Inquiry Circles Weeks #4 and #5: Synthesizing to Gain Better Understanding

In my first two posts about inquiry circles, I talked about how my students selected their topics and formed groups and then how we learned to ask better questions in order to drive further investigation.

At the start of week #4, I was ready to release my students to begin searching for articles on their own.  I had them look at the questions that they wanted to find answers to and use those questions to begin researching. Because I have an incredible librarian who has been working on research skills with my students since they were in 1st grade and because we have already done a fairly large research project this year in 5th grade, I did not need to spend much time teaching the students how to research a topic using digital sources. I am grateful for that because I could spend my time, instead, teaching my students how to use what they have found to better understand the complex topics that they were investigating.

One of the reading strategies that our 5th grade students are asked to focus on is the strategy of synthesizing.  Our inquiry circle work was a perfect place to teach these skills and ask the students to use them for a truly authentic purpose.  The idea of synthesis that I wanted to focus on is how we gather new information and add it to our current understanding. How to evaluate our current understanding for gaps and holes and a lack of perspectives and then how to do we see out the information that we need in order to fill in these holes and add multiple perspectives? How do we deal with information that does not match our current understanding? All of these skills were easy to integrate into our inquiry circle work.

I wanted to start with a general overview of what synthesis is and how readers synthesis both within one article and across multiple articles on the same topic.  Here are the charts that my students and I created during our discussion of this idea:



After a discussion of what synthesis looks like, I began by modeling how I synthesized as I read through one single article. I stopped and thought about information that was new to me and thought out loud about how that information enhanced or changed my understanding.  I also stopped at places in a text where I found information that challenged my thinking and even changed what I thought I knew. I shared with students how this helped to grow my understanding of my topic and find additional layers to investigate.

After looking at how readers synthesize WITHIN one text, I then started to share with my students how I was starting to put together information that I got from multiple texts in order to deepen my understanding. This type of synthesis is the very heart of the research process. In order to keep track of the discussions we were having, we created these next two chart:



These charts highlight the lessons that we worked on over the course of several days. Along the way, I stopped to model how this looked in my own research into the refugee crisis.

Along the way, my students were continuing their own research and after a week and half of focusing on synthesis, I started to feel as if the research and excitement was sort of fizzling out.  My students seemed to lack a clear focus and they were starting to give up.

After spending a lot of time reflecting on what was happening, I realized that what I was asking my students to do with their research was different than what I had ever asked of them before. Most often, in the past, I have asked my students to begin with some sort of thesis statement. We begin with what they believe or what they want to prove and then they go out and seek information that supports this thesis. I think that this is often how we, as adults, research as well.

While this helps to narrow our focus as research and give up an endpoint to work towards, it also creates huge problems and bias. When we begin with a thesis statement, with a claim, with a statement that shares our belief, and then we seek out information that supports that belief, we are essentially ignoring anything that is out there that might contradict what we believe and cause us to adjust our claim.

When we began researching, my students knew their topic, but did not make any claims. Truly, most of them did not yet know enough to make a claim. So they began researching without knowing what they were trying to prove. This was powerful.

But also new. I needed to teach them how to look at the sources they had gathered and begin to search for trends and patterns that would lead them toward a claim, lead them toward knowing what they would come to believe. This was not something they knew how to do. This was a new way to synthesize.

This was the chart that I used to begin our discussion of how they would move forward in their research by synthesizing what they had found and beginning to form their claims. These claims are what would lead them toward taking action. IMG_9715

Helping my students to organize their ideas into a clear claim, helped reenergize their research. It helped them find new purpose and meaning in their work. The guided reading groups that I was conducting were some of the most purposeful guided reading groups that I had ever had because I was helping each group to apply a new reading strategy in a way that helped them pull together all they had learned and help them to begin to search for a way to action.

As I worked with each inquiry circle to pull together a clear claim based on the research they had done, we also looked at if they had enough research to back up each part of their claim.  So if their claim was, “There are too many incidents of police brutality directed toward people of color and in order to change this police officers need better training.” Then I helped them to break that claim up into several different parts. 1) There are too many incidents of police brutality directed toward people of color. How can you prove this to be true? 2) In order to change this police officers need better training. What are the current training practices? How can you prove these are not working? What are better forms of police training? How can you prove that these will work better?

After breaking up their claims and organizing the research they already had on THIS DOCUMENT, then we were able to discover where their holes were. These were places where they needed to collect additional research. Again, this helped give each group new purpose and new direction in their work.  It was amazing to see how the research really picked back up after this work.

What I was asking these fifth graders to do was incredibly challenging. And so when problems arose, I had to make sure that I was not faulting the students and that I was instead finding ways to support my students without taking the power away from them to guide their own research. This was a tricky balance. Most often, what my students needed was more modeling and more conversation with me to help them pull together all of the information that they had found. When groups began to get an idea of the claims that they were making, then they were ready to start thinking about taking action. I will write about the inspiring action that came from these projects in my next blog post.



Inquiry Circles Weeks #2 and #3: Asking Questions to Drive Further Investigation

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:

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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.

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.

Inquiry Circles: My One New Thing for the New Year

This past summer, I was involved in a book study led by my incredible literacy coach. We read the book Collaboration and Comprehension by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels.  Since reading the book, I have been in love with the idea of using inquiry circles in my 5th grade classroom. However so far this school year, I have not been able to find a way to work them in.

Until now.

I always struggle with how to balance the things that I want to teach and the things that I need to teach. Need to teach because of the curriculum that I am given, need to teach because of the Common Core, and need to teach because of what I know my students will need as they move on past my classroom. I am incredibly lucky to work in a district and in a building that gives me quite a bit of flexibility. My principal is this amazing human being who trusts his teachers and believes that we will do what is best for kids.

And yet it is really easy for me to not try new things because I am afraid that it will not allow me to teach what I have to teach. Sometimes innovation suffers when we start to believe that there is no time to work new things into our curriculum.  But what I have found is that I usually just have to look at things differently. I have to look at what I am already doing, think about what is working and what is not working and then think about what I can do to help my students do better and to become more engaged with their own learning. I have to begin by really looking at what I am being asked to do and then think about how I can work in what I want to do.

In our district, our reading and writing curriculums are centered around comprehension strategies and genres.  In fifth grade, in reading, we are supposed to work with all of the major comprehension strategies but focus specifically on questioning, synthesizing, and determining importance. We are asked to incorporate several genres within those strategies. Specifically, we are supposed to focus on how readers use these strategies to read memoirs, news articles, historical fiction and science fiction. In writing, we are asked to spend time working in narrative, persuasive and informational writing. We are asked to specifically focus on writing memoirs, fiction stories, op-eds and informational picture books.

While we have been working the past few years to write units to go along with each of these areas of focus, I feel pretty lucky to be able to use the strategies that work best for my students and for me in order to cover the stated objectives and to meet the Common Core standards as well.

For that reason, I chose to start my reading instruction this year with a heavy focus on using texts as windows and mirrors. I also spent time simply laying the foundations for our reading community and getting to know my students as readers. I also took time to help students learn how to set reading goals for themselves that did not have anything to do with number of books read or number of genres read during independent reading and keep track of their progress towards these goals in their reading journals. This took quite a bit of time and led us all the way up to our Mock Caldecott unit (which is deserving of its own, separate, blog post).

That means that I have made it all the way up to January and still not started ANY of the three reading strategy units that I am supposed to teach this year. I have done a bit better in writing where we have already completed our narrative writing work in memoirs and fiction stories.  But, still, I have got my work cut out for me.

And then there is my love of this past summer. Inquiry circles.

You know how it is, you fall in love with an idea over the summer and then somehow when you return to school in the fall, the reality of all that you need to do sets in and you find yourself wandering further and further away from those summer loves.

But my love of the inquiry circle? That was no fling. That was an idea that I was not willing to let go of.

So what I now have to do is find a way to have my cake and eat it too. I need to use the things that I want to teach as a vehicle for the things that I have to teach. So over the past few days, I have been working on how I can use inquiry circles to teach two of my three required reading strategy units as well as one of my required writing genre units.

What I have settled on is this: throughout our inquiry circle work, I can easily integrate the standards that I need to teach for questioning, synthesizing and persuasive writing.

Here is my very, very rough plan:

My students will identify social issues that they want to learn more about.

They will form groups based on their shared interests in the issues.

They will learn to ask questions that will guide them towards studying specific aspects of their chosen issues.

They will work, as a group, to locate sources of information to help begin to answer their questions including news articles, videos, interviews and informational texts.

They will learn to ask questions as they read these sources in order to lead to further learning.

They will learn to synthesize new information within one text and across multiple texts on a given topic in order to grow and deepen their understanding of their chosen issue.

They will also learn to synthesize their knowledge with the knowledge of their other group members.

They will take their knowledge and use it to take some kind of action that will help create positive change in regards to whatever issue they have been studying. This action will somehow incorporate some form of persuasive writing.

In the end, they will share what they have learned and the action that they have taken with a wider audience of some kind.

Now here is the thing, the kind of big thing, I have absolutely NO IDEA what I am doing or how I am going to accomplish all of this. I have never done inquiry circles before. I have never tried to merge all of these reading and writing units together before.

But what I do know is that I am excited by the idea. I am excited by the possibilities. And I am excited because I know that this will be good for kids. Good for my students.

And it would be easy to just keep putting off my “something new.” It would be easy to let my fear of not knowing what I am doing or how this is all going to work out stop me from just getting started. So often I feel the need to have a complete vision of exactly how something is going to work and how something is going to look before I am willing to get started. I want to be able to see in my mind how all of the logistics will work out before I am willing to jump in and get started.

But one of the things that I love so much about inquiry circles, is that the kind of knowing that I am often looking for, is just not possible. Because in order to be able to plan out everything that is going to take place, I would have to remove the students from the planning. I would have to take out their needs and their wants and their interests. And what I love so much about inquiry circles is that the interests of the students are at the very center of the work we will be doing.

So while I feel like I am prepared to get started with our work, I am not at all sure where it will lead or how it will all come together. But I am putting my trust in my students. I am putting my trust in the incredible work of Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels. I am putting my trust in myself to listen to my students and use what I know to help my students create a powerful learning experience.

As we start this new year, I will also be starting this brand new thing. I am excited to find out what lies ahead and I am excited to discovery it together with my students.