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Reflecting to Discover

5 Jul

What we love about this type of student-driven learning is that often, students are making connections to their personal lives and creating meaning in a way that we would not be able to engineer. When we first created and began implementing the ILP, I’m not sure we foresaw how students would be moving beyond content to uncover bigger truths about life and themselves, but since then we’ve realized that creating an open atmosphere for learning allows students the space for these sort of discoveries.

For many students, it isn’t until they to think about the ideas revealed in their activities that they discovered a greater takeaway. By having multiple points of reflection, one student, Miles was able to synthesize multiple sources, develop respect for the sometimes arduous task of narrative writing, and eventually see how his learning during that particular unit taught him so much more than World War I or about Paul Baumer and his buddies in All Quiet on the Western Front. In his final reflection for the unit, Miles wrote that his work helped him to see the need for education reform.

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His final reflection, while not especially specific to his progress in answering his essential question or his progress with specific skills, does reveal his understanding of the creative process as well as the dispositions that helped him get to an obviously optimistic and satisfied place by the end of his inquiry. His takeaway of self-guided, “vertical growth” led him to a “So What?” proposal to change the way students are educated at his school, advocating for more of what he calls “free creation.” This call to action about education is not something we would have predicted from a unit about WWI and narrative writing; however, because the content combined with Miles’ unique view of the world, he was able to create something truly individual.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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

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

Reflection on #AASL13: Importance of Student Voice

18 Nov

On Friday, November 15th, we presented the ILP to a group of educators at the AASL 16th National Conference & Exhibition in Hartford, CT.  As part of our presentation, we shared video reflections from students who have experienced the Inquiry Learning Plan, which is one of our favorite parts of the presentation to share with others.

It always brings us joy to watch our students reflect on their learning through the ILP.  The video we shared of students communicating their experiences in developing questions, confronting new information, and making decisions about what to study demonstrates just how mature they are in their thinking.  On Thursday evening, we listened to Tony Wagner speak about the importance of critical thinking and adaptability, two of seven essential survival skills for today’s learners and workers.  When re-watching this video of our students, we can’t help but see the connections between our students’ learning and the message Wagner so passionately articulates.  Our students are unpacking language in standards to identify skills they need to address.  They are choosing information sources responsibly and synthesizing these sources to address the divergent and convergent questions they are crafting.  They are deciding which activities best allow them to practice and master the standards, and they are reflecting upon these activities, which ultimately leads to a final summative representation of their learning.  Our students are charged with the responsibility, the curiosity, and the perseverance to undertake this learning process. This is the core of critical thinking.  This is the core of rigor.  And we—the teachers and librarians—provide feedback, ask them questions, connect them with texts and information, and suggest methods for piloting each stage of the ILP.  We help them learn not just the content of the curriculum, but how to navigate the landscape of learning and research, with all of its twists, turns, and bumps in the road.  This is the spirit of adaptability, and such experiences help students build confidence and skill as researchers. 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

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