Inquiry Unit: A Start

Monday, June 28, 2010

Guiding Question: Who really found America?

Content Standards:
Social Studies: 5.1.1 – 5.1 5
English/Language Arts (tentative): 5.2.1, 5.2.4, 5.4.5, 5.4.8, 5.4.9, 5.4.10, 5.5.3, 5.5.6, 5.6.6, 5.7.1, 5.7.10

In this inquiry unit, my fifth graders would look at the different groups that explored America and established settlements, towns, and colonies here. We would start the inquiry unit together looking at the major question, “Who really found America?” Then, as students became interested in the different groups (Native Americans, Vikings, French, English, Spanish, etc.), they would break into smaller inquiry groups to explore their “specialties.”
The culminating project for each specialty group will be a museum exhibit demonstrating how their interest group contributed to establishing a claim to what is now the United States. Those projects will combine to create a comprehensive answer to the guiding question.

Content Area Reading Strategies

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Reflection: Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? By Cris Tovani (Chapters 1 and 4)

Reading is an individual experience, and it is a different experience for every individual. Reading nonfiction and content-area text is especially different for every person. However, there are some strategies that all successful readers use, even if they use the strategies differently. Cris Tovani points out that you have to ask questions as you read, but that they have to be questions that you really care about and are curious about. She goes on to quote Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis from their book, Strategies That Work, saying, “A reader with no questions might just as well abandon the book.” (p. 82)

“. . . learning to read doesn’t end in the elementary grades. Reading becomes more complex as students move into middle and high schools, and teachers need to help students understand difficult text.” (p. 5)
This may mean that teachers in content areas need to directly teach methods and strategies for reading the texts in their classes. We know that reading nonfiction textbooks is not the same as reading a fictional story, but reading high school level text books is not the same as reading middle school level text books, which isn’t the same as reading elementary text books. Teachers need to provide students with level-appropriate instruction, and at each level, the teachers may need to present students with more appropriate tools to aid in the comprehension of the reading materials.

Instead of thinking about it as “content-area reading” think about it as “teaching students how to remember and reuse the information we ask them to read.” (p. 7)
Content-are reading isn’t about teaching students how to decode words; it is about connecting the skills they already know to the material the need to learn. However, sometimes, new strategies or techniques need to be taught in correlation with the new kinds of materials being presented. For example, when a history teacher first presents a student with a primary document, it will be necessary to explain that the author of the text wrote it at a different time period, so his/her mind set wasn’t that of a modern author.

“Teachers end up lecturing so they can deliver the maximum amount of content.The problem with this is that the teachers end up doing most of the work.”( p. 38)
On page 8 of “Engaging Readers and Writers With Inquiry,” Wilhelm writes, “Without purpose, significant learning is difficult if not impossible to achieve.” He goes on to explain that students need to interact with material in order to construct meaning. Tovani is writing about how, in an effort to give students more information, teachers are actually taking away the students’ opportunities to construct meaning. The negative effects of the teacher-centric classroom happen because students don’t have a purpose for learning, other than passing the test. With transformative teaching, the teacher has to step away from the role of lector and step into the role of mentor and model.

“My intention is to give students something to read that is worthy of their time, something that they actually have the potential to understand – and maybe even finding a piece of text that will turn kids on to the content.” (p. 40)
I really like that Tovani points out here that rigor is different for everyone. She compares a rigorous workout for one person as being impossible for another. In terms of education, this comparison is so appropriate. Giving students texts and materials that are too complicated doesn’t encourage students, but rather, defeats them and may encourage cheating or just plain giving up. She writes, “When students are always given text that is to hard for them to read on their own, they begin to associate school reading with reading that is pointless.” (p. 41) However, if we can present students with content materials that are more appropriate to their reading abilities, it may spark an interest in the content that could lead (with reading support) to a more in-depth understanding.

The suggestion of using alternative texts and text sets in the classroom (p. 42-50) is an idea that I absolutely want to incorporate because it makes so much sense. Alternative texts literally provide an alternative to the original text. The example used in the book is to use Finn by Matthew Olshan as an alternative text for Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain because the stories have similar themes and some parallel plot points, but Finn is written at a level more appropriate for less able readers. Text sets provide wonderful opportunities for students to explore a variety of materials related to a specific topic. The topics could be as broad as “World War II” or as narrow as “The Life Cycle of a Frog” as long as there are multiple, high quality resources that provide information to children. I really liked Tovani’s ideas about text sets, and I think that they could be very practical at any grade level because the variety of materials included should increase the students' interest. This website has information about why and how to create a text set. The example they give is very detailed and covers the topic of immigration at the middle school level.

Inquiry Based Instruction in a Test-driven World

After contemplating the information about inquiry-based instruction, I have had a lot of questions circling in my head about how the standardized tests fit into this model of teaching. This afternoon I sat down with the principal of one of the elementary schools in my district to talk about just that. We talked about the obvious benefits of inquiry based learning and of hands-on active learning in general. I explained that I am really interested in inquiry based learning because of the real world similarities - it isn’t about learning for the test, but rather, learning to solve a problem. He pointed out that successful scientists are using inquiry everyday, so why not expose kids to the way that “real” science is conducted.

Then I asked how he sees inquiry based learning working in terms of the state mandated standardized tests. I explained my fears that my students wouldn’t do well because they aren’t used to the format of the test. He adamantly disagreed saying that if students truly understand the information – which they should after a well designed inquiry unit – then the test should not be an issue. Basically, if students really and completely understand the material, the format of the test shouldn’t matter. I understand the argument, but I’m not 100% sure that I agree. I still believe that there are strategies for taking standardized tests that need to be taught so that knowledge can be applied in the most effective manner. The time constraints of standardized tests could be especially hindering if students are used to a more open-ended time frame.

Teaching with Inquiry

Friday, June 4, 2010

Reflection: Engaging Readers and Writers With Inquiry by Jeffrey D. Wilhelm (Chapters 1-2)
“Without purpose, significant learning is difficult if not impossible to achieve.” (p. 8)

What I Learned:
Teaching with inquiry is all about teaching kids how to learn, not how to memorize (and then probably forget). The inquiry process is centered around “guiding questions” that lead students to connect their learning to the real world and to their own lives. Everything that is taught within the inquiry unit should be connected to the guiding question. Then, instead of memorizing the information, the students use information and materials presented to them to investigate and answer the guiding question. This leads them to develop a much deeper understanding than the “memorize for the test” method of teaching that is often used.
Wilhelm defines inquiry “as the process of addressing problems expressed by guiding questions” (p. 10) and points out that the guiding question could encompass an entire unit, or a simple lesson or activity. Inquiry is not the same as a student-centered projects or a student-generated curriculum, but rather, it is about teaching students to talk about, think about, and question topics in a very active way. Students in the inquiry-based classroom will collaborate with each other to deepen their understandings even further. Wilhelm even says: “The research base is clear: inquiry-oriented classrooms cultivate motivation and engagement, deeper conceptual and strategic understanding, higher-level thinking, productive habits of mind, and positive attitudes toward future learning, no matter the subject area.” (p. 16)
Teachers can use this inquiry based method to present class material in a way that connects to the kids, so that more meaningful learning occurs. Rather than a list of facts, students need to process information in a way that makes it a tool for further learning. The “First Actions to Take” (p. 25) and “Next Practical Steps: Three Key Moves” (p. 38) provide an easy to follow explanation of how to easily transform teaching from a teacher-led model to an inquiry-based model.

What I Think:
I have always been a proponent of connecting learning to real world situations and of teaching kids how to learn rather than how to memorize, so this inquiry-based learning seems to directly connect to my thoughts and provide another way of presenting material. The “First Actions to Take” (p. 25) and “Next Practical Steps: Three Key Moves” (p. 38) are the things that I need to work through to begin using this method in my own classroom.
The biggest things to keep in mind are:
* Keep in mind what is important to me (the teacher) and the students, and then connect it to the curriculum (p. 25)
* Teach the students how to inquire and how to be an inquirer (p. 26). For most students, this will be a completely new experience, so I will need to model how to talk, think, and learn in this new style. There will also need to be situations for students to practice collaborating with each other, and my level of interaction may need to be higher at the beginning, so that I can model good collaboration.
(Practice, practice, practice!)
* “Learning occurs in a context and cannot be separated from or achieved apart from meaningful context in which it is developed and applied” (p. 27) --> If the students don’t have a meaningful context, there is no sense in presenting information because they won’t retain it or be able to apply it.
* “Knowledge is constructed socially…The goal of learning is not information but 'knowledge,’ which requires deep understanding and application” (p. 27). --> students need to question the material, interact with it, talk about it, evaluate it, and
manipulate it in order to form the deep understandings.
* As the teacher, I should participate as a collaborator, mentor, and guide. (p. 29) I think establishing this authoritative role will be exciting. I like to think that I am more authoritative than authoritarian already, but I know that there is always room to improve! I look forward to collaborating more with my students as we look toward the guiding questions.
* MAKE SURE the discussions are effective! (There are suggestions/guidelines on pages 36-37) --> Students should dominate the discussions while I’m acting as a guide.
Note: I really like the idea of having kids brainstorm things to do when they get frustrated (p. 23). It not only gives them suggestions of outlets, but reassures them that being frustrated will happen and is ok as long as we move through the frustration instead of letting it take over.

How do textbooks work in an inquiry unit? There has to be information presented, but teachers aren’t supposed to use a lecture method. What are some other, less lecture-based, ways to get the information to the kids?
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