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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.

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!

Two Heads are Better than One: Librarian as Co-Teacher

17 Feb

When Cathy Stutzman began working with inquiry, and then specifically with the Inquiry Learning Plan (ILP), I did a lot of co-teaching with her.  At the end of the course, we asked students about the impact of having a librarian as co-teacher in their classes.  Here’s what they had to say:

  • “It was indeed helpful because both teachers had different kinds of feedback, which was helpful at the end to improve my work.”
  • “The impact of having a librarian as a co-teacher was very positive and helpful, especially when another opinion or perspective was needed. Having two teachers and two people to give advice made the course much easier and relaxed.”
  • “she provides interesting points that push research even further.”
  • “It also helps when we have meetings and talk about our projects. We get the insight of a teacher but also a librarian. We get better constructive criticism.”

Of course, having two people in the classroom to circulate among students while they are working is helpful as is having a colleague to mull over ideas and be a sounding board and cheerleader when doing inquiry is a struggle.  However, as you can see from the comments above, the impact goes beyond the ideas that two heads are better than one.  Students saw that the perspective of the librarian was different than that of content teachers.  Librarians are in a unique position: they are not content-area experts, which helps them approach information tasks in a similar way to students who are novices in the subject; however, they are experts in the information search process – curious-by-nature questioners who can follow trails of information in a genuine way.  Because of their lack of content knowledge, they can help students learn how to use their prior knowledge and sources to initiate and later focus a topic.  As research has shown, this is one of the most difficult parts of the research process.

  • For example, a student recently wanted to write a paper about states’ rights.  After showing him an article about states’ rights and seeing the depth and breadth of the topic and how many sub-topics and time periods were within it, we agreed that he needed to narrow it down. Therefore, we talked a bit about what aspect of states’ rights interested him the most.  For example, was there a certain time period or topic that he would like to learn more about?  Though he had no certain time period, he was really interested in economics.  Since the focus of the essay was rights and responsibilities, we used a states’ rights article in the West’s Encyclopedia of American Law to search for the term “economics.”  We found a few options, including his favorite, “The Commerce Clause.”  The student learned an excellent technique for connecting the assignment to his interests while narrowing down his topic to a manageable size.

Librarian conferences are also helpful later in the process as students begin to fill in gaps in their research and restructure arguments after receiving feedback from their teachers.

  • For instance, a student was told that she would likely have to do some extensive research to make her focus work.  In its current form, her paper was not delivering what was promised in the introduction, which was an analysis of rights and responsibilities during the creation of the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) “Fairness Doctrine.” I asked her if she wanted to do more research, and she admitted that she has already done so much and wasn’t finding enough about the creation of the doctrine.  I asked her if there were any point in the timeline of the Fairness Doctrine that had more primary and secondary sources available.  As she looked at her sources and notecards, she realized that much of what was written about her topic was about its demise in the 1980s.  My next question, again, revolved around her interest in this aspect of the topic, which was strong.  So I wondered aloud if she could simply shift her focus to how the doctrine fell out of favor, making its creation a necessary part of the background.  We talked through how putting the crux of her argument into the abolishment of the doctrine in 1987 would strengthen not only the number of sources she could use but also her connection to rights and responsibilities since the FCC believed that it violated the First Amendment.  Through our conversation, she realized that a change of focus would give her more opportunity for analysis and investigation, allowing her to continue with a topic she loved without more researching.

Librarian feedback can also help students deal with the large amount of information found on the web.

  • In our world of instant gratification, patience with getting good search results is not high.  Sitting with students and showing them how one simple tweak to a search term can mean a high change in results.  While searching for United Nations documents, I asked a student why he felt the results we got were so sparse.  We looked at them carefully, and he noticed that the UN was referring to his country by a different name in a few of the documents – using the Syrian Arab Republic instead of Syria.  By using a wildcard (Syria*) after the search term, we were able to capture all of the relevant documents for his country.

Even when research conferences aren’t formally planned, having a librarian in the classroom can still help students navigate the inquiry process, particularly when they are searching for information.  For example, Marci Zane provides another example of librarians can show students how to “read” search results.

  • In an AP Government class, students were charged with locating a recent undecided court case for an issue they were interested in so that they could use past precedents to draw conclusions as to the outcome of the case they find.  One student asked me how exactly she would go about searching for something that she didn’t know existed.  She was interested in exploring sexual assault in the military, but didn’t know where to begin.  This was an excellent opportunity for an impromptu session on keyword development and search strategies using Google.  After watching her input her natural search string (sexual assault in the military court case) into Google and not having a court case appear in the first list of results, she asked me how she could search better.  After a brief discussion about the issue of sexual assault in the military, we were able to pinpoint a few additional keywords significant to the issue.  We chatted about using quotations around “sexual assault” in her search and specifying branches of the military to garner more specific instances of abuse, rather than general articles on the controversial issue.  We also discussed the importance of browsing the news features on various search engines or news outlets.  Once we were able to locate one story, it was like unveiling many paths for her to continue searching.  Now she had people’s names, prior cases, names of laws and bills, and charities and humanitarian initiatives.  Like pieces of evidence she had to gather to understand the bigger picture, all of these names and information were valuable avenues for her to explore, not only to locate a potential court case happening now, but also to gain background information on the issue itself.

Sometimes the effects of librarian-teacher partnerships are felt throughout a class.

  • As sophomore students have been working on their Model United Nations research, we were getting frequent questions about how to narrow their research for both the policy paper and the simulation.  I decided to reach out to the sophomore history teachers via email, explaining the difficulty that students were having and how we were suggesting that students address it.  As a result, the teachers decided to rewrite the initial questions, making them more focused for the students.   If we hadn’t been speaking to students about their research dilemmas, the teachers might not have known how the broad questions were effecting their research until later in the process when it would be more difficult to rectify.  We are also able to approach the assignments AS students, which provides important insight into the assignment.

Seeing this kind of modeling and having this type of mentoring is essential for students as they move closer to a world where jobs are not easily defined and may change swiftly.  It also shows just how willing librarians are to be vulnerable in front of students and teachers.  This vulnerability as learners is essential to our role but also really important for students to se

ILP Demonstration Session

24 Nov

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!

NCTE Demonstration Handout

Today’s Inquiry Learning Plan

Poem: “The Road Less Traveled”

Close-Read of AASL Standard

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!

Teachers as Learners: Key to the ILP

10 Jun

One of the major shifts for teachers as they use something like the Inquiry Learning Plan (ILP) is being learners everyday with and for their students.  The ability to ask great questions and guide students through each step of the plan is challenging and requires that teachers be, as Will Richardson in his book Why School? suggests, “master learners.” Now, this term sounds a bit intimidating; I certainly don’t consider myself a “master” of learning; however, Richardson’s call for teachers to be role models for learning and to be learners even before content-area teachers is a core concept behind the ILP:

Teachers need to be great at asking questions and astute at managing the different paths to learning that each child creates. They must guide students to pursue projects of value and help them connect their interests to the required standards. And they have to be participants and models in the learning process. Continue reading

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