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“Have you read this book?”

31 May

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?

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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.

“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.

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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

Reflections on AASL

16 Nov

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

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