Season of Inquiry
By Janice Ewing
Make a quick written or mental list: when you think of October, what are five words or phrases that pop into your mind? This is a month and a season of colorful and flavorful transitions. Maybe you had Halloween on your list, or changing leaves, or candy, or pumpkins, or pumpkin spice latte…
Most likely, as teachers, there are other transitions occurring as well. Whatever your grade level, whether you teach 25 students or 150, you have gotten to know them by now, perhaps not as well as you’d like, but more deeply than you did when you first greeted them in late August or early September. With that knowledge comes great fuel for teaching and relationship-building, but great challenges as well.
Think about what you’ve learned from formative assessment – conversations, observations, anecdotal records, reading and writing conferences, and all the other ways you get insight into your students’ processes and products. Regardless of your grade level or subject, you are probably seeing vast differences in interests, learning styles, strengths, and areas of need. This is important to know, right? Yes, but it can also be overwhelming. For many teachers, this is a time in the school year when we look at the information we’ve acquired about our students, and ask ourselves some questions:
“How do I best use this information to help my students to be successful?”
“How can I differentiate effectively within the confines of my curriculum/pacing/test prep requirements?”
And maybe “Why does it feel as though the school year is just beginning?”
So that leads me to add another word to my October list – ‘inquiry.’ Here’s why. When we examine the myriad information that we’re working to process and organize about our students, it might help to take an inquiry stance. Taking another look at the questions above, rather than feeling overwhelmed or discouraged by the enormity of them, we can shape them into realistic action research projects. My suggestion is a three part process: frame the question, identify a strategy to try out, find a supportive colleague to join you.
For example, a second grade teacher has found that many of her students are left bewildered by the “cover-every-subject-every-day-no-matter-what curriculum that her school adheres to.
Her question: How can I make cross-curricular connections that will help my students to go from information-overload to assimilation of knowledge?
Try-out: Integrating vocabulary and concepts from science and social studies into writers’ workshop
Invite: a second grade colleague who is grappling with the same issue
A high school biology teacher wonders how her ESL students will master the academic vocabulary that is prevalent in her subject matter.
Her question: How can I use a combination of visual strategies and concrete examples to make biology concepts accessible to all my students?
Try-out: Have students send each other text messages from the points of view of various organisms
Invite: ESL teacher, who works with some of these students, as well as having expertise in this area
An alternative school teacher has a class of 18-21 year olds, many of whom have children and jobs, and a history of negative experiences with traditional school routines and wonders how to make school a motivating and meaningful experience for them.
Her question: How can I make this school experience a motivating and meaningful one for them, and help them on their road to further education and/or more satisfying employment?
Try-out: Focus instruction around real-life skills and practices, such as writing cover letters and resumes, simulated interviews, and analysis of current events that impact their lives
Invite: Team members who work with these same students
What question is taking shape in your teaching world? What will you try out in this season of inquiry ? Who is going with you?
Janice Ewing is an adjunct professor for Cabrini University and a Co-director for PAWLP. She is co-president of the Philadelphia Reading Council and serves as an editor of the PA Reads Journal of the Keystone State Reading Association. Janice is a co-facilitator for the PAWLP Continuity Days throughout the school year and a member of the PAWLP Blog team.