Per usual, this blog post is way too long. But I promise, there is a really amazing story at the end that will give you all hope for this world!
My students and I have been engaged in our inquiry circle work for two months now. It is amazing to me how much they have learned. Took back on all that we have done, feel free to visit these previous blog posts: WEEK 1, WEEK 2 and 3, WEEK 4 and 5, and WEEK 6 and 7.
By the time my students get to me in fifth grade, they are familiar with what often happens at the end of a project. They almost expect it. They think that what they are now supposed to do is take everything they have learned, put it into a slideshow and then eventually share it with the rest of the class. For many projects, this kind of final sharing makes a whole lot of sense. Especially if your goal is to have students teach their classmates about what they have learned in order to ensure that all content standards have been covered.
However, this project had a different end goal. And to be honest, the kids, both this year and last year, struggled to understand what that might look like. Since the beginning of our inquiry circle work, I told the kids that they were learning about social issues that exist in our world in order to take some kind of action that would create positive change in connection with the topic that they studied. This positive change needed to go beyond the walls of our classroom.
Now that we had spent two months learning about our topics. It was time to turn that learning into action.
Since this unit was also the ending of our persuasive writing unit, my requirement for their action was that one piece of what they chose to do needed to include writing. After they finished their written action, then they were free to take some other form of action that could add to the positive change they wanted to create.
By this point, each group had filled out THIS CLAIM ORGANIZER. This served as the basis for what kind of action they wanted to take. I asked each group to look at the claim statement that they had written and then based on that, think about some kind of change that they wanted to ask for. I used the following chart in order to help them to then think about how they might use writing to try to create this change:
The kids then got into their inquiry circle groups to talk about what change they wanted to make and how they wanted to make that change. Each group completed THIS ACTION PLAN to help them think through what they needed to do.
In order to help inspire the kids and give them some ideas to think about, I shared with them several video clips of kids taking real action out in the world. HERE IS THE LIST of video clips that I pulled from. The kids were incredibly inspired and talked about how seeing these examples helped them to see that kids really can affect change in the world. They also talked about how it was helpful to see that they were not trying to solve a problem all by themselves, but how they were hoping to create some small change that would become a part of the larger network of people who were working to fix the same problem.
Here is our class watching a video about the incredible Marley Dias and her work to begin the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign:
It was amazing to hear the conversations that were taking place. In many ways, this is the part of the learning that makes all of this work so very worthwhile because this is the part of the learning that teaches the students how to take action. Years ago, this was the piece of the learning that I often neglected. We would learn about problems, but we did not learn how to enact solutions. And that is a shame because while we have gotten really good at teaching kids how to become better readers and better writers, we have often neglected to then teach them how to use that reading and writing to go out in the world and create positive change. So it was inspiring to watch them begin to do that work.
As the students began their writing, I realized that we needed to take some time to talk about how their pieces of writing would be structured. We had just finished a lengthy persuasive writing unit and so my students were familiar with the ways that writers support their claims. They had even used their own writing to teach others about how to support the claims they were making in their writing. So I knew my students knew how to write what they needed to write. But I wanted to take a minute to talk with them about how their pieces of writing might be structured.
I used these charts to help demonstrate how they are often taught how to structure their writing in one way when they are writing in school. But in all the mentor texts we looked at from outside of school, we know that there are so many ways to structure a piece of writing.
After sharing these charts, I gave each group THIS WRITING PLAN to fill out. This helped them to think about what they wanted to do in each section of their writing AND what research they would be able to use in order to support each section of their writing. I modeled how I used this writing plan to plan out my own writing about the Muslim Ban. THIS IS THE EXAMPLE that I showed them that I had filled out. The final piece that I modeled for the kids was to show them how I used transition words to weave my research into my writing. THIS IS THE PACKET I created with the start of my own writing in order to help them to think about how they could use research in their own writing.
After that, I basically got out of the way. For the next week and a half, as we headed towards spring break, my students were busy and engaged in creating change. First through writing and then through other actions. I created two large charts that hung on our bulletin boards to keep track of the actions that each group chose to take. As the weeks went on, the charts started to fill up and then began to get checked off as actions were taken and sent out into the world. Here are the charts close-up:
Several groups wrote op-eds and we submitted them to our local newspapers. Other groups wrote blog posts and we shared the links on our class Twitter account (@MrsLifClass). Some groups wrote letters and mailed them to mayors and representatives and senators. One group wrote a petition and posted it on Change.org. One group put their writing on GoFundMe.com and started a fundraising campaign for children in foster care. We learned how to look up the offices and addresses of our members of congress, we learned how to address envelopes, we learned how to mail our writing to the local newspaper, we learned how to post and share digital petitions and we learned how to begin fundraising campaigns.
Once groups finished their writing, I had one group plan a presentation to give to the fourth grade classes on the injustice of equal pay. I had two groups put together videos that they shared on YouTube. I had one group plan and start a supply drive for a local animal shelter after studying animal cruelty. We learned how to make meetings with our principal, we learned how to create powerful videos, we learned how to present our learning to others who we do not know and we learned how to use social media to join in existing conversations about social issues.
And throughout all of this learning, there was an energy in the room. An energy besides the normal, week before a school break energy. This work was meaningful. It was powerful. It had an audience other than me and their classmates. This work was not to pretend to solve a pretend problem, this work was working towards actually solving real problems that exist in the world we live in. There is no work that I have ever been engaged in that can match that kind of energy.
And throughout all of this, my students were also providing me with an incredible amount of evidence of what they had learned how to do as readers and as writers. In fact, in the last few days of our work, we worked together to create an assessment tool for all of us to use in order to determine which learning targets each person and each group had met and which ones that had not quite yet met.
I began by giving them the learning targets that had guided our work:
We then thought about where we would find evidence that might show that students had met each of these targets:
And finally, the students worked together in groups to list out what I would be able to see in each piece of evidence that would let me know if they had met each learning target or not:
For our final learning target, we decided that we needed to create a space for students to write what they learned about their topic to see if they were pulling their weight in the group learning. We also decided that we needed to build a list of behaviors that would show if everyone in the group was a productive group member. The students helped me to create questions to ask on the reflection AND a checklist of behaviors of group members for them to use to self-assess and to assess their group members. In the end, we created THIS SELF-ASSESSMENT AND REFLECTION tool for the students to complete.
On the second to last day of our inquiry circle work, I handed back all of the evidence that they had turned in. I gave them time to complete the first two pages of the self-assessment and reflection on their own. Then, they got with their inquiry circle groups and looked through their work together. They placed an X by each descriptor that they could find evidence of in their work. They then handed all of their work into me along with their self-assessment and reflection. I then used MY TEACHER ASSESSMENT tool to determine how well each child met the learning targets that we laid out at the start of the unit.
This process allowed me to do more than just believe that we were doing good work for the world. This process allowed me to also gain evidence of how well my students met reading and writing standards that they were being assessed on. When we can look at the standards that we need to teach and find ways to wrap those standards in meaningful work that matches the kind of work that we want our students to do out in the world, then I believe we have created the most powerful learning experiences for our students.
On the very last day of our inquiry circle group, I put the kids into three large groups. Each group had representatives from every inquiry circle. Their job was to share what they had learned and talk about the action they had taken.
Perhaps the most powerful moment for me of all of the amazing work my kids did throughout this large project occurred within these group discussions. A boy from the refugee crisis group was sharing what he learned. One of the girls in his group asked the following question, “Do you think that could ever happen to us? Could we one day become refugees?” I held my breath as I watched this fifth grade boy struggle for an answer. I forced myself to wait a few more seconds than felt comfortable and right before I swooped in to ruin the whole thing he began to respond. “Of course,” he said. “It could happen to anyone. In any country.” The group was quiet for a second and then the same girl asked another question. “Well, what if people didn’t let us in when we needed help? What if they did to us what we are doing to refugees now?” Again this was quiet. And then another boy answered, “Well, I guess that is why it is so important for us to make sure that we help refugees today. Because one day we might be the ones who need help and we want to make sure that others give it to us. So we need to give it to them today.”
Honestly. There were tears in my eyes and I had to walk away for a minute. You hear so much hatred today. So much bickering and arguing and intolerance. And yet here were these ten and eleven year olds, thinking through something really big and arriving somewhere really big in their understanding. And in that moment, I knew without a doubt that these ten long weeks of work had been worth it. They had gained so much understanding. About the lives of others and about our role in those lives. They had walked through a process that had brought them towards empathy. A process that I believe they can now better walk through on their own in the world outside of school. And, once again, I found myself unbelievably hopeful for this world.