Inquiry Circles Week #1: Topic Selection

Recently, I wrote about beginning inquiry circles for the first time in my classroom. The work that I am doing comes directly from the amazing book, Comprehension and Collaboration by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels. This book lays out not only the reasons why inquiry circles are so important for our students, but also provides a roadmap to follow when implementing them in classrooms of all levels.

So this week we began our inquiry circles. We started by looking at how this work fits into our reading unit on questioning. We talked about the purpose of questioning. We looked at the purpose of questioning both as readers and as human beings in the world outside of the classroom. Through our discussion, we created this anchor chart: FullSizeRender (13)

I told them that this week, our work would be to brainstorm and select concerns and questions that we wanted to focus on in our inquiry circles. I told them that the final phase of these inquiry circles would be to take some action toward creating positive change and because of that, the only requirement that I had in terms of what topics they could chose was that it had to be some problem that existed in the world.

I then told the students that they might want to begin by thinking about concerns and questions that affect their own lives and then ones that affect the world. This comes right from Harvey Daniels in Comprehension and Collaboration. I then modeled for the students some of my own ideas. I created a two-column chart and wrote SELF on one side and WORLD on the other.

I began by talking about how one issue that affects my own life, affects me as a mom. Recently, as my own daughter has been getting more and more presents that seem to come in pink boxes, I have been wrestling with the idea of toys and gender.  The question that I am left with is, “How is the marketing of toys affected by gender and how does this affect young kids?” I added this concern and question to my chart in the SELF column.

I then thought out loud about the current refugee crisis.  I shared with the students that I didn’t know too much about the details of this crisis, but that it is a story that actually makes my heart hurt and so I know it is something that I need and want to learn more about. The question I wrote down was, “Where are these refugees coming from and what is the best way to help them?” I wrote down this concern and question in the WORLD column.

After modeling these ideas for my students, I gave them some time to think quietly and add to their own charts that they created. I knew that some of them would have no trouble thinking of questions and concerns, but I also knew that for some students, this would be the first time that they had been asked to think of issues on such a global scale. So I wanted to make sure that I was providing enough support for every student to find a topic that he or she was interested in.

So after a few minutes of quiet thinking, I shared with the kids, an end-of-the-year video that Google had made about the questions that were asked in 2015. As we watched the video, two times, the kids continued to add to their lists.  After the video, I sent the kids to their own computers and led them to a Google Slideshow that I created. The slideshow contained the video we watched together and many other photographs and photo essays that I thought would help them to spark more ideas.  I gave them more time to work. FullSizeRender (9)

After the students had time to look at all of these resources, I asked them to get into groups and share the topics and questions that they wrote down.  I asked them to pay attention to what topics came up from more than one person or what topics more than one person expressed interest in. It was amazing to hear the things that the students wanted to talk about.  They were focused on their discussions and there was not one group that needed to be redirected.

We then came together as a class and I asked each group to share with me the topics that were brought up more than one time in their discussions.  Here are our initial lists of possible topics, one for my morning class and one for my afternoon class:

And yes. These topics are huge. And yes, I was extremely nervous about asking 5th graders to look into some of these topics. But here is the thing, these topics came from my students. These topics are the ones that my students wanted to learn about. And of course I worried about parents and if they would understand our work or not. And of course I worried about what resources we would find and if my students would be able to handle them. And of course I worried about some of these topics bringing up issues that I wasn’t sure how we would talk about.

But I decided to trust my students.

I decided to have faith in my students.

If these were the problems in our world that my students WANTED to learn about, how could I possibly stand in their way.

So I asked them to think about these topics. I asked them to talk at home with their parents and bring back any additional topics the next day. And I told them that I was not sure how we were going to go about learning about these very big and very real problems, but that I was incredibly proud of them for wanting to learn about them. I told them that I was going to do everything that I knew how to do to help them learn what they needed to learn in order to be able to learn about what they wanted to know.

So the next day, a few kids wanted to add a few more possible topics. We added these to our lists. Then I asked the kids to write down on a notecard, the three issues that they were most interested in learning about. Once they had their three issues, I told them that we would be mingling together as a class to further discuss our topic choices. I wanted them to talk to every single other person in the class, in one-on-one conversations, to find out what topics each person had chosen. I asked them to notice the topics that they heard come up over and over again. Again, this is an idea right from Comprehension and Collaboration. And it worked beautifully.

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After the class had a chance to mingle, we created one final list of topic choices. Each class had between 6 – 8 topics on these final lists. We talked about all the things that they needed to think about in order to select a good topic for themselves. We talked about how it must be a topic you are interested in, a topic you feel is within your “reach of understanding” (those were words directly from one of my students), a topic you think you will be able to find information on that you will understand, and a topic that will not be too upsetting for you to learn about. These were all considerations that came from the students themselves.  I then asked the kids to write down on another notecard their top three choices in order of which topic they wanted to focus on the most.

The next day, I took these notecards and WITH THE KIDS, I made our final groups. And our final topic choices are:

For my morning class: animal abuse, police brutality, video game violence, LGBT rights, and terrorism.

For my afternoon class: child’s rights, animal abuse, LGBT rights, video game violence, terrorism and hormones in food.

As I said to my students, I know these topics are big. I know that some people will say that I should not be allowing my students to learn about these topics. And, to be honest, I have wrestled with this myself.

But here is what I know. I know that kids take in what they can take in. I know that by allowing my students to select their own topics, I was allowing them to self-differentiate and find topics that they truly cared about. I know that kids are capable of way more than I sometimes let myself believe. I know that it is often my own fears and my own uncertainties that stop me from allowing my students to investigate the issues that really matter most.

And what I also know is that nothing is ever going to get better in this world if I don’t help my students learn how to follow their interests in the issues that pull at their hearts. If I don’t show my students how to challenge the way things are through the questions they ask. How to put together multiple perspectives and multiple sides to an issue in order to gain a more complete understanding of why things are the way they are. How to learn about a problem completely so that you can then work to change it. If I don’t help my students to learn how to do these things, then there is little hope that they will ever start to make the kinds of changes that this world so desperately needs.

I was so proud of my students this week. I sat in awe as I watched them so bravely tackle the issues that they wanted to work to understand. I thought often about how much more willing my students are than many of the adults they are surrounded by to confront the things they do not understand.

I don’t know what will happen from here, but I know that I am about to learn more than I ever could have imagined. And my greatest teachers on this journey, will certainly be my students.


6 thoughts on “Inquiry Circles Week #1: Topic Selection

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