“But should people be free,” the teacher asked? “Remember, this is what I wanted you to think about throughout the Cornerstones.” I saw several students’ hands in the air as I sat in the back of Mr. Ramsey’s 8th grade U.S. history class at Cardozo education campus in northeast D.C .
“Of course, Mr. Ramsey. People should be free. That’s why we broke away from Britain. They were unfairly ruling us with their taxes and laws.”
Another student chimed in, “If people aren’t free, then aren’t they just slaves?”
At this Mr. Ramsey paused. “Well, what does it mean to be free? We just finished a simulation where you were completely free and had to figure out what to do. Jason, I remember you were concerned there were no police to enforce laws or protect your safety, or groups to make sure we had electricity and water. What did that ‘freedom’ feel like?”
Jason responded, “But that is different. Maybe we need to be free and not be slaves, but not all the way free.”
Several students started chiming in, “What do you mean all the way free. Either we are free or we aren’t,” and “Hey I was okay just chillin’ by myself. I don’t need police.”
Mr. Ramsey saw his opportunity to extend the students’ inquiry. His initial question got them thinking and how the students had taken over. “So we are not in agreement on what freedom is,” he says. The students continued to chorus disagreement and it seemed a lively debate might ensue, but Mr. Ramsey had other ideas. “Everyone take 5 minutes, right now and write on your Unit Organizer what you think freedom is. Give one or two examples. No right or wrong, just your own viewpoint, with an example. Don’t forget to put today’s date!”
The students started writing and the room quieted. Mr. Ramsey walked around to ensure they all had the date on their paper. When it was clear that most students were finished, Mr. Ramsey said, “So let’s hold on to what we think freedom is and see what our founders thought it was.” At this Mr. Ramsey passes out copies of the Declaration of Independence.
I am excited to visit Mr. Ramsey’s classroom in a few days to see where their inquiry has led them in their understanding of what freedom is. As the social studies curriculum manager for DC public schools, I have the pleasure of seeing teachers in their classrooms implement our written curriculum, that they helped write, and usher in new practices in their teaching. One such practice, as supported by the C3 Framework calls for inquiry based learning and in DCPS we have worked with teachers around open and closed inquiry practices as well as sparking and sustaining inquiry.
Mr. Ramsey sparked inquiry by allowing students to experience freedom first in his classroom simulation. There are numerous ways inquiry can be sparked and we have incorporated many examples into our written curriculum including Question Formulation Technique (QFT), simulations and deep dives into current events, to name a few. It is fun to watch the spark ignite, but sustaining inquiry is another challenge. What is needed to sustain inquiry is time and space for the question to grow with the students. It takes a careful attunement of the teacher to the students’ concept formation along the way to sustain their curiosity and anchor it back to the compelling question.
Sustaining the inquiry gives the students’ learning a higher purpose, especially if they are allowed to change their minds and create new knowledge and understandings along the way. Teachers must make time in their classes to allow for this type of learning, and give students the space to add to and develop their own understanding of the big questions we ask them to consider. Mr. Ramsey did this by having the students return to the question each day and charting how their opinions and ideas change over time, as they learned more and more about the American Revolution. They continued to build their concept of freedom and what it means in different contexts. This is what curriculum specialists and pedagogy scholars mean when they talk about teaching for transfer, for this new understanding of a concept is what students will bring to bear in other contexts in the future.
A few weeks later I visit Paul Howard’s 7th grade Ancient History class and see evidence of the space he has created for sustaining inquiry. At the end of the lesson after students had acted out laws from Hammurabi’s code, he redirected the students back to the question on his wall, “What makes a fair and just ruler?” to which students responded orally and with thumbs up and down through several questions related to the laws. This too is clearly an inquiry classroom as students’ learning is tethered to larger questions that remain with them. And this is how we do C3 in DC.