These past two weeks have been, in a word, exhilarating. I cannot begin to describe the level of engagement for my students as they have become more fully immersed in their inquiry circle work. I have had children cheer when I say that it is time for our inquiry circle work. I have overheard children talk about the research that they have done at home without ever having been asked to do so. I have had children bring in articles that they have found at home and ask me if I could make copies of them for the rest of their group members. I have listened as one child told another child in his group that after reading an article on police brutality in class, he went home to find more information because he knew that there had to be more to the story than the article told him, there had to be another perspective. I have watched as children who have yet to become excited by any of the learning that we have done so far this year come to life through the inquiry circle work that we are doing.
It has been incredible.
When I began these inquiry circles, I thought I knew what I would be getting. I thought I had some idea of how much the kids would enjoy the work. It turns out that I just had no clue. I couldn’t have.
I haven’t really ever seen this kind of engagement before.
All of the fears that I had after the students had selected their topics, all of the worry that I faced each afternoon as I checked my email waiting for parents to write and complain about the work that we were doing, all of the doubts that I had about whether or not these were topics that I could really tackle with fifth graders, all of those thoughts just took a back seat once we began the work.
For these first two weeks, I decided to really focus on how readers ask good questions. Questioning is one of our reading units in fifth grade in my district and while I have been working on questioning as a part of our Wonder Wednesday work and I have also been working on questioning as we prepare for a Twitter chat with a few other fifth grade classrooms around our read aloud book, I knew that my kids needed some more work on learning how to ask better questions and how to do that as they read news articles. This was an easy way to work in inquiry circles to our already existing curriculum.
After selecting their topics and forming their groups during the first week of our work, the students first met in their inquiry circles at the start of our second week of work. The first thing that I asked each group to do was to completed THIS work plan form that comes right out of the incredible book Comprehension and Collaboration by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels. I asked the students to think especially hard about the questions that they wanted to investigate. I shared with them that these questions would drive the beginning stages of their inquiry work and would help me to know what kinds of sources they might need to find. They met with their groups and completed their forms.
For the first phase of our work, I decided that I would provide each group with a few articles to help them build their schema. Since these were pretty complex topics, I wanted to provide them with a few articles so that they could build their knowledge and figure out what they wanted to know more about before they attempted to locate their own sources of information. We have an absolutely AMAZING librarian who has taught these kids incredible research skills and so my goal of this inquiry work was not necessarily to teach them how to research, though that will certainly come into play later. So I felt good about finding a few starting articles for each group.
So I took home each of the work plan forms and located an article or two for each group to start with that touched on some of the ideas that were written in their initial questions. I also tried to locate texts that would be accessible to the wide variety of readers that were in each group. I knew that for some readers, they would have to rely on their group members to help them decode some difficult texts. Newsela was also an incredible resource as it allowed me to find multiple levels of texts on the same topic. I created a file folder for each group and put in their work plan and started collecting the articles that I found for them.
In order to give myself some more time, and to work in some of the important questioning skills that I knew my students would need, after completing their work forms with their groups, I spent time the next day talking about the kinds of questions that readers need to ask while reading news articles and also modeling how I did this with a text about my own topic, the current refugee crisis.
I shared with my students that as researchers and as consumers of news articles, we must question what we read. We talked about four types of questions that we need to ask. The first kind of question is to clarify when the author has said something that we don’t understand. The next kind of question is to express skepticism when the author has said something that is hard to believe or sound implausible. The third kind of question is when we want to find out more when the author has brought something up that leaves us wondering. And the final kind of question is when we need to think about alternative perspectives when the author says something that makes us think that he or she has left out important voices.
After this conversation, we built the following anchor chart:
After this, I modeled how I did this as I read through an article on the current refugee crisis.
It was not until the next day that I asked the kids to get back into their own groups and begin reading through the articles I had placed in their folders. As they read, I asked them to write down the questions that they thought of. I worked my way around to each group to help guide them towards asking all four of the types of questions that we discussed the day before.
As I watched the kids papers fill up with questions, I knew that the next day I would need to have a conversation about which questions are worth holding on to. So the next day, before the kids got to work, I pulled them together and we created another anchor chart (which I forgot to take a picture of) that listed the kinds of questions that we needed to hold on to. These included questions that we couldn’t stop thinking about, questions that would lead us to learn something vitally important to understanding the basic concept we were learning, questions that would reveal a new layer of our topic, and questions that would push us to look for new perspectives on our topic.
Again, I used my own topic and the article that I had read at the start of the week to show them how I decided which questions I would hold on to. I used the very high-tech system of sticky-notes and markers to write down the most important questions for myself. I then showed the kids how I stuck those sticky-notes right inside my file folder so I would remember to find sources to help me answer those questions.
The next day, the kids got to work on looking through their questions and choosing the ones that they wanted to hold on to. I then used those questions to help me find one more round of articles for each group. I added these new articles to their folders.
That brought us to the start of our third week. At the start of this week, I really wanted to focus on the bias that the kids would be encountering in the vast majority (if not all) of the news articles that they have been reading. So I shared with them that we were going to spend time just focusing on questions that could help us discover the multiple perspectives that exist on a topic. I shared with them one of the most important questions that they could ever ask when reading news articles. That question is,
“Whose voice is NOT being heard?”
I went back to the same article on the refugee crisis that I had read at the start of the last week. I shared with them that while there were many government officials and heads of organizations whose voices were present in the article, we never heard from any actual refugees who found themselves in the midst of this crisis. This led me to ask, “What do different refugees feel about all that is taking place?”
One of the hardest things for me to share with my students is just how biased I, myself, can be when reading news articles. I shared with them that I believe each country has a responsibility to help each and every human being who is looking to find safety for themselves and their families. So I often read articles that agree with this belief.
I shared with my students that though this what I tend to do, if I am going to be a responsible researcher, I MUST find a way to learn about those who have different perspectives. I must start to ask questions like, “What concerns do people have about allowing refugees into other countries?” I must ask questions like, “What potential problems could countries face by allowing large numbers of refugees into a new country?” I told the kids that though I might not ever agree with these new perspectives, I have a responsibility to try to understand them. So I added these questions to my file folder.
And again, I then asked my students to go and do this with the articles that they had already read and the new ones that I placed in their folders.
For the next two days, I simply gave the students time to continue working their way through the articles that I provided and to gather their growing number of questions.
At the end of the third week, I shared with the students a REVISED WORK PLAN. We talked about how they problem now had a better idea of what they really wanted to focus on. I also reminded them that next week THEY would be in charge of finding additional resources to help them answer the specific questions that they were left with. After talking for a few more minutes about how they might even start to break off and focus on different things for the next week and how they needed to have some clear action items that they wanted to start on today and at the start of next week, the kids broke off into their groups and got to work on creating their revised work plans.
Next week we will move on to discussing synthesis as the students begin to synthesize information within a text and across multiple texts. They will also be working to synthesize each of their ideas as they come together to talk as a group and grow their understanding of their topics together.
One of the most amazing things that inquiry circles have allowed me to do is to provide incredibly authentic purposes for each of the reading strategies that I am teaching my students. Instead of just practicing our questioning skills on random texts that never really lead us anywhere, my students are asking important questions as they read texts about topics that they are passionate about. The students are then actually using these questions in order to drive further inquiry into their chosen topics.
This has given my room an incredible buzz and energy. One that I wish I could somehow capture in words.
I keep telling the kids that I have absolutely no idea where we are going to end up with all of this, but just knowing how exciting the journey there has been so far, I imagine some incredible things are waiting for us.