Sunday, October 23, 2011

Not-as-scary-as-you-think inquiry

For the past several weeks, I've been working with Grade 4 to assist them in running their first all-out attempt at an integrated unit of inquiry: How the World Works - Energy.  This is a fantastic group of open-minded teachers, so it has been a real pleasure to collaborate with them, come into their classrooms, and watch their students start to develop some really interesting questions.

Integrating language seems to have been a fairly easy task for this unit, since between the library materials and the grade level resources, the teachers have lots of non-fiction resources on energy to allow the students to explore and further their learning.  Math is still being supported by some stand-alone lessons, but measurement and graphing, for example, have fit in very nicely.

Many of our teachers have not had the chance to work with their students on a fully-integrated unit of inquiry, myself included.  Luckily, one of the teachers new to the school this year, Selai, has had lots of experience with them, so we have relied heavily on her knowledge and level of comfort with guided inquiry.

Hilary, the Grade Level Coordinator, and I talked for a long time about what it might look like to run a unit like this, and eventually agreed to give Selai and I the chance to map it all out.  We presented our plan to the other G4 teachers, and they readily agreed.

It turned out that very little of the unit planner from last year needed to be changed.  Many of the learning engagements and resources were still of use.  It was mostly a matter of tweaking things so that student inquiry took priority.  It was almost like giving permission to these great teachers to do what they always felt was right: focus on the interests of their students.

I have to admit, that as the teacher-librarian, it is a little frustrating that all I can do is get things started and step in when I can.  I can't be there in all the classes to see how everything goes.  I check in when we have our collaborative meetings, and it seems all is going smoothly without me.  Letting go may be an issue for me!

My greatest involvement in this unit has been in developing the overall plan with Selai, and in assisting some classes with developing initial questions during a tuning-in activity.  I don't know why, but I am always surprised by the number of questions students have.  Working with two of our G4 classes was no different.  After viewing a number of photos of different types of energy and their impact on the environment, they kept me busy recording questions. Some didn't have a lot of depth, but that will come with time and guidance.  Below is the result of about 20 minutes of question brainstorming.  I did this on my iPad using Idea Sketch. The kids were suitably impressed!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"It came from outer space!" or Developing questions with Grade 4

I feel a little like the child who cried, "The emperor has no clothes!"  Really, there isn't too much to this whole inquiry thing.  I know I'm oversimplifying, but it seems to me that time and time again, all I need to do is listen to students, take them seriously, ask them questions to help them further develop their own interests, and off they go!

I don't mean to say that it's easy, it just isn't so highly specialized that we can't all be doing it with our students.  Their brains are teaming with questions.  Some are relevant to what we are currently studying and some aren't.  I'm sure many more than we think are relevant, but our "old" brains can't see the relevance.  That may not be worked out until long after we are gone. Just try not to cut off their interests; maybe just gently redirect them.

After we discussed and moved on from their curiosity about aliens (questions like "How many people have seen aliens?" just weren't getting us anywhere), the students in the Grade 4 class I worked with today had some really interesting things to think about.  One group of girls realized that what they really wondered about wasn't if aliens live on Neptune, but could human beings live on Neptune.

Also, we did get side-tracked by a group of boys obsessed with "Planet X", but when I took the time to sit with them to talk about their interest it turned out what they really wondered about was the impact of solar flares on Earth.  Don't ask how we moved from Planet X to solar flares, but it all happened through taking the time to listen to them and take their interests seriously.

Taking this time to develop questions with this class has allowed us to guide questions towards the Trans-disciplinary theme of Where We are in Place & Time and the concept of Connection.

I've been invited back by their homeroom teacher to continue to develop their questions tomorrow.  I'm really looking forward to helping them through this stage and on to the next: research.

They need space (and time) to study Space!

The past and Pangnirtung

I won't say much in this post because I realize even after all these years I seethe with frustration when I think about it.  The day after I wrote my last post about Cambodia and compared it to my experiences in Canada's Arctic, I came across an article in The Globe and Mail about just how bad things have become in Nunavut in the last 12 years since it became a territory.

I'm not a social worker, a politician, or anyone important enough to be listened to by the Canadian Government, but WAKE UP!  These problems have been there all along.  Why could I see it when I lived there 10 years ago?  You're the experts!  Get it right.  Don't stand by doing the politically correct thing while an ancient and beautiful culture and people self-destruct.

Shame on the Government of Canada. Shame on the Government of Nunavut.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The future and Cambodia

Over the Chinese New Year holiday in February, my family and I were lucky enough to spend two weeks in Cambodia.  It was not hard to fall in love with this beautiful country.  I will happily go back any chance I get.  It has a tragic history that I am embarrassed to say I still don't know much about, but it was striking to see the impact that history is continuing to have today.

I didn't think about a connection between Cambodia and my interest in inquiry until Clive Elsmore said he'd like to hear more about my trip.  Then I started to think about what it was I loved so much about Cambodia and its people.  Resilient, smart, highly adaptable: these are three ways I would describe the Cambodian people I met.  When we spoke to tour guides, tuk-tuk drivers, hotel operators, students, they all had a version of the same tragic story to tell: families torn apart, parents killed, lives and livelihoods lost.  Yet, they smile and carry on.

After a day of visiting the gun-shot pocked temples at Anchor, we brought rice to an orphanage outside Siem Reap.  I commented to the lovely man from the U.S. who was running the orphanage that it was good to see so many NGOs working in Cambodia, from organisations retraining street children to those restoring ancient temples.  I wondered why.  He explained to me that the Khmer Rouge had effectively wiped out the professional class, so all these NGOs had stepped in to fill the vacuum.  That certainly gave us pause.

So, how is all this connected to inquiry?  Well, it made me think about how quickly our current way of life can be ripped from us.  We may go along thinking life will always be the way it is now, but that is just foolish and dangerous.  None of us know what the future holds, so we are obligated to prepare ourselves and our students in the best way possible.  If we are not innovative and adaptable, we will not be ready for the future.  If the Cambodian people were not willing to move forward by taking advantage of every opportunity offered to them, they would not be in the process of moving out from under the tragedy of their recent history.  They are not forgetting the past; they just aren't getting mired in it.

I've seen what happens to a community that gets stuck in its past in Canada's Arctic.  The people suffer from substance abuse, sexual abuse, suicide, and hopelessness.  I am not naive enough to think this doesn't go on everywhere, even in Cambodia, but I think there are those people who embrace the past and those who embrace the future.  If we are able to teach our students to inquire, think, question, innovate, they are much more likely to want to embrace the future.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Blog or Tweet? Both, I guess.

It's been an embarrassingly long time since I've done an entry here, but in my defense I've been distracted by Twitter.  There are so many amazing people out there who clearly have more time or energy or both than I do, and it is great to be able to take advantage of their skills at locating resources.  I really can't keep up with what I'm learning from others on Twitter, let alone try and figure out a way to contribute myself.

On a trip to Cambodia over our Chinese New Year holiday, I realized just how serious my addiction to Twitter could be if I lived in a country where social networking sites weren't blocked or the internet wasn't slowed every time the government felt nervous.  It was great to stay updated on Twitter just by using my iPod, and to connect with others through also (which is blocked in China for some reason).  TweetDeck was a revelation too!  Having a VPN makes it possible for me to get on these sites in China, but the connections remain unreliable and I'm not technologically-gifted enough to find another answer.

I think, though, that I've been making excuses for myself.  I really need to be taking the time to write on my blog.  It isn't enough to just respond and react like I tend to on Twitter: I need to reflect and write at length to further understand my role in inquiry.  Otherwise, I think I run the risk of not properly developing my own practice as a teacher.  I may just fall into the trap of grabbing onto ideas that appeal to me and not reflecting on my choices.  I love research, and I love to gather information.  I can sometimes be guilty of not taking the time to synthesize.

Thanks to Clive Elsmore for giving me the nudge I needed to get back to reflecting on my practice!