Category: Course 5

Ends and Beginnings

My Course Five final video

I must say that the two classes in film studies during my B.A. 25 years ago didn’t prepare me much for making a movie. When I was taking pictures and media I found that Dutch Angles just didn’t add to the emotions I was trying to convey. I was also nervous about creating something longer than 3 minutes as this is the attention span of most people but then once I started putting in media I quickly realized that I had to try and keep it close to ten minutes. This project had a lot of value for me as it really helped me to reflect on a lot of things including:

  • My big takeaways from COETAIL
  • How I plan and implement a unit
  • What I am missing in my teaching of a unit and some steps for improvement
  • How I am implementing technology
  • Most importantly, what my students think about the unit. 

Course Five put together all of the ideas that I learned since last year and although it is the end of my COETAIL learning, it is also the beginning of constant reflection on how I design and implement technology rich units.

Technology Use

This unit allowed for a lot of technology integration through a variety of levels in the SAMR Model. The Electronic book significantly modified the task as students were able to learn more about design and visual hierarchy when creating the look of their book and then create a product that looked exactly the way they wanted it to through experimentation of a lot of different layouts, fonts, colours and images. Using Padlet as a tool for curating resources modified how the students access information and share resources with each other and also substituted for sticky notes when organizing questions according to the Lines of Inquiry in the unit. 

Using Flipgrid also redefined the learning experience by providing the opportunity for students to communicate with a class on the other side of the world. Finally, our online learning journals gave students an opportunity to provide feedback on each other’s writing projects that wouldn’t have been possible during home learning. 

Active learning and classroom management

Students deciding on a definition of waste.

It is always easy to teach and manage students when they are interested in the topic and the material we were researching together, the design of the tasks, and opportunities for learning outside the classroom during service, guest speakers, and field trips really got the students engaged. From the beginning stages of the unit to researching and presenting their work all of the students were very motivated to work on their own, or learn together in small groups with very little teacher intervention. Once given instructions I found that my class quickly got down to learning, making, sorting, or researching. I think that this is because of the agency they had in directing the topics of whole class research through asking questions, choosing when to have some of our lessons by using flexible time tables, and also choosing their topics for individual research. 

ISTE Standards

Student constructing an understanding of the world around them.

As this unit was planned originally around ISTE standards I had a clear idea and learning experience that would lead students to success and understanding of the importance of each standard. I usually put the learning goal up in the classroom through the use of a split screen and I used the language of the ISTE standards for students to help them recognize the purpose of the lesson. Some of the experiences that helped the students to achieve the standards were. 

  • 1C Giving Feedback:  The class used the Ladder of feedback that I created during the student’s first draft of their own topic in class, and the final draft online in their learning journals.
  • 3C Curate information: The students used a Padlet to organize their research sources to share with their classmates.
  • 3D build real-world knowledge and 7B investigate real-world issues.  Student used researching skills to find out about the world around them and some problems that come with over-consumption, they also researched ways to take action. We also built knowledge together as a class through watching videos and reading articles online together.
  • 7A connect with learners from a different culture: The class connected with a class in Brazil using Flipgrid to find out about their culture, how they implement the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and to learn some geography and questioning skills.

Summative Assessment

Photo by Ousa Chea on Unsplash

Originally I had created a process for students to have agency of choosing how they were to be assessed. We worked through this slideshow to think carefully about what we did, what we learned, and what they thought was important. We also talked about the many ways to express understanding to give students ideas and choices about creative ways to share their understanding. I was doing this lesson in school on a Friday when the email came through that we would be closing the next week due to COVID 19. So the other Grade Three teachers and I had to adapt.

We decided to create something simple that would help students demonstrate some of their learning, and show an understanding of the Central Idea, a Brain Frame.  I always love using brain frames or thinking routines for summative assessments as they are a quick snapshot of what the students understand. For this one, we decided on using a relationship brain frame to develop an action plan which they could later reflect on. The students took this assessment as another opportunity to have agency over their actions and we got a great variety of ideas, reasons, and details in a quick and easy to read page. This action plan also tied in very nicely to our Line of Inquiry about responsibility and helped students to reflect on their own choice in relation to the Central Idea.

Acceptable use and academic honesty.

One of the big lessons that we worked on during class, and for online learning was the citation of resources. As the students were making electronic books using book creator this was very easy.  As the students are only in Grade 3 they are just learning about academic honesty and realizing the importance of giving credit to other’s work. We worked as a school previously with the librarian to develop horizontal alignment of the expectations in each grade and for us, it was to teach using open source image use and creating a rudimentary bibliography with links to sources. Luckily I had taught this during their first go at researching and writing non-fiction writing so most of the students didn’t need reminders to complete this page in their book. Some even reminded each other that they had to include their sources in the feedback sessions on Seesaw. 

Visual Literacy

In a previous COETAIL project, I taught my students about some digital literacy and we revisited this again through thinking about font, colour, size, and how images look with text. With practice, some of the students are beginning to grasp this, but it is a challenge for many not to just use their favourite colours. Teaching contrast would definitely be the next step for students. For my own practice, I was very conscious about using visual literacy when creating slideshows for my students to guide them through planning and we organized ideas by colour on Padlets. Visual Literacy, although touched upon and used during this unit was not a topic for direct instruction or assessment, but we still had conversations about it, gave feedback about it, and had a session on Seesaw to give each other tips about an image, font, and colour use. 

Final Thoughts

Photo by Daniel Cartin on Unsplash

Overall, I think as a class we achieved the desired goals for teaching in this unit. The students were very interested in the topics of waste and how it was processed, how to turn waste into something new like art, and really changed their definition of what waste is throughout the unit. The student action plans exemplified their understanding of their responsibility and how their choices can create more or less waste. The agency of choice in their research projects provided a chance for them to dive deeper into a topic of interest and they all improved at developing questions, taking notes, and presenting their findings. I think it was a very successful unit despite the disruptions at the end when we switched to learning from home.

I enjoyed teaching this unit and implementing all of the ideas that I learned over the past 18 months from COETAIL. This shows the importance of the careful planning course objectives, how to implement technology authentically, and what can happen when you give control and agency to students to help them learn deeply about something they care about so much. Moving forward I think that I have to continue thinking about how I am planning to implement technology authentically, continue to use PLN’s as a resource and to share more often, and to always strive to develop learning experiences that allow students to dive deep with the agency over their own learning.

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Making Conclusions and Taking Action.

Student and a sibling taking action at a local beach.

Thinking back I should have written this post first so that it would be a bit more chronologically organized in the blog feed. But as we always jump back and forth in our unit of inquiry, why not do it as we read too. Also, the end of a unit is the beginning of something else so that works too.

Usually at the end of a Unit of Inquiry students are busy making conclusions about material learned and applying it through action. These final two stages of the Inquiry Cycle that I will be talking about are an important time for students to develop agency, consolidate understanding, connect to the world around them, and celebrate their achievements and possibly jumping off into another unit, bringing the cycle full circle. I want to outline how some of this happens in an upper elementary classroom and provide some examples of how I have navigated these stages. 

A student who decided to make a reusable snack bag to reduce waste.

It is important that we take time during these stages to ensure that students have lots of time to express their understandings, draw conclusions or generalizations about the world around them. This gives them a chance to express their opinions about a concept or topic. I think that when students are given a chance to express their thoughts at the end of a unit it is important that they are given a variety of options. Teach thought has a great list of different ways of expressing understanding. I usually have my students brainstorm the possible ways of communicating their ideas then let them choose from there (although the skits can get pretty wild). Allowing students to choose the format they wish to express themselves in provides a lot of opportunities in the class to get creative, teach different skills, and involve technology through poster making, recording movies, and taking pictures. 

Community

Projects from the previous stages of the inquiry cycle are a great way for students to make conclusions through the lens of a familiar topic to key concepts and also provide an avenue that can lead to action. In my last unit about waste, a student improved her research skills as she learned about ocean plastic. She then decided on a family outing to clean up a beach. This was a fantastic example of student action, something this amazing doesn’t always happen, but when it does it is truly inspiring to others. Making conclusions and taking action also helps develop a variety of transdisciplinary connections through writing reflections, working together on common action plans, and communicating ideas. 

Students preparing a section of the garden while others harvest garlic.

One of my favourite examples of taking action was during a Sharing the Planet Unit in Grade 4. After learning about how organisms rely on each other, partially through gardening, the students decided to work with the canteen to provide fresh produce. Although we didn’t feed an army, the group of students that were involved were very proud to stand by the salad bar to offer up the fruits of their labour. They also decided to use the proceeds from the sales to purchase new toys for our service relationship with an orphanage. 

This action allowed me as a teacher to provoke a lot of new learning in the classroom. In order to sell produce the students had to learn about the pricing of vegetables through research and a shopping trip to the local market, calculating totals, how to promote their products, and how to measure and weigh. Taking action and making conclusions is not always an end, but a beginning of something new. The process of creating an action plan connected to a Central Idea itself is another example of continued learning. Through developing an action plan students learn to create achievable goals, plan effectively, and review their progress. 

Celebrate

Students sharing their ideas and work at a gallery walk with other classes invited.

This is also a time to celebrate the learning in the class. Sharing conclusions and actions with various members of the school community gives students a chance to feel valued, inspire others, and share their learning with parents or administrators. Creating something and coming together to explain their conclusions and/or action brings the learning full circle and a sense of purpose for the students. Although the class may get nervous sharing with those not normally in their class we can always expect them to rise to the occasion. 

Students creating a final video presentation to share their learning.

Assessments

Making conclusions and taking action is also a good time for assessments to help create final feedback on achievements for students, and provide data for a report card. I firmly believe that simple is best here. No need to create a giant test or project here. A simple thinking routine such as “I use to think, now I think” or a 3-2-1 bridge are ones that I like to do with elementary students. They give you a quick snapshot of their key takeaways from the unit without being overly onerous on the students.

Wrapping up.

This brings a conclusion to my series of posts about the Inquiry Cycle. Some of the things I like about it is that it is:

  • Student-centred and driven
  • Action-based
  • Promotes deep learning
  • Community involvement.
  • Multi-disciplinary. 
  • Fun
  • Transitions into new units easily.

I think the last one here is super important. Learning should be fun for the teacher and the students. When everyone is engaged, everyone does better. I think the important part for all the stages is for the students to have a clear understanding of the learning objectives from the start, and constantly check-in with how daily learning is related to the objectives.

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Continuous Learning. 

Creating a learning space at home for the little one. Her post about her learning space for her home learning.

This was not an expected post, I was supposed to be working at finishing up a unit with my students. Instead, I now find myself where many teachers have been for months. Although I have only been teaching online for just shy of the two weeks that we closed before our spring break, I had other things planned. Instead, we were very busy at the beginning of March sorting out the real possibility that electronic learning at home is going to take place. Over the past months since other teachers in my PLN have been moving to online learning I have been looking at all the tools that are at our disposal to help students and teachers collaborate and learn, but instead of helping my students learn how to use them (our country was proceeding at normal) I continued to teach the unit. I quickly realized that these different tools take time to teach elementary students, and we had very little notice that we were going to go this route. It was an overnight decision by the government and we had one day to prepare for it with the students. This was spent organizing materials and devices to go home. We then had two days to get ready to begin home learning so meeting as a staff we were informed that we will be solely using the platform that students are most familiar with, their online learning journal, SeeSaw. Some of the reasons for this are:

  • Student familiarity with the platform.
  • Parent familiarity with the platform.
  • Ease of giving feedback with comments
  • Ease to continue class community with all of us being in a shared safe space for messaging and posting.
  • Activities present a variety of customization in creating learning experiences.
  • Cross compatibility with a wide variety of other applications.
Codes to create great-looking activities in Seesaw. From https://help.seesaw.me/hc/en-us/articles/115005120583-Seesaw-Icon-Shortcut

Implementation

The school had decided on calling our program “Continuous Learning” and set up a website for important communication and descriptions of approaches, routines and responsibilities. Our tech-coach Matt Broughton and our leadership team worked with the elementary division and grade-level teams to begin upskilling and building familiarity for the elementary staff in a host of skills including how to make activities, using shortcuts to create icons, making screencasts, checking how assignments looked in a test class, etc.etc. In addition to this, we had to come to an agreement as a school about the expectations of communication with students and parents, frequency of feedback, amount of time we will be assigning work for, and then the fun part, creating moring welcome videos. 

My attempts at creating an engaging morning message for the students, this one solicited a lot of responses.

Mini Meetings

Morning and closing videos are a great way to begin a routine and set up a culture with your students. I had a lot of fun creating these videos by myself and with my team. I took them in interesting locations around my house and school with me doing an activity to get my students to start thinking about the day. This ranged from cooking, to exercise, to drawing, reading, or a puppet show for the last one. I would usually leave a prompt the caption to asking the students to respond with comments. Judging by their responses, they really enjoyed the videos and it started them asking me and each other questions, simply saying hello, recording a voice response. I felt that this was really important for the students to have, essentially having a mini-morning meeting. As we had never taught hang-outs or other video apps that allow students to be together in real-time digitally, this would have to do. Throughout these morning videos and other routines, the Seesaw thread quickly turned into something I have never seen it look like.

Progression.

I must say that after the second day the learning journal began to become a bit routine. The initial level of engagement was really high with all the students doing all their tasks, even with all of the single subjects. We had planned to give them about two hours a day.  There was a lot of commenting to do and I tried to do this within the morning time that I could tell they were all online. This almost immediate feedback way usually responded to by the students quickly, setting up a quick channel of open communication. They knew that they could let me know should they have any questions. I think that after the first week of it, a bit of fatigue kicked in. I had to change a few of my videos to start the day with activities that were a little more engaging and really remind the class a few times to please respond. For the last couple of days before spring break, the students were posting pictures to share their dawings, what they made together on playdates, where they were outside. And all talking to each other about it. I am glad that I spent all year leading up to this developing a culture of online behaviour through using a commenting protocol. Through commenting it also became possible to differentiate and extend the learning experiences for the students by asking further questions that they changed their task to reflect on. 

Students adding personality and comments through Flipgrid responses.

Communication through Flipgrid 

I am very glad that I had taught my students to use Flipgrid before Continuous Learning started. The application really helped to engage my students and build another place for them to communicate. I had assigned them a couple of reading and connections activities on it and the class enjoyed personalizing themselves and adding lots of stickers and emojis where appropriate. This was another platform where I could respond to students quickly and they could also ask each other questions. It was a lot of fun and the class enjoyed talking to each other through video responses. I do feel that it is great for the grade three students to record their ideas first and think about what they want to say. In retrospect, it would have been great for all the students to get familiar with an application that we can all work together live as this is how we really learn by working together. If learning this way continues I think that I have a lot of areas to grow in creating screencasts to help students at this age level learn another platform to communicate in, and basically let them play in it for a while before starting adding the conceptual understandings. 

Challenges

Another challenge in the future if this continues is the curriculum content. Just before our spring break, we had two weeks on online-learning to finish up our Unit of Inquiry (another post about this is forthcoming). To be honest, I am kind of stuck with how to provoke and begin a new unit if we are continuing to teach this way. This is usually the time for lots of small and large group inquiries. This will take a lot of planning to clearly lay something like this out in a digital space for me as so much learning is on the fly with how and what the students want to learn. Learning this way has reminded me of the importance of the classroom environment in learning. So how can I continue to build on my digital classroom environment?  We also have to keep a bit more simple in this time for their students as they are also navigating a different home life including disrupted routine, sibling distractions, sometimes lack supervision and more. Whatever I decide to do with my team curricular wise we will have to keep it simple.

Keeping busy at home by baking, a great integrated activity for fractions, measuring and doing something fun with parents is something we need to create more for, hopefully, more healthy than this one I did with my daughter.

Perspectives

One thing that has helped me to consider student perspectives through continuous learning is having my Grade One daughter around. Balance, while working and learning together in a smaller Japanese house, can be tricky for young children and it helps me to understand how my class is feeling. I watched my daughter struggle and shine when adapting to a new routine at home and it reminds me to ensure that tasks are fun, engaging, and most importantly, self-directed for my students. There was (and is still) difficulties maintaining a proper schedule and routine. I have found that we have been outside in the park more, creating more things together and trying to do brain boosts and exercise as frequently as possible. I am also telling my class that they need to do these things too as it is important for the students to see this.  (home craft picture)

What is next? 

The country that I am working in is planning on opening schools in a couple of weeks. The country I am from is banning all non-essential travel so I don’t know what is next. I hope for the student’s sake that we can open but should we have to delay I will have to continue to create holistic learning experiences for the whole child as well as upskill my tech learning to provide new opportunities for my students to interact. 

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Finding and Sorting

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

My last post looked closely at Tuning In, the first stage in an Inquiry Cycle. So the next few blog posts will continue to look at subsequent stages of the inquiry cycle as we progress through a Unit of Inquiry in my classroom.  Looking at my blog chronologically it will look like I teach backwards, which essentially is good planning practice right? I think it is important to mention here that the inquiry cycle is not a framework for planning, it is more about the progression or flow of learning experiences to guide student inquiry, and that the students help to make the decision, although not always explicitly, to move back and forth as they are ready. Noticing when the students are ready to proceed, or need to hop back is the responsibility of the teacher. Inquiry can sometimes get disjointed and it helps the students to have a framework to organize this a bit. For more reading check out these misconceptions on the inquiry cycle from Kath Murdoch.

Finding and Sorting out can naturally flow right out of Tuning in, usually without a clear distinction between the two. The same language is being used but the learning experiences start to look different as students develop autonomy in their personal inquiries. At the same time, new vocabulary is being introduced to extend understanding of related concepts as the teaching of skills shifts focus from asking questions to looking for and organizing information. So how does this look in a class of third or fourth graders? This is a great time for students to extend personal inquiries, develop research skills, and evaluate information. 

Students finding out about rocks to think about change.

Building on

I previously mentioned the visible thinking routines that I use to elicit student questions, particularly, Connect/Extend/Challenge. This is an integral part of shifting from one stage of the cycle to the next seamlessly. We usually review these topics and areas of interest from this activity and group them together as a class and when the students are ready we can move on. From here I can assist the students in their personal inquiries by designing learning experiences that help guide them to inquire into the topics of interest. Some examples of this in the past few units are:

Each of these has been in a different unit, and I think it is important to note here that the learning experiences aren’t just what they are interested in, but also connected to the Central Idea, Key Concepts, and Lines of Inquiry. The experiences provide opportunities for the students to practice skills that they will need in Going further and Making connections (the next two stages in the cycle). For example, as the students looked at composting and the 5 Rs they had to create a Padlet together to share their learning with the class, and from this create a mind map to consolidate their thinking. This helped us learn about using Padlet, basic online research, and organizing notes to build their individual understanding. All of the skills that are being practiced in Finding and Sorting Out will be help the students to succeed in their personal inquiry and in many cases, integrate with writing units. From adding links to a slideshow or Padlet to taking notes using an organizer all little mini-lessons help the students to build on to prior understandings and develop independence in their learning. These vary from an individual or whole-class check-ins.

Students using Padlet to build knowledge together about the 5Rs

ISTE Standards.

Finding out is a great time to embed some of the ISTE standards in your research lessons, particularly the ones in Knowledge Constructor when they are busy navigating and evaluating online sources and thinking about how it helps them as a researcher. In the current unit that I am teaching, the class builds knowledge by exploring real-world issues. There are a lot of opportunities here to co-teach with a librarian or tech-coach and EAL teacher to help students find relevant and helpful information. Currently, our librarian is co-teaching with us on finding information on school databases such as Brainpop and Encyclopedia Britannica and our Tech-coach is coming in to help students take it APART.

Experts, trips, and online.

Bringing in a local expert to talk about waste in the neighbourhood.

I can’t stress enough the importance of using the community, both local and global, to help students in all stages of the inquiry cycle. It could be something as simple as asking the canteen questions, bringing in an expert, to going on another field trip, to connecting to a class online. Last year we brought in a couple of geologists as students were looking at how rocks change and used a field trip to our neighbourhood to discover how migration changes people and places. Quite often these connections can happen through student agency as students interested in food waste brought in some of the staff from the canteen.

Being a part of a transient international teaching community also has a lot of benefits as it allows you to connect with past colleagues who are around the world (Twitter and PLNs are also great!). Students love asking and answering questions to find out information about what other classes across the planet are doing. Thanks, Ryan for hooking me up this unit, I will be writing a full post on online connections and collaboration in a few weeks. Connections to the curriculum are always around you. 

Jumping back and forth

Photo by Will Suddreth on Unsplash

A lot of times you have to move back and forth during a Unit of Inquiry, sometimes we get a lot of information quickly and have to jump ahead to Sorting Out, then jump back again to find more. Just today, as students continued their individual research projects we started finding lots of sources and information really fast so we had to think quickly about organizing it. I have experimented with mind maps before in class and have watched a few videos. The class thought that it was a good way to organize their information. We had also started finding lots of Brainpop videos, Encyclopedia Britannica articles and other websites so we needed a way to curate these before moving on.

Students curating resources on their personal inquiries.

We sorted our sources using a Padlet again as the class is now familiar with the platform. Students are continuing to add links when they find articles that they think are relevant to each topic and they enjoy this ownership of technology and resources. They will have to dive back into their sources to continue answering their questions and then go forward to sorting out information that they feel is relevant. Have any of you had any experience with hand-drawn mind maps by Tony Buzon, my Grade 3s really like them and they are a good tool for organizing information. They also want to explore digital versions so I may be installing Popplet soon.

Student research notes on global warming.

Wishes

Sometimes I really wish that we were not restricted to six units in the PYP. I feel that it takes away a lot of opportunities for deeper learning through extending units for longer than the amount of time we have. I could easily spend an extra couple of weeks on this unit and go well over the recommended six weeks. Depending on student interest and engagement, it is hard to cut the time short, or not explore another avenue together because we have to move on to the next unit. We are currently trying to teach units that overlap and extend units for longer but a lot of questions have been raised about how this affects assessment, reporting. We also have to consider the effectiveness of teaching multiple units at the same time for students, and if this is the best for them. Until that happens, I will have to drop a few other lessons I had planned to plow through these last two stages of the inquiry cycle so that I can move on to Making Connections and Going Further before Spring Break!

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Tuning In

Studnet tuning in to a new topic using a gallery walk.

I always love the first week or two of teaching a Unit of Inquiry. There is lots of excitement in the air as students are full of questions, having their thinking and ideas provoked and challenged, and exploring new ideas and materials and this unit was no different. The “Tuning In” part of the inquiry cycle is so important as it allows us to recognize, unpack and record prior knowledge, challenge their ideas with some new thoughts about their own thinking and behaviour, and record questions to refine later on to drive inquiry. When working with Kath Murdoch a couple of years ago she talked about how you should spend at least two weeks in this stage to ground students in their new Unit of Inquiry. It has the feeling of jumping off a diving board into something new. Students can be unsure of new things but that is ok, everyone is as we start to decide the direction of the unit together. 

Provocation:

Students looking at a model to begin thinking about a unit.

Creating an activity that provokes the students’ thoughts before they are introduced to the topic of study is always a fun way to get the ball rolling and this can range from field trips to mystery boxes, to guest speakers to a simple gallery walk of images. Even a video can be a good way to spark student thinking and have them share their ideas and predictions. Any way that you choose in your classroom should spark ideas without giving away the focus of the unit. Think of it as a good hook to a book.

I remember at a previous job we had to do big provocations to really get the students excited and we worked hard as a team of ten along with our coordinators and single-subject teachers. One unit that we had about the solar system had all the homeroom teachers presenting a dance about the solar system to our 220 students. This was a bit over the top but it certainly got their attention and started them thinking. Since then I have toned it down a lot. This year I did a couple of fun ones where we sat in a circle and passed around a “black box”. (Our unit was about the brain and inside it was a model of the brain.) The excitement built very quickly as they gave evidence for their predictions and when the big reveal came the class was very delighted to learn more. They were full of questions already and the unit had barely started.

Students decided to weigh all the garbage, conveniently beginning a measuring unit.

For my current unit that I am using for my final project, the students had to bring in a plastic bag and keep all the garbage they generated during the school day. They carried them around at recess and keep everything in it from orange peels to used paper towels. The questions and discussion after started the learning in a positive way and the class began to give some direction about what they want to learn.  I guess deciding on a provocation is all about building a buzz.

Unpacking Central Idea

I always spend at least a day or two unpacking our Central Idea to ensure the students understand the key vocabulary, make predictions on what they think the unit will be about, begin to formulate questions and work together to construct knowledge. We start by looking at the Central Idea together a document such as this and then as groups, they research definitions, look up keywords using Etymology online, and draw and write any questions or predictions they have about the unit, we share this and post it around the classroom for each student to look at. This will help them in the following lessons to think about questions connected to our Central Idea and Lines of Inquiry. I started Structured Word Inquiry with the students at the beginning of the year so they are used to using online resources to find out the meanings of the words, finding the roots, and any new suffixes to add to our word wall.  

Student model of our Central Idea with explanation

I love having the students make things in the class and they really appreciate the creative time. To develop multi-sensory learning in the class I give them a bag of simple materials (sticky notes, toothpicks, tape, paper clips, a cup, whatever) and ask them to build a model of the Central Idea. This helps some of the abstract ideas become more concrete. I do this for every Unit of Inquiry so the students are quite independent during this task. They build some great models of what they think the Central-Idea represents. Usually, they create more literal interpretations but that needs to happen before it can start moving towards the abstract and interpretive. After reflecting on why they chose to build the model the way they did in an online learning journal post their understanding of the Central Idea is usually pretty solidified.  

Using the Community

Tuning into through a field trip to garbage facility.

Schedule permitting, I always like to arrange a field trip or guest speaker during the tuning in part of a unit in the first week or two. It allows students to see real-world connections to topics and concepts and gives them another opportunity to recognize that learning can take place in the world around us outside the classroom. Some examples of this include going to the park to sketch and look at how organisms are connected, bringing geologists in to look at rock samples, having the librarian/writer talk to them about poetry or visiting a museum for a traditional tour. For my current unit, I took the class to the waste and recycling facility. Yokohama burns its garbage and it was fascinating for the class to see how it is processed. They came back with a ton of questions about the new unit and were excited to learn more. Field trips are a great way to get students to start thinking about a topic. 

Thinking routines

Connect, Extend, Challenge (Wonder) Thinking Routing.

Using a Visible Thinking Routine such as Connect/Extend/Challenge is always a nice way to get the class to show their ideas and put the class on the path to a student-driven inquiry.  I usually use this routine at the beginning of each unit to help students make connections, think about what they want to learn about that is related to the topic, and then ask a question. We sort these on a board that will be added to throughout the unit.  In my current unit after completing this thinking routine, a Padlet helped them to categorize their questions. The students extended their questions by sorting them into the four Lines of Inquiry and we will use these as we progress throughout the unit.

Sorting questions into Lines of Inquiry using Padlet

For my current unit, I also experimented with Hexagonal thinking when unpacking some essential vocabulary. This was my first time trying this type of visible thinking and the students and I really enjoyed it. It also helped me to understand what they already thought about a topic and how they justified their connections. This activity has the added benefit of allowing students to see different perspectives when new groups rearrange and justify their arrangements. This display will also continue to stay up throughout the unit to be edited and rearranged as we move into the next stage of the inquiry cycle, finding out. Visible thinking routines are an effective way to build displays in the classroom that show what you value the most, student thinking.

Next steps. 

That about wraps up what I do in the first 1-2 weeks of a Unit of Inquiry. I think that it is really important to take time (even up to two weeks), in the beginning, to ensure that your class is excited about the topic, has a good grasp of the vocabulary in the Central Idea, and are brimming with questions. All of the activities I have described above help you to pre-assess student understanding of the Central Idea. More importantly, it is a jumping-off point for students to begin driving their own inquiry by creating questions. My students are very excited about waste now and have thoughtful questions to guide their inquiries in the future weeks. Next week we will begin research activities as we move from one part of the cycle into the next. Find out in the next post!

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