Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The way INQUIRY has changed my teaching

When I started using Inquiry Circles in the classroom 4 years ago I had no idea what was in store for the students in my classroom or for the growth and change of philosophy that I would experience.

I started by pouring over the book Comprehension & Collaboration: Inquiry Circles Illuminated by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels.  (Click on picture for link to purchase this book.)
The book excited me and made me feel scared.  I was scared that I was going to lose control.  Control over learning, grades, motivation, organization, and the list goes on.  My desire to see inquiry circles in the classroom outweighed my fear of losing control...so I finally hit the go button! Sitting here now knowing what I know now I'm so thankful that I decided to leap into the unknowns.

The start of my journey:
Confession:  I used to be a control freak.  Some may say I still am but trust me I've mellowed out A LOT!  So back when I was a control freak I had to have a very decisive plan and inquiry felt a bit unstructured to me having taught more traditionally (I do, We do, You do).  I created documents to help guide my teaching and here is the first set,

From the get go I started to see a transition in my class and within myself. Below is part of a blog post from 4 years ago,

 Here's a little inspirational note about Inquiry Circles.  A child in my class has been very dejected.  Life at home isn't great....his parents are fighting :(  It has really shown itself at school.  He is a high level kid that has just been making it through the day...not learning fervently.  This child is in the group researching turtles.  He knows the inside and outside of every turtle book stored in the group's basket.  I sit down to do a mini-lesson with the group (the difference between reading with a question in mind vs. tracking your thinking while reading a book) and this kid just blows me away.  I decided to show the group what I mean and start with a question, How do turtles have their young?  He rips out four books flips to the pages and starts telling me all about it.  The other two students didn't stand a chance for keeping up.  So the two of us, him and I, laid it out for them successfully. He is smiling more often and told me after school that he loves to learn {be still my heart}!

Back then I was still holding tight to structure.  I used a specific conferring form, created a pack of inquiry circle student sheets, used a rubric and made detailed lessons that focused on organization.

And here are my lesson plans for the reptile inquiry circle.  You will noticed that I tried to hit important organizational lessons and some from our county roadmap.  **Note that we found that although we planned lessons most of the time our teaching came out of authenticity. The kids needed different material than we had anticipated.**


By the end of the first inquiry I was sold.  I knew this component would be in my classroom for awhile. 

Changes I've made along the way: 
Along the way I have posted about inquiry circles and how they are working in my classroom.   There has been some major changes along the way.  Now, I embrace the unknown while knowing that whatever we discover will be amazing.
1. My ideas about structure started to change.  I let the students have more say in what they wanted to work on.  I became more flexible with groupings.  At the beginning of the year I would tend more towards groups and by the end of the year they could work alone, in pairs, triads or whatever they wanted.  Groupings started becoming more about interest and less about my desire to control.  I do have to say that at first I suggest working in groups of 4 or 5 because when it is new it is easier to support 4 or 5 groups rather than 12 groups.
2. My reading block makes way for inquiry first.  I start with a mini-lesson which is usually standard-based, then the students break off into their groupings to research while I support with conferring, and finally we meet back to share our new learning and thoughts.  At the beginning of an inquiry the lessons are about asking and answer questions, then I start honing in on other standards like text features.  I am able to teach to the standards while the students are choosing their interest, which is a win-win.
3.I let students lead.  I used to think the teacher led the class, boy was I wrong!  Now my students lead the class meaning that their thinking and interest push us forward.  At times I give them specifics on what I would like them to research and I usually tell them why. I'll say,  "In science we will be learning about extreme weather so for our next inquiry I would like you to think about weather that makes you wonder."  For the inquiry we just started I told the students that they needed to pick a living thing with a habitat and life cycle (which directly ties to our science for the next month).  
4. Because student motivation is so high, I quickly get to conferring with the students and understanding their thought process. I don't spend time trying to find just right books because the students are finding books of interest.  I just spend time listening to their thinking.  When you listen you discover.  Motivation also pushes the students to go out of their comfort zone when it come to reading.  Many times I have thought, "That book will be way too hard. That student won't get anything from it," and every time I've been wrong.
5. I am a facilitator.  I set the scene for success...that's my job now (and I love it).  I make sure students have the resources that they need.  The school library and county library get frequent visits from me (along with Goodwill).  I teach short mini-lessons that will lead to success.  I make rubrics and post language stems.  I tell the students why they are doing what they're doing.  I outline why it is purposeful and tell them how it has helped me in my own life.  
6. My learning is on display.  I'm gobsmacked daily by all the students teach me.  I show them how human I am daily.  I've caught myself saying, "That's not right.  Where did you find that?" with an accusatory tone and they always prove me wrong.  I show my imperfections all the time and I realize that I have so much to learn from these 7 year olds.  I feel so lucky that I get to use my brain daily and not do some boring, menial task.  I'm constantly stimulated and humbled by how much more I have to learn.
7.  Inquiry has taken over because it is contagious.  In every subject I find the students learn best when they are in control.  When we want to know why an author is good at writing, we inquire about it, research it and answer it for ourselves.  It's another instance of letting go and becoming a facilitator.  Kids are smart and they can figure out most things with the right resources.

Here are some inquiry pictures from over the past 4 years:

If you have a change to read the book listed above then I would say do it!  If you want to leap into inquiry I would say you'll never look back!!

Monday, March 30, 2015

Thinking about my signals

I'm currently reading The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley (thanks Brian Dassler) and it has me thinking about the signals I give students.

The signal that I hope I give off is that I value thinking.  Some people have dogged the new standards but I feel like their intentions are valuable. I appreciate that my students are thinking at deeper levels.  One way I try to instill thinking is by modeling my own.  I try to do it in a natural way, struggling and all!  I want my students to see that I have to push myself just like they do.

This year I have come to rely on our journals in ALL subject areas.  What I love about journals is that students can track their progress in regards to their thinking.  It also gives them a reference point to refer to whenever they are struggling.  The materials I create for my students have language stems to help them organize and expand upon their thinking.

During the course of this year, I have created interactive journal material that I haven't shared....UNTIL NOW!

Here is a freebie/preview for you to check out:

I shared this standard that focuses on the main purpose of a text because I have found that my students need extra support!  In an informational book an author can explain, answer and describe to share their main purpose and sometimes that can be tricky to understand.  I also included a recording sheet that I explain more in the full product on TPT.

If you are interested in the full product, which has a journal activity for every Informational and Literature standard, check it out here:

If you aren't utilizing interactive journals, then I challenge you to try them. When planning activities for your students, think "What signals are the students getting from me?"

Monday, March 16, 2015

I Read to Write by Zaner-Bloser

When ZB asked me to review their new I Read to Write kit I didn't know what to expect. What I got was informational texts that have students respond in a variety of ways.  My students were thrilled to delve into the texts!

Here's what I like about the program:

-It's cross-curricular, including Science, Social Studies and Math.  With the new standards it's is so important to integrate in any way you can and this makes it easy.

-The students were highly engaged in each text.  The pictures brought the topics to life and the topics were of interest to my readers.

-The texts are complex but grade level appropriate.  As a teacher, it is so important to expose all learners to grade level texts and you can do it with this program.

-The program sets it up by first reading, then thinking and then writing.   Plus each subject area gives you two sources to refer to.

-One change with the standards is being able to cite text evidence and each lesson provides practice by having the students analyze and respond.  Citing evidence directly correlates with the testing my students have taken this year...and we all know any practice helps!

-The language used is the same language from the standards. I teach to the standards and I use the language from the standards, as do my students.  It fit right into our reading and writing block. (Ask and Answer Questions; Identify the Main Purpose; Use Text Features; Identify the Main Topic; Describe How Reasons Support Specific Points; etc.)
 - Narrative, Informative and Opinion writing are all included.  There is also a rubric for each one which is a major time saver for the teacher!

-After we used the texts for their intended purpose, we started using them during other lessons.  Each text can be used again and again!   As a teacher, I am always searching for grade level informational texts and this puts it right in every reader/writer's hand.
The text in the picture focused on asking and answering questions and using text features.  The next time we used the text we looked at the focus of specific paragraphs was about to determine the main topic.

Everyone in our classroom enjoyed this resource and we will continue to use it again and again!
If you are interested in this product, check it out here: http://www.zaner-bloser.com/i-read-to-write

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Once Upon a Time...

For the past two weeks we have been investigating Fairy Tales, Folk Tales and Fables.  I have always loved these stories but I think my students love them even more!

This unit is covering many of the literature standards, which is great.   Even better is the engagement from the students.  It's one of the best feelings as a teacher when you hear, "When will reading begin?"  "I can't wait for our lesson today!"  "Did you know she's reading ___ to us today?!"

We started out by reading a fairy tale and looking at the elements that made it so.  Then on to folktales and finally fables. (I blew their minds when I told them fairy tales really are folk tales!)

Then we started reading versions of The Three Little Pigs.  Story elements, comparing/contrasting, and character responses were pulled in all week and it was seamless.

On to week two!  We are reading different versions of Cinderella.  There are so many but we are really enjoying our choices.  The standard that is taking the main stage is comparing and contrasting.  I found that students stayed at the surface level during the first week and didn't push their thinking very deep.

We are also using theme to compare and as a class we decided that from person to person theme might be differences because we all think differently.  As long as you can share your thinking and provide text evidence (and talk to it) then we are good!

After a week in reading, we started to look at the genre in writing.  Our anchor chart transferred from the reading section of the board to the writing section.  The nerdy teacher that I am gets really excited when the students realize that the work you do as a reader helps you as a writer...or vice versa, the work you do as a writer helps you as a reader.

The first day planning, I realized that this will be there FAVORITE unit in writing.Their planning conversations were filled with high pitch, fast talking!

Now they are drafting and when they finish their fairy tale we will move on to fables.

Next week, we are going to use fables in reading to help us with central message.  In writing, we will be planning and drafting fables.  The first thing we will plan is the moral of the story then we will move on from there.

Today I have a reading and/or writing freebie for you.  You can use these graphic organizers as a response to reading or use them to plan writing.