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Top 5 Tips That Will Transform Your INQUIRY Projects

Whenever I check the teacher message boards that I am a part of, I always see many requests for ideas for culminating tasks for the various units that a teacher teaches throughout the year.  This stems, I believe, from the backward design process where teachers begin to plan their new unit of study by first planning the culminating activity.  However, if you follow this blog, you may have realized that I am moving away from the teacher-directed model of instruction and moving towards an inquiry approach where the students and teachers authentically develop the culminating task within some standard parameters.

The problem, as I see it, is not in having a culminating task but in planning an event or task that limits a student's creativity or expression in order to do what the teacher tells them.  Placing restrictions on what students do to show you what they learned is where you are restricting student creativity.  I know that there is a lot of anxiety as teachers when we don't have complete and total control.  I get it, I myself am a recovering control freak (ok maybe not so much recovering), but I have changed the aspects that I control within the classroom.  At the end of the unit, if every student's product looks the same then how creative and differentiated is that really.

1. Plan the criteria, not the product
It is possible for students to design a variety ways to show their learning that respects their interests and individuality while all still meeting the same expectations.  These little projects are called "show what you know" projects.  With these we make a list of concepts that student need to know about these are generally derived from our learning throughout the unit.  It is then the student's responsibility to design a project that meets these criteria.  How they present it is not as important as what they present.

2. Fun means differentiated
Many times as teachers are requesting help to find project ideas, they are also requesting fun and engaging activities for their students.  Generally, as teachers, we are not interested in boring our students and making learning disengaging.  However, we teach individuals, not robots and their interests are their own.  If you want them engaged, let them choose the format.  At first, many students will probably pick traditional presentation strategies.  However, throughout the year as one or two students begin to push the traditional boundaries other students will start to take more risks in their style to pursue their own interests that reflect their skills.  We have to remember that in our classrooms there are many students who have strengths in different areas and those that do not fit well in a traditional classroom will struggle with traditional tasks but can and will amaze you with their ability to show you what they know in alternate ways such as using Minecraft, designing a song or dance, or creating a website.

3. Student-led inquiry
Inquiry means that students are helping to lead and own learning.  They are not leading their learning if where they are going and what they are doing is already mapped out.  This does not mean that we don't have to plan because we do.  There will be certain concepts that are essential to building their knowledge and understanding that they can learn what it is that they are supposed to learn.  However, these are general.  If you have ever seen my units on TPT you will know that they generally follow the same format.  Provocation/Wonderwall-> Big Idea / Questions -> Building Background Knowledge and Understanding Lessons-> Knowledge Building Circles -> Reflecting Activities -> General Research Project -> Open Ended Sharing of Knowledge.  You will also notice that the pages are general enough that there are very few question and answer rote learning pages.  Students are generating their own knowledge and reflecting on this.  However, the focus and scope of these lessons allow a variety of different avenues and flexibility for the teacher so that each year your focus could be a little different.  The shift relies on the teacher understanding that they are guiding the learning not giving the learning.

4. Share the workload
there is a quote that is often used with inquiry that talks about the work load.  The teacher should not be working harder than the students.  In reality, this is true.  If you are working so hard to plan every little detail then simply just giving the students work.  This is not inquiry.  Inquiry involves students and teachers working together.  If you want an engaging activity for your students ask them to tell you what they should do.  Plan it together.  Instead of taking hours and hours at home planning a lesson for students.  Stop planning at home and plan with them during knowledge builiding circles.  Even if that means that you pull out the curriculum document and list the things that they need to know about and asking questions about these things and then going from there.  Let them help you plan it.  Do it with them, and save yourself some time.

5. Learn the content, deeply
This has to be the biggest advantage for me in planning detailed units for TPT.  It has forced me to really learn the content.  Stop spending your time planning the unit and the lessons and learn the content and not at an elementary level but at a high school level.  Read the Wikipedia page on tension and compression and challenge yourself to be able to understand it.  This will help you when you go off script in class.  If all you know is what is on the lesson plan then it will be that much harder to teach this using an inquiry perspective.  You need to know your content at a much more complex level.  This is why it takes me so much longer to create a complete unit and why I include teacher background notes for you so that you can understand the concepts that you teach.


Ignite Student's Passion for Writing!!

Writing is a challenge to teach.  It is more than simply just teaching students how to write.  There is an underlying challenge that can predict a student's success and this is often dependent on the messaging that students tell themselves about their ability to write.  A student's attitude towards their skills as a writer are very important to ensure their success in their ability to write.  Writing was the last subject that I taught as a teacher where I felt like I was doing a great job at getting students to write.  Many times I felt that my writing program was sucking the fun out of writing and making the task feel so foreign and unrelatable to the real world of writing.  This change coincided with my also beginning this blog.  Through blogging, I felt that I reconnected to my enjoyment of writing that perhaps had been sucked out of me.  Understanding that sometimes just the act of getting your ideas out of your head and on 'paper' is a great feeling.  I needed a way to translate that into my own teaching.  Writing needed to be connected, the act of writing needed to be just as important as the conventions and style elements of writing.  Student engagement needed to increase and a fire and passion for writing needed to be ignited within my students.  Even with the most reluctant writers.  

This need for a change also aligned with using inquiry in science and social studies.  The power of student conferences, guided instruction and increasing a student's voice and choice in the classroom were powerful tools to get students hooked.  

I changed my approach to how I teach writing and now use a cyclical/spiraling method of teaching writing instruction which is tied very closely to reading instruction as well.  Allowing students the ability to choose what they want to write about, how they want to write it and when has changed by teaching of writing and completely transformed the level of engagement and excitement in writing within my classroom.  The progress I see with students in their ability to write is amazing.  

However it is more than just giving them less structure and rules to follow in their writing.  This would lead to chaos and triple your work load as you had each student doing whatever they want. There are systems and guides and a great deal of structure that goes into preparing your students to write in this manner.  

To get this started there are three things that I use to help me get started to establish writing in my classroom.  


Students will still need a place to put their writing.  These writing folders will help you to support students as they work through the writing process.  Within the pockets of these folders students are given anchors that will help them brainstorm ideas, plan, draft, edit and revise their work.  Each anchor can be taught separately and added to the folder in a purposeful way. 



Writing Anchor Board
This is displayed on a bulletin board for your students.  This support will be a reference for students to remind them of the different writing forms they identified as being interested in as well as provide them with success criteria charts and exemplars as students write them, and any anchor charts that you create with students throughout your responsive lessons. 


Story Wheels
These story wheels will help students to generate ideas.  If you have students that struggle with generating ideas for writing different types of stories then these wheels will help you to support these students.  Students will either create personal wheels or you can support them to create class wheels in small groups or as a whole group depending on need.  

Want more information about how I implement my writing program in my classroom sign up now to join the waiting list for my upcoming ebook - Ignited Writing: a Differentiated Cyclical Approach to Writing. 






No More Worksheets?


So what is the deal with all this hatred to the worksheet?  It was recently asked on a facebook forum if using worksheets in your classroom makes you the dreaded 'old school teacher'.  This sparked an interesting discussion amongst the teachers in the group as to what the big deal is on worksheets.  With schools pushing a paperless classroom in favor of digital tech and parents demanding an education for their children that reflects the familiar comforts of their own schooling. Teachers are put in the middle of a murky pond wondering how much is too much when it comes to our own worksheet usage.

Glows, Grows and Where to Goes

As August is winding down my mind is now shifting to getting ready for back to school.  Thinking about how I will set up my classroom this year.  Every year I change a few things based on what I learned the previous year.  Asking what worked and what didn't and why is a very important task.  How can we grow as teachers if we are not willing to work on improving and this, in my opinion, starts with some personal reflection.  Here are my glows, grows and where to goes for the upcoming year.

Glows...

  • Inquiry: in science and social studies but especially in language.  I just couldn't believe how much my students learned and developed as writers by using this approach.  Organizing them into inquiry writing centers really helped too.  
  • Math: still a big fan of this always happening in the morning. Continue to use my morning math pages to frame our three part lessons and give differentiated ways to support students in developing math skills.  
  • Mentor Paragraphs/Sentences: these were great during our literacy centers as a way for student to practice editing and proof reading skills.  I noticed a drastic improvement in many students in this area which transferred to their own writing skills. 
  • Technology: Using technology as an accessible tool with a BYOD philosophy was important.  This allowed for google classroom, explain everything and other apps to be seamlessly integrated into our day.  The students capacity for innovative thoughts and actions surrounding technology was important. 
  • Independence: with such a large class I didn't have time to see all of my students as frequently as I would have liked. This had some negative consequences for students who needed more hand holding or anxiety however for many this allowed them to learn to rely on themselves and increased their autonomy and independence in learning which will ultimately benefit them later.  
Grows...

Talking Inquiry - Letting Go of Control

Who I am as a Teacher

I am a teacher the thrives on organization and control over certain things in my classroom.  So I
  • Number student workbooks
  • Match all components of my program everything is colour coded
  • Classroom needs to match (my red pocket charts annoy me since they don't match)
  • So picky I make all of my own stuff or remake things so the fonts match and it looks pretty 

Despite this I am still a person that likes change but being stubborn I like to do it my own way and hate being told what to do.  So if you are like me then you need to commit to changing but find a way that is authentic to you.  

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