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.

“Something Good:” Celebrating Small Successes

20 Jan

In Cathy’s last post, she encouraged educators to find something great each day. Her post coincided with my starting a class on teacher leadership through Walden University, and in our weekly discussion, my classmates and I reflected on roadblocks to being a leader in our schools and what we can do to overcome those issues. We all had the usual complaints: not enough time, disconnected administrators, unsupportive colleagues. But over and over again, the solutions came back to the individual and her response to the setback. Certainly easier said than done, but crucial nonetheless.

Dr. Roland Barth, founder of the Principals’ Center at Harvard Graduate School of Education, wrote something that really stood out to me: “…the teacher leaders who succeed, in addition to being purposeful and persistent, seem to be able to settle for, and to even celebrate, small, partial success” (“The Teacher Leader: Words of Wisdom From Those Who Know Best”). This is really tough for me–both personally and professionally. I dream big! I chucked my entire curriculum to go totally student- and inquiry-driven. I co-wrote a book about my favorite tv show (anybody a LOST fan?). I’ve seen 49 of the 50 states (I’m coming for you Alaska!). This means I now have goals like publishing a book and getting a doctorate. So, when a proposal gets rejected or I do poorly on a paper, how can I possibly find the good? We certainly have those moments with students, and we would never dismiss any triumphs. I remember my first year teaching when a student really wanted to raise his failing grade, but ended up with a C. I told him how proud I was of how he was able to change his habits to improve his work. His tears let me know that he was still disappointed, but I hope that lesson settled in, that it’s the hard work we should celebrate.

This isn’t to say that we should celebrate every moment of improvement or hard work (even Carol Dweck is telling us to rethink that strategy). But I want my students to see that setting a goal and learning to overcome obstacles to get to it are even more valuable than writing the perfect poem. And, of course, I need to do this for myself. It’s okay to encounter setbacks–to have to continually revise a piece of writing or to be told the new class I wanted to teach won’t be running. Instead, I’ll focus on the “something good”– the ability to collaborate with two of my best friends or how nine years into teaching, I’m still learning!

“Tell me something good”

12 Jan

When things get tough, as they often do in teaching and in life, my good friend Mary and I ask each other to “tell me something good.” Sometimes we struggle for a second or two, but we can always find something great to share. Let’s face it, even though we encounter a lot of challenges, teaching is a pretty awesome profession. In September, I started this practice with my students at the beginning of each week, too. From them, I’ve heard everything from “My sister had a baby last night!” to “I ate the most amazing ice cream” and “I woke up at 3:30 to watch a rocket launch.” It’s been awesome to open the week with fun stories because we get to learn so much about each other. So, one of my goals this year is to think about the “great” each day. I’ll be sharing some of my thoughts here and on Twitter using the hashtag #goodnewsedu. If you’re so inclined, feel free to comment on the blog or tweet at me (@stutz01) with something good happening in your classrooms. Let’s fill education chatter with great things.

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!  

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.

20150218_114355  20150218_115015

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.


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.


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).

“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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