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.

 

Modeling Vulnerability

Our very first unit in reading workshop is on using books as both mirrors and windows.  This means, that we will look at how we can see ourselves reflected in the books we read in order to feel stronger and feel a part of a greater community in the world.  We can also use books as windows to see into the lives of others in order to build empathy and understanding for those whose lives are vastly different than our own.  

We began last week with our work. I explained the concept of books as mirrors and windows briefly, knowing that my students would not even begin to really grasp the idea until we did much more work. And then I shared with students how sometimes, something amazing happens when we read a book. Sometimes, we start to see ourselves, or some part of ourselves, in the characters we are reading about. We start to see ourselves in our books. We start to see our lives, our struggles, our worries, our fears, our successes, our families, our cultures showing up and being lived in the pages of our books. And this gives us strength. This makes us feel less alone in this world. This gives us guidance in how to deal with our own lives. This makes us feel as if we are seen. We are worthy. We are like others. We are a part of something larger than just ourselves.

And that is powerful.

So I ask my students if this has ever happened to them. A few students talked in generalities about seeing characters who reminded them of people in their own lives or even of themselves. And then this year, I had two exceptionally brave souls. One was a girl who said that she saw herself reflected in a book when she read Smile by Raina Telgemeier. My student explained that Raina worried about not fitting in, about being different just as my student worried about those things. But then my student saw that Raina survived. Raina made it through just fine and she then realized that she could make it through too. Another boy spoke of Percy Jackson. He said that one of the reasons that he loved Rick Riordan’s book The Lightning Thief so much was that Percy was a boy just like him. A boy who got in trouble, who didn’t always do well in school, but then Percy got to be the hero. And my student, he said he liked that.

I was nearly in tears after both of these students spoke. But more than that, I was in awe. I was in awe of the bravery of these kids. To speak this freely in front of their classmates. To tell these things to me, their teacher, who they barely even know at this point. That is bravery.

What they showed me is their capability to make themselves vulnerable. To be willing to share the deepest parts of themselves. To leave behind the worry of how others would react and share these moments and glimpses into their lives with us all.  

And it made me think. I need to do that more in my classroom. I need to model the very vulnerability that my students just modeled for me.

So tomorrow. I am bringing in Patricia Polacco’s amazing book In Our Mothers’ House to share with the students. And I am going to read it in a different way than I have in the past. You see, this book is about a two-mom family and their three adopted children. This book, is a mirror book for me. Within the pages of this book, I see my own family. A two-mom family with one adopted child. And that is the part that I shared with my students last year. That is as vulnerable as I made myself.

But this year. This year I have been inspired by the bravery of my students.

This year, I plan to share all of the ways that I see myself and my family reflected in this book. I want to share with them that when I hear the moms speak of the feelings of bringing home their children, who were not born to them, but were as much a part of their family as any other child could be, I immediately know what that feeling is like. I know what it is like to walk into a home carrying a child who is a part of you and a part of someone else too. Seeing myself reflected in this way helps me to understand the relationship these children have with their moms and it also allows me to feel connected to a larger community of adoptive mothers.  

And then, when there is a neighbor who glares at the family and tells her children not to play with the children in this family, I want to tell my students that I see my family reflected here too. I have seen the looks of others who do not think that our family is as good as a family with a mom and a dad. I want to share with my students that I know the sting that these mothers feel when the neighbor quickly shuts her door. I know how they are feeling and I know their fierce desire to protect their children from the hatred of others. I understand why they do what they do in response to this woman. I know their feelings and I know their motivations. Seeing myself reflected helps me to understand the characters of the mothers and it also helps me to know that this neighbor is not just cranky and mean because she is cranky and mean, she disapproves of this family because they are different than her own.  And knowing that I am not alone in feeling this reaction. Knowing that others have felt this sting too. That makes me feel so much less alone. It doesn’t make it any easier to stomach, but it does give me strength in knowing that I am not alone.

And when these mothers, and their gorgeous children, come face to face with this woman, and her hatred, they are quickly surrounded by the love of their neighbors. And this part. This part gives me hope. Because this is my greatest fear. And I want my students to know that. I want them to know that when I read this book and I see myself in it, I am seeing one of my worst fears played out. And then I am also able to see something else. I am able to see how to deal with this fear. That there is a way through it. I watch the characters in this book bravely confront bigotry and I am able to learn from them ways to deal with it myself when the time comes. And it gives me hope. Hope that when, and if, the time comes when we come face to face with someone else’s hatred that there will be people who love us who will stand by us and surround us with their love. This book gives me hope that we will be okay. That our daughter will be okay. Because we will have the love of others to keep us safe. Seeing what happens in this book that so very closely reflects my own life, this gives me strength and hope for how my own problems will play out.

I have never shared these things with my students before, though I think them every single time I read this book out loud. Something has always stopped me. I was afraid to be vulnerable. I was afraid to show them that I fear and worry and care what other people think of me. But if I am asking my students to be vulnerable. If I am watching them make themselves vulnerable on the third and fourth day of the school year. Then I had better be willing to model that same kind of vulnerability myself.

The Good News is They Don’t ACTUALLY Hate Reading: They Only Hate What School Has Done to Reading

Over the first few days of this school year we have had several powerful conversations. Conversations that have had an impact on what I believe as a teacher and conversations that have changed the way I thought about reading and writing and school in general. Already this year, my new students have taught me so many things. But this has only happened because from the minute that they walked in this room, I let them know that I wanted to hear what they had to say. I have asked them, over and over and over again for their thoughts, for their input, for their ideas. I have listened when they have made suggestions and so they know that they can share.

I am so thankful that they are willing to share their thinking with me because it is what led to our incredibly powerful conversation about reading yesterday.  At the end of the first week of school, I asked my students to fill out this survey.  Before they began, I asked them to please be honest with me.  I reminded them that we cannot fix things if we can’t even talk about what exactly needs to be fixed. I asked them to trust me. And they sure did.

Over the weekend, I read through all of their responses and I noticed a disturbing trend. Multiple students said that they HATED reading. Not that they didn’t like to read, but that they HATED reading. I was surprised. I don’t often find this kind of hatred for reading in fifth graders. But it came up in several surveys and it matched the responses that parents gave on their surveys. Many parents spoke about a gradual decline in a love of reading over their child’s school years.

What all of this told me was that I to dig deeper to find out what was going on.

So yesterday, our reading lesson was simply to talk about what we loved about reading and what we hated about reading. I broke the class up into four groups and asked each group to make a chart that had two columns. One to list what they loved about reading and one to list what they hated about reading. Again, I asked them to be honest and I asked them to try to be specific. And then I sent them off. As the groups worked together, I circulated around the room asking questions and pushing the groups to be more specific on their charts. Here are a few images of what the groups came up with:

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After the groups were finished, I asked each student to walk silently around the room and read the words and the thinking of the other groups. I asked them to look for trends and patterns that they noticed and to be ready to share them with the class.  After a few minutes, the kids worked their way back to the carpet and I asked them to share what they noticed.  Based on what they shared, we created the following anchor chart:

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As we were wrapping up, my heart was experiencing all sorts of mixed emotions. I wasn’t ready to share them all with the kids yet because I needed to think about them more. But what I did say to my students is the following: “Well, good news everyone. None of you actually hate reading. You only hate what school has done to reading.” I saw heads nod in agreement.  I then went on to share with the kids that I hear them. I hear what they are saying and it gives me a lot to think about. I told them that no teacher EVER wants to make kids hate reading, but I think that we may have been doing that accidentally. I told them that I cannot promise that I will NEVER ask them to do the things that they have shared that they hated, but that I will think carefully about my purpose for doing them and I will make sure to check in with them to see how those things are working.

And then we moved on. Then we read. Then I watched my students happily gravitate towards the books that they had chosen and I watched them find a comfy spot in the room and I just watched them read.

But my mind and my heart did not easily move on from this conversation. The charts that my students made stayed with me all afternoon and far into the evening. I woke up still thinking about my students’ words.

I woke up thinking about what we, as a school system, have done to reading. I woke up thinking about the assignments we give whose only purpose is to check up on our students and make sure they are reading. I woke up thinking about how little choice we give them when it comes to the books they read or the kinds of books that we deem worthy or the ways they think about those books and document that thinking. I woke up thinking about all of the things that we do that get in the way of helping our students to become life long readers and not just readers who read because they feel that they have to.

And after all that thinking, here is what I have come to. I am hopeful. Yes, I am so sad that this is what my students have had to deal with. Yes, I want our current ways of teaching reading to change. Yes, I wish that more teachers would just ask their students how their instruction is working for them. Yes, all of those things exist and I am angry and sad about them. And yet, I remain hopeful. Because what I walk away with is how much power we, as teachers, have to change the way our kids feel about reading.

I can give my students more choice. I can ask my students how they want to share the thinking that they are doing with me and with their classmates and with the world. I can ask my students how they want to talk to others about books. I can give my students the freedom to read the books that they love. I can trust my students to tell me about their reading habits instead of asking them to time themselves and have a parent sign their reading logs. I can take away any worksheet or packet or task that does not serve the purpose of growing readers who love books and who think deeply about what they read and talk about their thinking with others.

These are all things that I have the power to do or not do. There are so many things that I can change. There are so many ways that I can help my students to begin to fall back in love with reading.

And that is a really powerful thing.