As I began this school year with the grade 6 teachers, we wondered, how can we nurture our children to develop a sense of wonder? How can we increase student engagement and provide access points for our diverse learners?
With this question in mind, we decided to play with Inquiry based learning in a cross curricular unit with Socials and English. I had recently attended BCTELA conference entitled Inquiry, Identity and Inclusions: Inspiring Learners into Action and I was excited to share my new learning about inquiry. As teachers, we met for a half day and planned a sequence of lessons for our unit. The essential question the students would inquire about was “How are children being exploited in the 21st century and what can we do about it?” Scholastics Issues 21 series was a great resource for this topic, and also provided us with our essential question. We used this resource along with other texts that our librarian purchased for us.
To guide us on our journey, we used ideas from Trevor MacKenzie and Rebecca Bathhust-Hunt’s book Inquiry Mindset as well as Jeffery Wilhelm’s book Inquiring Minds: Learn to Read and Write.
What is inquiry based learning?
Trevor MacKenzie defines inquiry-based learning as “a process where students are involved in their learning, create essential questions, investigate widely, and then build new understandings, meanings and knowledge. That knowledge is new to the student and may be used to answer their essential question, to develop a solution or to support a position or point of view. The knowledge is usually presented to others in some sort of public manner and may result in some sort of action.” – Alberta Focus on Inquiry, 2004
There are a few different types of student inquiry, and we referred to Trevor’s pool graphic to decide on what was the best fit for us and our students.
We decided that a controlled inquiry was the best fit for us and our students.
We then planned our unit using backward design and decided on the sequence of activities that would provide students with the background they needed to investigate this topic. We also decided on which big ideas, curricular competencies and content our unit would align with and discussed the final project, which Trevor refers to as the Public Display of Understanding.
Great ideas start with great questions!
Coming up with a great overarching question for students to investigate is of utmost importance. When we were looking at topics for the students to investigate, we considered what the students would be most interested in, what was coming up in the news, what we were passionate about teaching and having the students learn more about, and then we looked at how these topics connected to our curriculum. We decided that looking at Children’s Rights would be engaging and important for the students, while aligning with the big ideas in the renewed curriculum. We chose the essential question “How are children being exploited in the 21st century and what can we do about it?” from the Scholastics Issues 21 series as it allowed for students to choose different areas to investigate. According to Jeffery Wilhelm, an essential question will be successful if it is phrased in a way that is interesting and compelling to students and if it gets at enduring understandings from the discipline(s) being studied and this question met this criteria.
Using backward design, we thought about where we wanted the students to end up and then we planned our sequences of lessons that would allow them to create a project that was meaningful.
Sequence of activities:
“Frontloading is the most important thing you can do to insure student success. Research suggests that well over half of student comprehension problems can be eliminated if teachers activate background knowledge students already possess prior to reading.” – Jeff Wilhelm
Frontloading creates engagement, activates background knowledge and builds background knowledge that will be needed for the inquiry. Pre-reading, pre-writing, anticipatory sets, and provocations are all examples of frontloading strategies.
We started the unit off with the Walk the Line activity. One end of the line is “strongly disagree and the other end is “strongly agree”. The teacher poses a statement and students place themselves on the line, depending on what they think. Students can partner share why they think that, what evidence do they have, what background knowledge are they bringing into their understanding, pair up with someone on the opposite side and share their thinking (what is the same, different). Our statements were connected to the unit on Children’s Rights. This could also be done as a four corners activity where students walk to corner – “strongly agree, agree, strongly disagree, disagree.”
Next, we used the Smart Learning tool GOSSIP. This tool is great for activating background knowledge and understanding. We gave the students the concept of Human Rights and they went out and selectively searched for important points using the principles behind real gossip. Students first generate their own ideas, and then start gathering ideas from partners to come up with their own definition of Human Rights, using the collaborations from peers.
Following this lesson, we showed this video on human rights http://www.humanrights.com/what-are-human-rights/brief-history/ to continue to build background knowledge.
Provocation Tables – See, Think, Wonder
To get the students thinking about global issues, we put out thought provoking photos, books, quotes and materials to build a deeper understanding of children’s issues around the world. Students were in groups that rotated around the stations and used “graffiti” to respond to the prompts what do you see, think and wonder.
After, students generated their own questions about the topics they explored, trying to come up with as many questions as they could. They sorted the questions into quick questions (one right answer or answered with a yes/no) and deep thinking questions
(open-ended with many possible answers). Students then chose the topic they wanted to go deeper with and explore over the next month and refined their questions and choose their top 3-5 questions to investigate.
Students decided on using a web to record their ideas and notes:
To support the diversity in our classrooms, a variety of appropriate and accessible materials were made available for students to use for research. Technology was also used for students to explore topics and represent learning. Our computers teacher helped us teach the students windows photo story as an option for students that wanted to use story and technology to demonstrate their learning. Other students chose to draw and paint and some built models or create museum displays to demonstrate their understanding.
Public Display of Understanding:
Trevor McKenzie’s final step in the inquiry process is the public display of understanding. We gave students the choice to draw, paint, sculpt, build or use technology to share their learning with their peers. Here are what some of the students created.
What did you learn about asking questions for an inquiry?
I learned that by asking more and more questions to make
a bigger question and when I put it all together it would make the final detials. AS
Asking questions taught me that you can ask questions to help you research, to find answers to bigger questions and to use smaller questions and turn them into bigger and more powerful questions. MM
What did you learn about how to research?
I learned by gathering information from different sources I could make more than one big question and I could add more smaller questions and add on to my big question. AS
How did you come up with your idea for your presentation?
I was thinking about how much of the display will show what I know, so that is why I chose a museum display.
What inspired me was Ms. A from my old school, who went to a Residential School and shared what had happened to her and her siblings. – MM
How has your thinking changed about the way chidlren are being exploited in the 21st century?
I did not know that kids were in war so almost all my thinking changed. Something that really changed my thinking was reading about someone who was actually in war when he was a kid and he escaped and made it home. I also learned about residential schools. When they went to school they would be put to work. My thinking changed because of the presentaion I heard from B. about resedential schools and what happened. AS
I learned lots of things. Some people boil water on fire powered by steam to have safe drinking water. I also learned, still to this day child soldiers are being used and the weight of residential schools are still on individuals. JW
My thinking changed when I heard about the way people treated Indigenous people and how we saw them as savages. My thinking also changed when I read about The Royal Comission of Aboriginal Peoples because it made me wonder what made the government’s thinking change to form the Royal Commission. I also found out that people helped to stop Residential Schools by speaking out. I did not know people treated the kids so poorly. MM
As teachers, we learned a lot about using inquiry learning in our classroom. We noticed the importance of building student curiosity and spending time building background knowledge. We were reminded of the importance of responsive teaching and working together as a team to meet the needs of ALL our students. We also appreciated the support of our teacher librarian and computers teachers.
Submitted by Janice Moase, KVR Middle School
Submitted by Janice Moase, KVR Middle School
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