I’ve been a firm believer in inquiry ever since my graduate school days. Professors like Dr. Lytle inspired me to cultivate an inquiry stance; the work of Linda Christensen compelled me to cultivate classroom community and foster empathy; my colleagues and teacher friends offered feedback and helped me reflect when times got tough.
Still, even with a myriad of knowledge, resources, and determination, I struggled to create an inquiry based classroom. For awhile, I blamed what I call, “teacher roadblocks,” which are essentially mandates and policies put into place that are, for the most part, out of a teacher’s control. Examples include: rigid lesson plan templates, state/local/school-wide standardized tests, pre-packaged curriculum, and a host of others.
These “teacher roadblocks” create inauthentic teaching experiences for students and unwanted/unneeded stress for already stressed teachers. For years, I felt (and dealt) with the pressures of these roadblocks. I tried to sprinkle inquiry into my classroom – little bit here, a little bit there – but I was not consistent and my students were confused. Frankly, so was I.
I suppose there comes a time in one’s teaching career when he/she decides to acknowledge that the roadblocks exist, but instead of waiting for things to change, take the backroads. I grew up taking backroads – I sometimes got lost and had to find my way again. I often took a wrong turn. But the messiness, the struggle, and the mistakes are what gave me confidence.
Creating and sustaining an inquiry classroom is tough work. It’s messy, loud and often looks chaotic on the outside. However, teaching students to ask questions about their learning instead of just answering teacher-generated questions gives them ownership.
I recently had students generate questions for student-led socratic seminars. My co-teacher gave students a list of sentence stems to use. In this way, we were able to differentiate for our classes and also show the students that there are different types of questions.
Once students created their questions, we allowed them time to share, peer edit and revise. I then put students into groups, assigned a leader and made sure each student had one of their questions represented. Students were ecstatic upon seeing their questions on paper and were excited to discuss their question.
As the student leaders facilitated the discussions, teachers circulated and helped move discussions along. I would love to tell you this process was flawless – it wasn’t. Some groups argued. Some refused to talk. Some were loud. Some leaders were bossy. But…
- Some leaders were innovative, using systems, like “Q1, A1” as students took notes.
- I heard one leader refer back to our Socratic Seminar Norms when she felt the group was getting off-task.
- Another leader called me over and said, “Ms. Baker, I’ve had to redirect _______ 5 times! He won’t pay attention or participate!”
- I saw students who don’t normally speak in class engaging with peers.
- When time was over, students did NOT want to stop discussing the text.
If you come to my classroom, it will likely be loud. Students will be driving the conversation. It may look messy and unorganized at times. The activities may not fit into pre-determined lesson plan templates, but they fit into a bigger template – Life.