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.
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.