Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Starting the Year with Inquiry

In June, I had the privilege of working with teachers in my father's home town of Lexington, TN. They were a privilege to work with as they were trying to wrap their heads around all of the issues involved in getting started with inquiry. Toward the end of the day, I walked them through the key issues involved with starting the school year off with inquiry, and since this topic has been on my mind, I snapped some pictures of the white board with my iPhone, and I wanted to post the discussion here.

We were focusing on their potential use of FOSS kits, and of course, we had to talk about how to prep before the year starts. The image shows several of the items that we came up with. They seemed a little overwhelmed with the list, but as I drove home I realized that any teachers has to do some sort of unpacking and poking around in a new curriculum. Inquiry adds the dimension, though, of materials management and the need to work through labs. I focused them on doing this for the first kit only, though. For any teacher, I would think they'd only want to look at the first unit of instruction, reserving prep on the later units (or kits) for after the first one is finished. You learn so much while you teach your first inquiry-based unit that I'm afraid that prepping the other units before the school year starts might be a waste of time.

We then focused a lot on the first days of instruction. The image talks about the first day, but really these are issues to be addressed during the first week. A lot of key issues need to be addressed in the first weeks as teachers help their students learn how to learn in an inquiry-centered classroom. The more we talked about all of these issues, the more I began to realize again how important training is for the students. They really often don't know how to work during inquiry, and one of my key mistakes at Spain Park High was not guiding my students well at the beginning of the school year. Instead, I just through them in and expected them to be able to learn. They were really frustrated!

We then talked about what happens in the next 3 weeks of inquiry. The kids have gotten started, but they still need a lot of training if they're going to be get off to a good start as they head into a year of learning from inquiry. That's what the "requires time" note in brown marker at the top indicates. Teachers need to take the time to continue training students in the key aspects of inquiry, and at times, this will feel like time away from teaching the actual content. Think of it as an investments, though. The time you invest at this point in training the students will be returned back to you richly as your students know how to learn in later months and are not frustrated, confused, or disengaged.

The rest of the first kit or unit continues with the teachers holding students to their expectations, as indicated in the image above. As this unit wraps up, the students should know your expectations and how to function correctly in the classroom. You also have the other systems that support inquiry functioning, especially materials management and assessment. By the end of the first unit, the classroom should be in order.

Now, you've finished the first unit (or kit). As the image shows, one of the key things you need to do is to breathe! Youv'e learned a lot about teaching by inquiry, and your students have learned a lot about being inquiry students. Everyone is probably a little weary of all the change! Don't be afraid to take a few class days off from inquiry before going into the next unit. This is a good time to address any standards that you know you won't cover in your inquiry-centered curriculum doesn't cover. It's also a good time to retrain or reteach students on your expectations so that they're crystal clear as you go into your next unit.

The final issue is areas to focus on while teaching the second unit. The image gives several, including having students working in new groups. The key issue to me is improving student understanding of the science itself. Don't let all of the action and process of inquiry steal focus from students actually building strong, deep content knowledge. Also, don't forget to keep communicating with parents. Throughout your start-up of inquiry, keeping clear communication lines open with them will help them understand what's going on in your science class and how it truly is a benefit to their children.


Luann said...

I'm passing this on to my department and also the MS and elementary buildings. I start the year with in inquiry hook and investigation. It's a great foundation for students to build the year's other investigations. Thanks.

Lee said...

Great, Luann. I'm glad you found it useful. Keep watching here and on Twitter. I hope to be passing on more useful help.

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