I am a huge planner. There’s nothing I love more than a good calendar, a clear curriculum guide, and a detailed scope and sequence. However, as an elementary school teacher I should know by now that I can plan a beautiful unit, color-coded and date-stamped with all sorts of assessments and checkpoints plugged in, but when my students show up plans change. That’s just what happened this year as I began to implement one of my carefully planned inquiries.

After spending the summer learning about IDM and designing inquiry, I mapped out my year using our district units, planning each week to align with the standards and resources that went along with those units. I then planned for using the inquiries I designed  given the 3-5 day timeframe suggested by the model. These inquiries would fit in either at the end of a unit to culminate the work, or at the start of a unit to introduce content.  I was imagining classroom experiences filled with text analysis, academic conversation, and writing where students’ work led to or culminated in an inquiry. 

So, I taught an inquiry. But as they say about best laid plans, things went awry.  I quickly realized my exacting plans needed some adjustments

In my third grade classroom of 20, students are on 15 reading levels from G to >U. I have a cluster of ELL students, a cluster of TD students, and magnet students brought in from schools where social studies was never a thought in anyone’s mind. On top of this, I am in a personalized learning school where students are provided choice in how and what they are learning and how they demonstrate that learning. We are expected to use data to decide where student start on a continuum of standards-based tasks.

How would I implement all of these things and stay true to my own and my district’s vision for social studies? What was I thinking? It was a problem that literally kept me awake at night. I would stare into space wondering how I could build the desperately needed content knowledge and complete these inquiries we worked so hard to design. How was I going to teach my inquiry when some could barely read above 1st grade level while others could easily analyze higher-level texts? I was coming to a realization that my exacting plans might not work. I had this sinking feeling. Did I really just do all this work over the summer only to not be able to use it?

 


 

No! I was determined to make this work, however I had to modify my approach. I looked closely at our first (failed) attempt at an inquiry. I looked at what worked and what didn’t. I asked my students for feedback and for them to reflect on how they felt they best learned new material. Through these informal checks on student learning and reflecting on our first attempt, I realized that rather than trying to complete an inquiry in 3-5 days, I was going to have a compelling question drive a few weeks of instruction. The students would work on a progression of questions, tasks, and sources that would allow them to, in the end, answer the larger compelling question to end our “unit.” Let me walk you through an example.

For our geography standards, I decided to use an inquiry featured on the C3 site, “Does where you live matter?” and modify it to work with our third grade standards. I planned for it to take about four weeks. This compelling question was broken down into three supporting questions, each of which took about a week to answer. Finally, I broke those supporting questions down into insight questions; scaffolded questions keeping Bloom’s taxonomy in mind. Our district inquiry-template utilizes these insight questions and I found them very helpful in breaking the inquiry down in this way. These questions would help build that much-needed content knowledge through the “who, what where, and when” type learning that students would need to be able to answer higher-order questions like “why, how, and what if.” The end result looked something like this:

My planning on the front end was of course time-consuming and took a lot of creativity and organization, but it was all so worth it. Despite throwing out all my other beautiful, calendared plans, I felt better about the work we were doing. Students were engaged, and their arguments were actually really well presented and backed with evidence! I felt strange modifying the IDM to take so much longer than suggested, but I think the beauty of the template is that it is structured, but still open-ended enough to be adapted to teacher’s and students’ needs. Seeing the results of modifying it this way gave me the confidence to spend a Saturday reworking some of my long-range plans to include these longer inquiries, in which questions were consistently driving the instruction toward a larger, compelling argument the students would feel comfortable taking a stance on.

Now that each week was mapped out with a supporting question and smaller insight questions, I had to make this work for personalized learning. Using the feedback and reflection forms from my students, I knew I had a wide-range of learners (like we always do!) and learner-preferences. I created a “playlist” for each week. The students could choose which tasks they would complete to learn the information they would need to answer the question for the week. For example, one student might choose to read an article on the regions of the United States; while another would play an online mapping game; while another would watch videos; while another would make a map of the regions after doing a webquest. Anything they chose would still provide them with the content knowledge they needed to learn about the regions so they could then compare them to North Carolina on another day, to answer the question — “Which physical features make NC’s geography diverse?” Each week, they were building content knowledge and resources they could use to answer our compelling question. Students had a choice in how they answered their final compelling question, as long as they presented a valid, evidence-based argument, and a rubric helped guide them as to what should be included in that product. A few created google slides. Some others created brochures advertising how living in Charlotte, NC would be a different experience for people thinking of moving here from other places. One simply wrote an argumentative essay in which she cited all the material she had learned over the past few weeks, neatly recorded in her social studies journal throughout the supporting question work.

I know I will still make calendars, I will still plan for things to go “my way…” I will still look for templates to fit my plans into….it’s like I believe if everything is neat and organized, my students will surely follow suit. But after this experience, I am more inclined now to think about how a template or structure can be the floor, and not the ceiling.