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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!  

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

So What?

29 May

Too often, students don’t see the value in what they’re learning–there can be a disconnect between the meaning we want the students to walk away with and the meaning these incredible individuals make based on their own unique views and experiences. As students begin to take more control of their learning, it becomes impossible for us to design each student’s final assessment and absolutely vital for students to determine why their learning experience is important, not just to them but to their community, both local and global.

We call this final step of the Inquiry Learning Plan (ILP) the “So What?” and it serves as a way for students to apply knowledge and content and reflect back on the unit or class. You can see in the questions below that they’re really looking at the bigger picture of the unit–what is the essential lesson they’ve learned and how do they want to share it? Continue reading

Student Post: Refining an Essential Question

6 May

I can’t tell you my name, but I am a junior in Ms. Donhauser’s Honors British Literature course. I want to talk about my experience with the Inquiry Learning Plan and my search for an essential question; through my irritation and sense of utter defeat, I broke through to find something worth studying. It began in class with me being consumed by my despair; I had no good essential questions on my learning plan and I was stressed that my activities were due with no real EQ that seemed useful. The only question I had was “How dangerous is humanity’s thirst for knowledge?” The only problem was that I was dead in the water with my question; it was more of a guiding question rather than a good topic to study. I felt this question was specific to my text; it didn’t relate to what I wanted to pursue in this unit. I had to continue my research for a more overarching question but I felt hopelessly lost in my texts…until… Continue reading

Reflections Part I: Essential Questions

2 May

After each round of activities, students complete reflections on their essential questions and their standards:

The EQ reflection explains how the texts or research are helping the student answer their questions; it provides specific evidence for the student and teacher and serves as a synthesis piece, which can be a hard skill to master. During the first reflection, students may be focused on only one or two texts, but in order to develop a more useful understanding of the time period or theme, they must look at how multiple texts interact with each other to answer the questions. Ultimately, students want to ask themselves, how do the texts of the unit relate to each other and create a unique argument?

Perhaps most importantly, the EQ reflection aids students as they work through the inquiry process–it helps them work out their confusion and have really fabulous a-ha! moments. To do this, they have to determine what they’ve learned and what new questions are arising. Where do they go from here? One of my Brit Lit students writes this as part of her first reflection:

When I started this unit, I figured that with so many female authors, females would have gained respect and position in society. When I started reading pieces written by males, however, I found the same stupid views of how weak and second-class women are. Wilkie Collins wrote several derogatory comments a paragraph, such as “do all a woman can (which is little, by the by)” or “I am inaccurate as women usually are.” No wonder there are so many essays from the time by women angrily protesting men! As I move forward I would like to try to find a text that is by a woman written from the point of view of a male, so that I can find out whether or not women would sneak comments into the dialogue of male characters like Collins did with his female characters. In the future I think I will probably stick with this question, because I like tracking how the answer changes from time period to time period. Continue reading

The Role of Essential Questions in the Inquiry Process

23 Apr

The best questions point to and highlight the big ideas.  They serve as doorways through which learners explore the key concepts, themes, theories, issues, and problems that reside within the content, perhaps as yet unseen: it is through the process of actively ‘interrogating’ the content through provocative questions that students deepen their understanding.
— Wiggins and McTighe, Understanding by Design

Any question you ask will just lead to more questions.
— Mother, LOST

Good questions call for discovery, which is at the heart of inquiry.  In using the Inquiry Learning Plan (ILP), we guide students through the process of developing their own essential and guiding questions for each unit. Essential questions are ones at the center of a topic; they are broad and seemingly timeless.  They also have no right answer, but instead invite all learners to engage in dialogue around the themes within the content.  As we discussed with the concept of “third space” in a previous post, strong essential questions allow for students to connect their life experiences, in addition to content from other curricula, to whatever they are inquiring at the time.  This is the very nature of transfer, and good questions prompt students to consider more than one way of viewing a topic.

The purpose of creating an essential question is for students to develop a focus.  At this point, they have already spent time understanding the broader scope of what they are studying (i.e. a time period in literature, an era in history, etc.). Now, they must narrow their inquiry.  As demonstrated in Kuhlthau, Maniotes, and Caspari’s Guided Inquiry Design, students may need to consider four criteria when developing an essential question:  “What is interesting to me?  What are my learning goals? How much information is available?  How much time do I have?”  (pgs. 96-97).  Such understanding connects students to their own information need.  Information need is an important concept in information literacy that suggests learners are thoughtful to what type of information is most significant to addressing their questions, rather than students simply collecting information based on a set of requirements imposed upon them.

Before we have students develop their questions, we discuss with them the difference between convergent and divergent questions.  Convergent questions are those that ask for specific information or have one or a few right answers.  These types of questions are considered low-level questions.  On the other hand, divergent questions do not have a right answer; instead, they are open-ended, provide an opportunity for investigation and argument, and may require synthesis and analysis.  With this understanding, students can aim for creating divergent questions as the basis of their inquiry.

Oftentimes, it takes several tries for students to develop quality essential questions.  For example, students in Cathy’s sophomore English class developed the following “essential questions” on first try:

  • What attributes make Beowulf a hero?
  • Can rumors cause more fear than true events?
  • Who are the monsters and why do we see them as such?

When asked to reflect on this first attempt using the definitions of convergent and divergent questions, students understand that they haven’t quite mastered the task.

As teachers, we can design activities to guide students through this process.  For example, Cathy and I developed an activity called “Musical Questions: Broadening and Narrowing Our EQs.”  Students placed their first “essential question” at the top of the sheet, and Cathy began playing instrumental music.  She instructed the students to move about the room; when the music stopped, students sat in the closest seat and read the essential question on their classmate’s worksheet.  Each student then wrote one question that was broader and one question that was narrower than the original essential question.  After a few rounds of “Musical Questions,” students returned to their seats and read through the questions that their classmates had left for them.  Many students began to see their original question in relation to the others classmates wrote.  When asked to reflect on which ones were most “essential”, meaning most divergent, students were able to identify at least one.  Now, questions read like:

  • What is heroism?
  • What is scary about the unknown?
  • How are social roles determined?

This activity was successful on a few levels.  First, students really understood the process of developing questions.  At the end of the activity, they had not only essential and other divergent questions, but they also had an important list of guiding questions to help their inquiry.  Secondly, students also practiced the information literacy skill of narrowing and broadening an inquiry, which connects with both the Common Core ELA Writing Standard 7 (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.7) and the AASL Standard 1.1.3 (Develop and refine a range of questions to frame the search for new understanding).  With a provocative essential question, students will have a strong foundation upon which they can begin quality research and investigation.

What are some other ways we can engage students in developing essential questions?

The Plan

1 Apr

While the first iteration of the Inquiry Learning Plan (ILP) was similar to a blank UbD template, we’ve spent the last three years reorganizing and refining the plan (we’re actually on version 8.0!). As Heather and Marci explained in earlier posts, the plan uses elements of the ISP and Guided Inquiry, and it’s also a tool that helps students organize their thoughts and examine how their inquiry progresses. The plan is divided into four sections, the first of which is where students outline the materials they will be studying.  Depending on your discipline, this first section could contain mathematical theories or artistic movements.  Over the course of one unit in my current British Literature course, students have to read five texts from a time period; one is a long text and one is a piece of non-fiction, but the remaining three can take on any format, including poems, speeches, works of art, etc. We also require that students use supplementary resources to aid in their inquiry; for our students, these range from Wikipedia entries to literary criticism.  As a result, section one contains a variety of sources – some that serve as the object of students’ inquiry and others that support their inquiry.

The next section is titled “What I Will Learn: Desired Results” and has students identify essential and guiding questions for the unit. We’ll discuss how we help students come up with these questions in a later post, but this step can be done in conjunction with finding texts or after reading a bit of the core text. In this section, students will also list the standards that they choose for the unit; my Brit Lit kids attempt at least four standards: a reading, writing, speaking and listening from the CCSS, and other standards possibly from AASL, NCTE, or another category from CCSS. These standards are chosen after students reflect on their diagnostics, something Cathy will explore in a future post.

So, these first two sections of the ILP really serve as a cover page of sorts, to let teachers, librarians, or anyone else who is reading the plan see what the student is attempting to learn. The majority of the work for the unit will be completed in the “Student Growth” section of the plan. Students generally complete three rounds of three activities and reflections; these activities are based on at least one standard and should help the students answer their guiding and essential questions. The reflections are crucial for students to stop and assess what they’ve learned and what they see as holes in their understanding. What will they need to do in the next round in order to improve their skills? What information do they still need to find?  Although reflections provide insight into future improvements and needs, they also show students how much they’ve learned.  This ability to monitor their own learning is crucial for today’s students.

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