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.
Happy Fall Janice – Yes, the season of autumn is upon and so, too, are the lists of objectives and assessments that must be attended to with my students. In fact, my formal observation for the school year is this week where I will be questioned about my relationships with my students and my plans for intervention and instruction. As you so aptly note, it is easy to feel as though there are so many learning needs that solving one will solve none, resulting in little to no targeted instruction. Like exercise, the hardest thing to do sometimes is to just get started, which means doing something. Your inquiry approach is an exercise jump start: a disciplined approach to doing something that addresses the needs of our students at this early stage of the school year. I am taking your inquiry approach with me to my observation conference this week as evidence of my instructional goals and professionalism. I am particularly thankful, though, for your endorsement of collegiality. Too often, teachers find themselves isolated from each other, either as a result of scheduling and/or building constraints or of their own volition. I am a firm believer that where two more educators are gathered, miraculous things can occur. Your idea of focused inquiry is inspiring; your call to reach out to others – quite seasonable!
Thank you so much, Pam. I would love to hear how this approach works out as a discussion point at your conference.
Thank you, Janice! I love the three-step process for inquiry. Identifying the key question is important. It’s what you would do for a doctoral dissertation. I love the idea of trying out a strategy. I think it’s important to reflect on the effects of your plan/choice, both on your own and with trusted colleagues. Often, a literacy coach could be of assistance here, but not all schools have one. I think your post is timely. October is a month of change. Our classrooms, too, are ready for new inspiration and direction. I am going to ask Arcadia grad students to read your post this Thursday and try out this process. The specific examples you gave us were helpful to imagine our own possibilities.
With a little over a month of school in my rear view mirror, I’m starting to get a firm grasp on some of the challenges my students and I are facing this year. One class in particular stands out as especially daunting. Out of the 22 students in the class, 20 are 9th grade boys, all are struggling readers and writers, and many are also English Language Learners. For this class in particular, I want to focus on how to find balance. How do I balance the strains of classroom management with meeting the needs of my struggling students? How do I balance fostering individual interest and motivation with the pressures of a curriculum? How to I find time for individualized instruction in reading and writing while holding everyone accountable for academic behavior? Where will I find that ideal intersection of teacher modeling and student application that leads to learning and growth for the majority? I’m sure this will be a year long inquiry filled with much trial and error, but I’m glad to start thinking about it now. Thank you for the thoughtful post!
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Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kelly. I think a lot of teachers are struggling with these issues, in one way or another. This reminds me a little of Rita’s post, below, although she’s facing it from the authentic tutoring vs. homework help direction.
Chilly, pumpkins, orange, bright, and crunchy! Each year I look more and more towards the start of fall, specifically October. By then, my students as well as my own children are into a routine. For my students, we can begin to delve into curriculum. The pace of busy September has passed. I was just thinking about this the other day. We all need routines, not just our students!
I like this idea of inquiry. I have a wonderful core class this year. They are eager to learn and crave the challenge. I very much look forward to stretching their thinking this year.
My on level math class is a different story. Many come to class unprepared and unwilling to try. I also have a handful of students who struggle with the concepts taught.
My Question: What can I do on a daily basis to help scaffold and support my struggling learners?
Try-out: Based on in class observation and an exit slip, I will pull these students at the beginning of class the next day for a reteach group. This will be an opportunity to practice skills and give guided support.
Invite: I will invite my math specialist to the class to see how I can support my students better during a lesson. Also, we can talk about strategies to give them during small group.
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I enjoyed reading your very sensory fall list, and I appreciate your sharing your inquiry plan. It sounds very doable, and I hope it’s helpful!
October is definitely an energetic time for me. I feel like the fresh, crisp, fall air combined with the beauty of our natural surroundings here in PA can be motivating! However, as you stated, the school year also starts to gain momentum around this time. The faster pace can be overwhelming! Your three-step inquiry process seems to be a good way to focus on a specific problem and formulate a solution. I share a similar strategy for my students when they are facing a problem (1. Attempt 2 of your own solutions. 2. Ask a peer. 3. Ask your teacher). But sometimes, we forget that students also need to define their challenges more clearly just as we do! I could definitively use a similar inquiry process with my students to help them tackle their problems.
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What a great idea! Then maybe they could share what worked and what didn’t, with more of problem-solving lens than a success or failure lens. I hope you try this out.
Janice, these are meaningful questions to accompany the pumpkin latte. With today’s fast-paced curricula, teachers do need to pull together resources and support. For me, as I tutor a few students, my inquiry question is, “How can I facilitate getting the mountain of homework done while strengthening skills and strategies that lead to accountability and growth?”
That really is challenging…You want to help the students to learn and love learning, but the endless ‘packets’ have to be completed. What are you trying out to find a balance? Is there anyone who can collaborate with you on this?