84 minute class periods. This is a huge burden–one that inspired Meg to create the ILP in the first place. Furthermore, this responsibility suggests that teachers are the only people in the room who can deliver content or help students improve in skill areas. If we assume that, we are greatly limiting student’s learning to the extent of our knowledge. We are limited. Continue reading

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