As a pre-service teacher, creating your first inquiry can be quite intimidating. However, getting the opportunity to implement it makes it all worth it. After months of writing and refining the inquiry, using the Inquiry Design Model Blueprint, I was one of two students from my graduate program, who was able to implement it in the classroom. After creating and teaching my inquiry, I learned more about the process and also about myself as a teacher.
The compelling question of my inquiry is “Should We Keep the Electoral College?” This is not a new question, but it is a highly-debated topic on both sides of the aisle, and has been for quite a while. The debate has been refueled by the results of the 2016 election. Because of this, I wanted to build on students’ prior knowledge of the topic, hoping that these recent events would help spark their interest. I was lucky enough to have a cooperating teacher who had full trust and confidence in allowing me to implement my inquiry in her classroom. Looking at my inquiry and thinking about the two ninth grade government classes we had, I knew that I could not just hand them primary sources such as the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers from the 1700’s without scaffolds. Even as a graduate student, I sometimes must read primary sources two to three times to get their main ideas. I knew that I could not hand the same material to freshman and expect them to easily identify all the main ideas right away!
To get this material “freshman-ready”, I excerpted most of the documents and decided not to use some of the original sources. As Carly Muetterties said to me as she was giving me advice about implementing my inquiry, the original inquiry is just an instructional guide. You do not have to follow it word for word. Every class is different, so we have to always be adapting our curriculum. Even though it was my own work, I had to make tough decisions about what questions and sources to use and what aspects were not necessary—or may even hinder students’ progression through the inquiry. I had spent two weeks preparing for this lesson by making a presentation to guide the class through the different steps. I excerpted the sources to make sure I was not overwhelming the students with pages and pages of primary sources. I only wanted to give them the main points they needed in order to address the supporting and compelling questions. After excerpting the sources, I went through and annotated them. Some of the sources had words that I did not even know the meaning of! I defined those words and ideas in parentheses that I thought would be difficult for the students. I also created worksheets to go along with the sources and the steps of the inquiry. Though these sources are still difficult, providing these scaffolds made them much more accessible to my students.
Since my school placement is on a block schedule, I would see one government class one day, and then the other government class the next. This meant that I would be able to try it out with one class, then revise my plans for the second class. The first day that I taught my inquiry, I did it with the government class that my cooperating teacher and I agreed would better take on the inquiry’s exercises. To start my lesson, I simply asked the students what they knew about the Electoral College and had them shout answers out as I wrote their responses on the board. Then I had the students write on their worksheet their initial answer to my compelling question: “should we keep the electoral college?” All I was looking for was a yes or no and why. Then we completed the staging component by showing a video called The Electoral College 101. The students really got into it! They began rooting for the two choices in the video’s mock election. I put them in groups, gave them source packets, and guiding worksheets. We were ready to start “investigating” both sides of the argument to my compelling question. First, I gave some background information to the students about who the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists were, as well as what values or principles they stood for. Then I had them start by reading the Federalist Papers #68. They started reading, but within the first couple minutes, I noticed that it was not going well. I got the class’ attention and asked them what main points they pulled from the piece. Though they had missed some of the points I wanted them to find, this whole class discussion allowed us to be on the same page. I wanted them to consider the initial arguments for why the Electoral College should and should not have been created. We moved on, step-by-step, comparing the sources to each other. Our inquiry continued into an analysis using Electoral College maps. However, I was still having trouble helping students connect all the sources together and understanding how they connected to the compelling question. Though they were initially interested, their participation in discussion was waning. I knew that I had to alter some parts of the inquiry before teaching it to the next class.
The next day, with the collaborative class, instead of teaching my inquiry, I taught my cooperating teacher’s lesson using a PowerPoint, article, and worksheet. When I started the PowerPoint, the class was much more engaged than my previous class. It really had me reconsider my decision about not doing the inquiry with them too. My students were initiating discussions based on a lot of prior knowledge that I did not even consider. They brought a lot to the lesson that day. Because of this, after the lesson I told my cooperating teacher that I believed this class would really do well with the inquiry. She told me to go for it!
After teaching this lesson the first time, I edited the lesson, in consideration of what went wrong and what I needed to change. I decided to not put the students in groups this time. I wanted them to work individually and then we would discuss it together as a group. I also eliminated some parts of the writing and instead used the taking informed action task to keep them engaged and emphasize the relevancy. I edited my lesson based on my students, as well as based on my new experiences teaching with inquiry.
Beginning my lesson for the second time, I immediately noticed how the changes I made had a big impact on student engagement. Students recognized that the Federalist Paper we studied was written by Alexander Hamilton, which made them even more engaged in the lesson because several of them were big fans of the Broadway play, Hamilton. The discussion we had about the sources was great. When we started the taking informed action task, which asked students to pretend that the United States was having an election where voters were deciding whether or not we should keep the Electoral College. The students had to state their position and create a political advertisement poster to try to sway voters towards their position, including evidence why. The students absolutely loved it. They were drawing cartoons of political figures, and coming up with catch phrases. When they began to work on their task, students asked me to play music from the play Hamilton. I gladly agreed, and I was extremely happy because my students had connected past ideas of some of our founding fathers like Hamilton, to the questions we still have today about whether or not the Electoral College is working the way in which it was intended, but also considering whether it should still exist.
I was so proud that the inquiry I had worked so hard on was clicking with my students. Nothing means more to a teacher than that. I learned that no matter how long I spent creating a lesson, actually teaching it illuminates all the ways I can improve it. I also learned that any type of student can handle an inquiry-based lesson. You must get to know what works for each of your classes and students and tweak the lesson accordingly. As a pre-service teacher, it made me motivated to continue to challenge my students with lessons like inquiries, both as I finish my student teaching and when I get my own classroom.