Sunday, January 26, 2014

Organizing for Inquiry Learning!

In my previous blog (here),  I wrote about our daily schedule and explained the day in the life of our inquiry-based classroom.

This post, outlines how we get started with an inquiry and how we organize the workstation block.
First, we spend up to two days building background knowledge, interest and curiosity around the content area that we will be exploring. During this time, the class builds a bank of questions and a list of vocabulary words that are connected to the topic.

Next, teachers create activity cards that are built around the questions and interests that the students showed during the background knowledge building.  These activity cards are designed to be open-ended and to allow for creativity.  The students are provided with a large block of time to complete the activity with the goal to present at the end of the day. 

The following chart is an example of how the groups (4 to 5 students per group) rotate through the stations. For this unit, we let the students pick their team members, then they picked a name connected to our topic.

The list below is a summary of the activities we used for this unit.  More information about this unit can be found on our website - - Take a look under the Social Studies Lessons tab.

 1.  Dream Catchers.  Create a dream catcher, research its origins, and write a poem.  These can be easily created using found materials, some wool or string, and items from home.  There are dozens of good suggestions online for creating dynamic dream catchers.  

2.  First Nations Settlements Diorama.  This is fun for the students to research.  Have a list of dwelling types for First Nations groups, or have your students research.  Using any of the many materials available commercially or home-made, have the students create dioramas.  If time permits, use stop animation software to film figures moving through the diorama and to create short movies that tell a tale of life at the time. 

3.  Soap Carving.  Using soap blocks and simple plastic or wood carving tools, design and carve a 'soapstone' sculpture.  Combine them with members of your group to tell a story or relate a legend.

4.  Art Cards.  Combine poetry and visual arts by creating 'Norval Morrisseau'  pieces that have a theme supported by text.  Have the students write stories or poems that are depicted in their piece.  It could take the form of a legend of how something came to be, or a lyrical poem.  

5.  Legends.  Comic Life is such a wonderful app that supports both text and graphics in a graphic novel format. Students who are more visually talented may find the lower emphasis on text appealing. Students can write and produce a Comic Life piece that is as detailed as they desire.

6.  Totem Poles.  The students love anything that lets them get their hands on building materials.  There are dozens of totem pole creation ideas, from highly elaborate carved pieces to more simply constructed poles using construction paper and glue.  'Pinterest' has dozens of great activities to get you started and great photos to show your class as examples.  Each member of the group can be responsible for an addition to the whole.  The students can write short pieces about the characters that tell a story about the life of the First Nation group they are studying.  They are not limited to the Haida, for example, because all First Nations peoples' stories can be told by using any appropriate figures.  The totem pole simply becomes a story-telling vehicle.

The students really enjoyed this unit. The classroom was buzzing with learning, curiosity, interest and creativity.

 What does your day look like? 
How do you organize for student inquiry?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Day in the Life of an Inquiry-Based Classroom

Daily Schedule 

8:40-9:10- Computer lab - keyboarding skills, researching and writing. 

9:10 – Mini-lesson – may include any of the following: a read-aloud/think aloud, teacher models reading/writing strategies, shared/interactive reading and writing. The lessons are connected to the theme or topic (curriculum content) we are exploring. We introduce new concepts and/or focus on certain skills that we notice the majority of students may need. (Most skill-based lessons & conferencing is done with small groups or with individuals, during workstation time).

9:20- Workstations – All students work in groups to accomplish their station for the day. 

Students work in groups

Students are: Collaborating, reading, writing, researching, questioning, creating, and preparing to share their learning. They are moving around, talking, engaged and motivated.

It should be noted here that this routine takes time to establish. In order, for the workstations to run smoothly, we need our students to be independent. Setting rules and expectations about how to collaborate is the most challenging. This can take time and you need to be patient. It’s worth seeing a classroom work together like clockwork. To begin with, the focus of the teacher is to build a positive relationship, create a safe classroom environment and establish rules, routines and expectations for learning. This ensures that students become independent problem-solvers which then gives the teacher time to work with small groups or individual students without interruptions.

Teacher is: Conferencing, leading a guided lesson group, pushing thinking and learning, asking questions, teaching a mini-lesson to a group or to individuals. The teacher never sits down at a desk but is in constant motion facilitating the learning of his/her students.  

10:20 to 11:20 – Nutrition break and recess

11:20 to 12:00 – Planning time - we co-plan with the planning time teacher (prep teacher), the students continue working on stations from the morning block. Time is built in to allow students to share their culminating task. (Students realize they will have to present again to the classroom teacher and peers– but that’s OK, they love to share!)

12:00 to 1:00 – Math – this part of the day is moving toward an inquiry approach. It takes time to shift a way of teaching and our focus has been to use inquiry in all other content area.

1:00 to 1:40 – Lunch

1:40 to 2:20 – Gym A day only
                       Presentations & Sharing – B day

2:20 – Independent Reading - We use the first 20 days of independent reading by Fountas andPinnell as a guide for our reading routine.  

Independent Reading Time

Classroom full of books!

3:00 – Agenda & Dismissal

Our schedule is not perfect, but it works for now! We are always looking for ways to improve our practice and often that means change. We feel our success, in this inquiry classroom has been to give our students large blocks of time to go deeper, to explore and to create quality pieces of work. Transitions are few which helps our students with autism.

Next post – I will share examples of the workstations we’ve used. While content/theme changes, there is always a (guided) reading group and writing group. The rest of the workstation may include, drama, art, religion, math, science, social studies, health…it depends. In other words, all areas of the curriculum are integrated into the workstation block.