I recently gave a presentation that I titled, “Revolutionary Reading: Reading To Change the World,” and in it, I talked about four of the bigger reading skills that I weave into my own reading instruction that aim to help kids not only to be better readers, but better human beings as well. One of the skills that I talked about was learning to base your beliefs on research. I wanted to share some of my thinking on how I have worked to rethink research in my classroom through the use of inquiry circles (as described by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels in their amazing book Comprehension and Collaboration) since it is the work that my students and I are currently engaged in.
I have written extensively about the work that we have done with our inquiry circles in past year and you can find those posts starting HERE and HERE. But this year, I have made some changes that were based on my desire to help my students to tie their own beliefs to the research that they have done and not simply to the things that they have been told by the adults around them. This year, I wanted to really hone in on the process that I wanted my students to walk away with that would allow them to learn about any current, complex social issues from multiple perspectives in order to reach their own beliefs.
As in past years, I began by introducing the idea of inquiry circles to my students and telling them that they would be selecting current, complex social issues to study from multiple perspectives with a group of students. The groups would be formed based around shared interests and our learning would focus on the comprehension strategy of synthesizing, while also walking through important skills that would allow them to responsibly use digital resources in order to research these issues. Our work would culminate in some form of written action that would work to create positive change in the world outside of our classroom. This is the anchor chart that I used in order to introduce this work to my students:
In order to spark ideas for our inquiry circle groups, I shared with my students the following slideshow: Slideshow To Spark Ideas for Inquiry. As students worked through this slideshow on their own or with a partner, they brainstormed ideas that they had on THIS FORM. After brainstorming, we came together as a class and started to share some of the ideas that we had. These were the charts of ideas that we built:
And from there, we worked to narrow these topics down even more using THIS FORM. Once we came up with a smaller list by looking at the topics that more than one person was interested in studying, then the students wrote down their top three choices on a notecard. I took those notecards home and sorted them based on first choices. Then, I sat together with my students and we looked at the notecards all together and moved kids around until we had groups that everyone felt good about. By allowing the students’ choices to drive our topic selection and group formation, I was making it clear from the beginning that I was not attempting to teach my students WHAT to think, but rather I was teaching them HOW to think about these complex topics. The topic choices came from my students and their desire to know and NOT based on what I wanted my students to know or to think. This is an important idea that I wrote more about last year.
These charts show the topics and groups that we formed:
Once we had our topics and selected and our groups formed, that is when I really wanted to rethink the way that I had asked my students to research in the past. In the past, my research process with my students looked something like this:
I used to begin my asking students to craft a claim. A statement that expressed what they believed. And then, I sent my students out to find research that SUPPORTS that claim. And then, they used the evidence that they found in order to write about their claim and support it with evidence.
What I finally realized about this process is that I was asking my students to do the VERY thing that I believe has proved to be extremely problematic with the way adults learn about complex topics. Often, we seek out ONLY the research that supports the beliefs that we hold. It is this way of researching that often has us only getting our information from the sources who tend to agree with us. It is this way of researching that has led to the echo chambers that we currently exist is. And I was a part of perpetuating those problems. I was teaching my students to go out and IGNORE all of the research that did not agree with the beliefs that they held. In this way, I was teaching my students to ignore any opinions that did not match their own and I was robbing them of the chance of doing any research that might push their thinking and help them to more fully understand the complex issues that they were supposed to be studying.
So I needed to fix this problem. To do that, I needed to change the order in which I was asking my students to gather information and craft a claim. So now, my research process looks more like this:
Now, I ask my students to start their work by first identifying the opinions and biases that they ALREADY hold about a topic. I ask them to do this by using an updated version of the KWL. Instead of listing just what we know or what we think we know, I now ask my students to list the things that they have already heard about their topics that they think are probably true and then list the things that they have heard but that they are skeptical of. And then, I ask them to try to identify what biases they already hold. I model for them how I can take a topic like DACA and list out the opinions that I already hold that might influence the way that I seek out information. And then, finally, I look at those three columns and begin to craft questions that will help me to research this topic responsibly in order to better understand other perspectives, even when I do not think that I will agree with them. In this way, I am more likely to ask questions that can help me to learn about this topic from MULTIPLE perspectives. Then. And only then, can I begin to craft a claim that I will be able to support with the research that I have done.
This is the anchor chart that I used to introduce those ideas:
This is the revised KWL form that I asked my students to fill out before they began ANY research: Identifying prior knowledge, potential misconceptions, opinions and biases form. Here is a quick look at what that form looks like, but click the link to see the actual document.
After taking some time to fill out this form independently, then my students were finally read to meet with the rest of their inquiry circle group. The first time that they met with their groups, their task was simply to share what they had identified on their revised KWL forms and then to fill out THIS INTIAL MEETING document in order to let me know what they were interested in learning more about.
All of this work was what was done BEFORE they ever began their research. I wanted to give them the time to think about and talk about what they already thought they knew and believed. I wanted them to disagree with each other and question each other and notice what perspectives might exist, before they ever started seeking out information connected to their topics.
It is a step that I wish more adults took the time to do. It is a step that I think could save us from some of the problems that we find ourselves facing that have made it nearly impossible for us to have conversations about complex issues with people who think differently than we do.
Teachers often ask me what program I take my mini-lessons from. Teachers often ask me how I build my units. And I think what they are looking for is a list of lessons that I believe we need to teach our students. But the truth is that one of THE most important places that I look in order to guide my instruction is the world around us and the problems that exist within it. I look at the things that frustrate me about the world and I think about what I wish we were better able to do and THOSE are things that I try to teach to my students. And all the other stuff. All the other standards and skills and strategies, those are the things that I work in around these big ideas. What is it that I wish adults were better capable of doing? What are the things that are standing in the way of us doing better? These are the big ideas that I craft my units around.
And as I explained in the presentation that I gave (using the image above), I believe that we can use all the other things that we are required to teach as steps towards these bigger goals. And that is what makes me so grateful to be a teacher.
I will come back with more in later posts about the process that we use as we begin our research into these complex topics as we move from building an understanding of our topics to developing a stance about our topics and finally into action connected to our topics.