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Finding a Foundation in Inquiry By Janice Ewing

            Many educators are hearing words like “unprecedented” and “pivot” so often that they’re starting to lose their meaning.  Teachers are inundated with new tools, resources, and strategies to manage time and organization in virtual spaces. Part of the challenge of planning for this school year has been the process of sifting through, evaluating, and quickly becoming familiar with what can be an overwhelming array of options.

            In talking with teachers as they prepare for this school year, I’ve noticed that the urgency of adapting to new modes of teaching and learning sometimes leads to searching for answers before having a clear idea of what the questions are, beyond “How can I make this work?” I think that it’s helpful to hone in on our questions first, to create a foundation from which to navigate the search for answers. Of course, there are specific questions about requirements, schedules, and technology that might require immediate answers, but there are also deeper questions that need reflection and processing, in spite of the urgency that this school opening brings. Forming and pursuing these questions as teacher inquiries can provide a valuable framework for moving forward.

            For example, a teacher I’m informally mentoring learned that her school was preparing for a socially-distanced, in-class model. She wanted to encourage the theme and practice of caring for each other within a community, and she was concerned about finding ways to facilitate group projects among her first graders. Our collaborative reflection led her to the question:  How can I encourage collaboration and group projects within my class while still maintaining physical distance? Shortly after this conversation, the teacher was informed that her school had “pivoted” to virtual instruction. Her new question became: How can I encourage collaboration and group projects within my class in a virtual setting? The teacher’s goals for her students remain the same, although the logistics have changed, and very well might change again. Her inquiry question helps to keep her steady in her focus on what is important for her and her students. It is also a question that she will bring to “the table” in planning sessions with colleagues and it will guide her to seek out teachers in broader professional networks with similar questions.

            A reading specialist who works with students in grades 1-5 also shared her concerns with me about starting the year online.  Student assessment and collaboration with classroom teachers are essential components of her role. Fortunately, there is another reading specialist in her school with whom she has a close collegial relationship. Together, they will explore the question: What adaptations will be advantageous in assessing our students virtually and how can we best share our information with classroom teachers?

            A secondary special education teacher shared that she is worried about meeting her students’ needs for feelings of safety and emotional regulation without the flexibility of face-to-face interactions. Her question: What will happen if my students and I co-create a system of visual signs and symbols to enable them to indicate when they need an individual check-in or a break?

            An education professor at a local university explained that her classes are being held via Zoom. Her face-to-face classes were very interactive, as her students experienced the strategies they were learning about. Her question: How can I most effectively and authentically model instructional practices for my preservice education students using Zoom?

            Each of these teachers has deep concerns as this new school year begins. The identification of an inquiry question helps to shape more focused collaboration with colleagues, who might be exploring similar or related questions. As often occurs during inquiry, the questions will change along the way, as various types of data and ongoing analysis and reflection with colleagues inform the process. When teachers reach out and share their inquiries with other educators beyond their own learning communities, teaching and learning become generative and intertwined. As we face this “unprecedented” beginning of the school year, the inquiry process can build a foundation from which to reflect and act on your deepest and most authentic questions. You’re welcome to share your ongoing inquiry questions in the comments below.

Janice Ewing has been a reading specialist and literacy coach, and an adjunct instructor in the Reading Specialist Program at Cabrini University. She is currently serves on the Advisory Board of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project, of which she is a 2004 fellow. Her interests include teacher inquiry, collaboration, and mentoring. She and her colleague, Mary Buckelew, are the authors of Action Research for English Language Arts Teachers: Invitation to Inquiry (Routledge, 2019).

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