Creating the Curriculum They Need: Using Inquiry to Have Tough Conversations

A few weeks ago, my students and I began a powerful discussion on race. You can read about the beginning of our discussion HERE.

We had been studying memoirs in both reading and writing and we had just started working on questioning as readers.  To me, none of these skills or genres or strategies are important in isolation and they really only seem to have meaning for our students when we can pull them all together in order to help students create new meaning and new understandings about our world.

So while I knew I wanted to teach students how to question while reading memoirs, I knew that I had to do more than that. I had to find a way to show students that when we hear the story of just one person, we can craft questions that can lead us to seek out information that can bring us to an understanding far beyond just one person’s life. We can use one person’s story to spark questions that lead us to seek out more stories and more information in order to better understand the world around us.  We must be careful not to let one person’s story define an entire group of people. Instead, I wanted my students to learn how to hear a story, ask questions, allow those questions to guide them towards more stories so that they can put together the stories of several different people in order to begin to formulate understandings that help them to empathize with people whose lives may be vastly different than their own.

These were lofty goals. Goals that easily tied into the standards and the learning targets that are a part of our fifth grade curriculum. However, these goals also went far beyond what was written within our curriculum. And so the hardest work for me was to find the resources and teaching strategies that could help my students and I to meet these goals. So it was tempting to plan the whole thing out from the beginning. To carefully align each lesson with a Common Core standard, to plan out each step along the road that we would take, to plan out a sequence that would allow us to start small and build each small skill step-by-step. But the problem with that, with all of that planning, is that it does not leave space for the students and the direction that they want to take.

So instead, I walked into our work armed only with my knowledge of the work that I wanted my students to do in our classroom that would match the work that I wanted my students to do in the world outside of our classroom in order to make the world a better place.  And here is what that allowed me to do:

I was able to follow where my students lead. And where our students lead us is almost always a good place to end up.

In this way, I am starting with my students and not with the standards. However, because I knew what goals I wanted to meet, I felt confident that our work could easily be tied back to the standards and learning targets that I need to teach.

Another benefit of doing our work this way is that the work is guided by the students, not by my own personal beliefs. One of the things that makes it so difficult to have tough conversations in our classrooms is the fear that people will accuse of us of pushing our own beliefs on our students.  What I have found is that if we bring in material that sparks questions for our students and then we design our learning around the questions that students themselves are asking, then we are better able to ensure that we are not just pushing our own ideas on our students, but we are teaching our students to read the world around them and create their own ideas and understandings.

And so, I chose our first video.

And then I let the kids take it from there. As we watched our first video, I had the kids collect questions for a variety of purposes. That work was described in the last post I wrote. From there, the kids met in groups to go over their questions and write down the questions that they thought would be the most interesting ones to follow and the ones that they believed would lead them to some form of a better understanding.  Here is the result of that work:


After gathering all of our questions, we worked to categorize and group our questions based on similar topics. After moving our questions around and combining them into larger questions, we were left with seven BIG questions that the kids were left wondering about after watching our first video.

I created THIS DOCUMENT with our seven questions. We would use this document over the next few days in order to attempt to gain more understanding and keep track of the learning we were doing as we listened to more stories and read more information.

Based on the questions that my students were left with, I then went in search of resources that might help them to answer their questions. Again, this allowed my students to guide the learning even though at this point in the year, they were not ready to go out and seek out the answers to their questions on their own. Knowing that my students did not have a lot of experience with inquiry learning and knowing that the questions they were most interested in would be somewhat tricky to find answers to in a form that was accessible to my 5th grade students, I knew that our first work with inquiry was going to have to be more controlled than it will be by the end of the year.  In many ways, this first work with inquiry will serve as a model for the further, more student-led and directed inquiry work that my students will be engaged in later on in the school year.

So with my students questions in mind, I went out to search for resources.

The first resource we looked at was Clint Smith’s amazing TED Talk titled, “How to Raise A Black Son in America.” Before beginning, I had the kids review the questions we were hoping to answer. I handed out the text of Clint Smith’s talk and then we watched the video all the way through. After watching it once, we watched it again, but this time I stopped the video when students asked me to. As we watched for the second time, students wrote down answers, or pieces of answers, they gained as they listened to Clint’s talk. The kids were incredibly moved by the TED talk and their question charts started to fill up with answers and further questions.

Next, we watched Mellody Hobson’s TED talk titled, “Color Blind or Color Brave?” We followed a similar process, though only watched this talk once since it is considerably longer.

Finally, we looked at an essay from This I Believe.

Throughout our work with each of these resources, we talked about how the stories of other people could help us to begin to answer our questions. I modeled by own question answering and I also modeled how new questions were sparked as old questions gained answers.  In addition, we talked about how new information often forces us to rethink what we thought we knew and change the answers that we believed we understood.  As we continued this work, the students continued to add to their documents.

After all of this work, I knew that my students needed some time to explore some resources on their own. I looked at which questions we were beginning to answer and which questions we needed more information to help us answer. Based on that, I put together a large list of resources that I knew my 5th grade students would be able to navigate independently in order to attempt to further answer our seven big questions.


And this is where we currently find ourselves. My students will continue to explore these resources on their own and then engage in small group discussions to help them begin to synthesize the understandings and answers they have reached based on our work.

This work is far from perfect. This work is also exhausting. I wish that there was a program for us to follow that would lead us to the same results. But no such program can exist because it needs to be crafted around the needs of the students sitting with me.  Together we are reaching towards greater understanding. Together we are attempting to wrestle with difficult questions. We might not ever be able to fully answer our questions perfectly, but what we are learning in the process is invaluable.

What we are learning is how to listen to the stories of other people. What we are learning is how to ask questions and determine which questions will lead us to further learning and use our questions to push us forward in gathering additional information to enhance what we know and understand. What we are learning is how to put together not just a single story, but the stories of many in order to better understand the lives of other people. What we are learning is how to ask questions instead of dismissing experiences that do not match what we have experienced in our own lives. What we are learning is how to deal with difficult issues in a way that is respectful. What we are learning is how to build empathy for others. What we are learning is that we can never fully know what it is like to live the life of another person, but by listening with an open mind and open heart we can sit with other people and learn from them as they share with us the gift of their stories.

This learning. It is powerful. And I feel so lucky to get to be a part of it.




9 thoughts on “Creating the Curriculum They Need: Using Inquiry to Have Tough Conversations

  1. Thank you for sharing this very important work with your readers. Not only does this inspire me to do similar work with my own students, but your very generous sharing of your resources and ideas makes it feel manageable.

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