Whether or not you’re using the ILP or some of its individual strategies, approaching learning through inquiry can be time consuming. This is especially true in the beginning stages as students learn how to go through the process and overcome challenges and frustrations. But in order for students to progress in their inquiry, we need to provide timely feedback on activities and reflections which can be overwhelming, particularly when a teacher has 100 students all turning in about an activity a day. That’s not to say that the responsibility should rest solely on the teacher’s shoulders; there are strategies for peer assessment and even group or self-assessment that should be used to prevent the teacher from being overloaded and unable to provide timely feedback. However, when kids need their teacher’s expertise, there are several technology tools that can make this part of the process much more manageable and efficient while also providing easy ways to document student progress.
Former Hunterdon Central Information Systems Supervisor, and current BrightBytes CEO and Co-Founder, Rob Mancabelli once said that the only piece of technology that is 100% reliable is a chalkboard. It doesn’t have a blue screen of death, connectivity issues, or other glitches. But, Rob reminded us, it also doesn’t permit students to share their learning with an audience, connect with resources, and communicate with each other outside of their classroom. Using technology requires a lot of flexibility and daring on the parts of both teachers and students. Although the first class to ever use the ILP did so via handwritten plans, a few other early iterations of our ILP work occurred in classes that were a part of a 1:1 computing pilot, and initiative that really opened the doors for us as educators. Teachers involved in the initial pilot received training in the summer prior to students receiving netbooks. During the training sessions, the small cohort of teachers met to discuss ways to rethink our teaching practices to make the most of the technology that was now available. As Heather pointed out in a blog post written after these sessions, simply providing a means for students to collaborate or share their learning doesn’t mean that it’s easily done:
During our 1:1 sessions, [the facilitators] focused on two significant things: changing the way we teach and, more importantly, giving us the freedom from fear to make these changes. They realized that the 1:1 program wasn’t about the netbooks and that it couldn’t start with lesson reform. It had to start with psychology. It took quite a long time, a visit from our superintendent, and a lot of support, but they did indeed allow our small group to break through the walls that so many of us construct around ourselves.
Students and teachers alike need coaching, reassurance, freedom, and confidence in order to get past the vulnerability that a connected classroom experiences. It requires willingness to share work beyond the immediate learning community, and that can open the possibility or the perceived possibility for judgment–a scary notion for many students and teachers. At the same time, we know that standing in front of the classroom and dispensing information was not going to work anymore either. With information at their fingertips, it seemed a waste of our precious time with students to spend it giving them content that they could easily look up. And so, we focused a lot of our instruction reform on inquiry as a means to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities the technology offered. Web 2.0 tools and the netbooks were supplementary to turning over responsibility to students; we saw technology as means through which our students could achieve their best, often times with more efficiency and collaboration.
Although for financial reasons we have since abandoned the 1:1 model at Hunterdon Central, we have moved to a Bring-Your-Own-Device policy in which students can use their personal computing devices in classes. We are fortunate to have about 50% of our students participating, and we have several laptop carts and computer labs to support those who are not participating. However, we want to be clear that this is not required for the ILP. Remember, Meg’s first use of the ILP was done without computers. And since then, Meg and I have taught classes with only an occasional trip to the library for students to use the desktops to find resources. Despite technology’s growing pervasiveness, it remains a luxury for many schools and unreliable equipment in others. All of the strategies and pedagogy associated with the ILP can be done without technology, but, if available, web-based tools, computers, and reliable internet connections can enhance the experience by allowing for collaboration, communication, accountability, creativity, and accessibility beyond the classroom setting. In upcoming posts, we will highlight a few tools that we have used to heighten students’ learning experiences with the ILP.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
One of the important aspects of using inquiry, and especially in using the ILP, is the opportunity for student choice. In Meg and Cathy’s classes, students explore themes in literature and develop skills around standards, and all of this begins with the texts students choose. In Heather’s latest post, she discusses the ways in which librarians can help students and co-teach in inquiry classrooms. For Cathy’s and Meg’s classes, librarians assist students at the beginning of the ILP process by helping them select texts. One of the ways we do this is through booktalks. A booktalk is a short introduction of a book that we can provide to students as a way to get them interested in a particular text, era, or genre of literature. In giving a booktalk, Heather and I, as well as other librarians, provide students with a glimpse into a text, by either reading a small section or sharing the conflict, theme, characters, or our favorite part. For American Literature classes, Heather and I would organize and provide booktalks around eras: Realism and Romanticism, Modernism & Postmodernism, Contemporary American Literature, among others. While we would share titles belonging to these eras, we would also connect the texts to major concepts and themes from the time period. Cathy and I would “tag team” our booktalks, alternating between the two of us, often like a ping-pong game along a literary timeline. While we were satisfied with the introduction of the texts we provided to students, we always felt that we could never cover enough books to give students a wide exposure to all of the possible literature they could choose from.
In an effort to make this part of the inquiry process more student centered, in addition to booktalks, we guided students through a browsing activity using a curation tool called a LibGuide. This web-based program allowed us to collect various websites and databases, as well as print books available in our collection or electronic texts found online. Our LibGuide for American Literature optimized a student’s ability to browse for texts. Instead of simply listening to a booktalk with books the teacher and librarians have chosen to highlight, now students could explore the multitude of resources on this guide to not only learn about eras and authors more thoroughly, but also to explore as much as possible of the literature America had to offer. This LibGuide has certainly grown over the past few years. We’ve added websites that students have discovered in their learning, ebooks that the library has purchased, and our own documents that serve to guide students through the ILP.
And when Cathy began talking about altering the structure of her class this time around, we saw the need to add even more material to this guide. While we still offer the opportunity for students to browse by era, this guide leads students to explore major playwrights, novelists, and poets across eras. It links to lists of American literary awards by year, as well as resources on American art and music, allowing students to see the connections between literature and other arts. We’ve offered sites on American culture and American history, and knowing that students don’t need to find just long texts and can explore supporting documents and materials, we’ve aggregated resources that contain primary documents from our nation’s history.
In some of the specific eras, we have linked to certain Google documents that highlight either the texts that our school library has, titles that Cathy’s classroom library contains, or books that students can find in the public domain on the web. Cathy and I have used these documents for specific browsing activities where students list their top three choices and explain why they are interested in reading the text and how it may connect to the themes they want to explore or the essential question they want to answer.
By combining all of these different types of approaches and exposing students to as many resources on American literature, writers, culture, and history as possible, we truly desire to create an open opportunity for them to explore–to wander around the resources, making connections and creating pathways for their own learning. We’ve even created a space for students to upload resources they find in their own browsing and searching online, giving them ownership of this class resource as well. And as we monitor this LibGuide, we can examine the usage statistics in the site’s “back office” to evaluate which sites are frequently referenced or which ones may be underused. Such data can give us insight into how students are using the guide and may help us determine what, if any, changes need to be made in the future.
And we haven’t just used LibGuides to help students connect with texts for literature classes. Teachers in other disciplines have teamed with the librarians to create guides in their disciplines, including Global Studies and Environmental Science, among others. By using resources like LibGuides and providing the time needed to deeply engage with the material in the beginning stages of inquiry or research, we are honoring the act of discovery and immersion as well as the importance of student choice, which all contribute to successful ILP and learning processes.
Please let us know if you recommend any resources for the American Literature LibGuide, or any of our other LibGuides, that we can share with our students. We welcome any feedback you may have and certainly would love to hear how you honor student choice in your classroom or library.