A colleague and I got our classes together today to watch and respond to a variety of media texts today in preparation for Day of Pink. First, we asked students to share what they already knew about this particular day, and then we watched a video summarizing the Canadian story:
I was first introduced to the "single story" concept when I was shown Ngozi Adichie's Ted Talk at a diversity course I was taking a few years ago. What affected me most poignantly was how this articulate, well-educated black woman who had grown up on the continent of Africa had -- as a child -- developed a schema of fairy tales being about white girls who ate apples, a fruit she had never seen in her native Nigeria.
So, a few months ago, a colleague and I met with our instructional coach to map out a framework for a full class Inquiry. Using the Social Studies curriculum as our base, we decided to inquire into whether or not Canada was/is a Fair and Just Society. Here is what has transpired in my own classroom...
For my new friends in Ottawa who attended this morning's workshop -- here are the materials from the session, as requested and as promised:
Thank you for your engaged, passionate participation. I really enjoyed our time together this morning, and look forward to hearing tales of your great work with students across the Ottawa-Carlton region!
Guest Blog Post by Katherine Arbuthnot, Grade 6 Sci-Tech Teacher
EDITOR'S NOTE: Over the past few months, I have had the privilege of working with a Grade 6 colleague (Katherine Arbuthnot) from the Sci-Tech program at my school; together with our instructional coach (Lise Grimwood), we developed an Inquiry grounded in the Grade 6 Social Studies Curriculum, and drawing in Literacy, Drama and a host of other curricular areas and Learning Skills.
Recently, I coerced Katherine into sharing some reflections on her experiences with the Inquiry process. (Her class began a few weeks earlier than mine, and we are learning from their work!) As I am on Step 10 of Report Card writing, I decided that today would be the day to finally edit her comments and post them.
This post is lengthy, but totally authentic -- I've done only minimal editing, in order to preserve teacher voice. We hope it will inspire you -- if you've not already begun -- to explore Inquiry learning in your own classroom! ~ V. Teschow
Every year I set a goal for myself to improve my teaching. Sometimes the goal is selfish and motivated by personal gain, like reducing the number of hours outside of school spent assessing student products, and sometimes the goal is motivated by a desire to improve a particular facet of student learning.
This year the goal was both…I wanted to merge my Language Arts and Social Studies programs, thereby reducing my assessment workload, AND I wanted to improve student learning by focusing on the inquiry process. I wanted to cover the strands of Language Arts (reading, writing, etc.) through the Social Studies lens of “Is Canada a fair and just country?”.
My hope was that I would reduce the volume of “marking” that I always seem to have, and promote the skills of inquiry in my classroom.
Step One: Get Support!
I have been doing inquiry learning in my classroom for a few years and I knew that this new project was too big for me to broach on my own, so I contacted my Instructional Coach, Lise, and a fellow grade 6 teacher, Vera, for help.
Together we created collaborative learning centres that focused on different communities within Canada (Indigenous Canadians, LGBTQ Canadians, Black Canadians, Female Canadians, Chinese Canadians, Japanese Canadians, and South Asian Canadians). We chose these particular communities to reflect the diversity of our classrooms, the curriculum itself, and because these groups have experienced marginalization in some way.
Our vision was to provide students with a variety of resources with which they could begin to formulate an answer to our overarching question, “Is Canada fair and just?”
In hindsight, I realize that there were many communities that we did not include, that should have been reflected in our learning centres (e.g., Differently Abled Canadians).
How Much is "Enough"?
In preparing these learning centres and trying to compile a variety of resources (video, websites, news articles, books, etc.), I came to the conclusion that I could probably have spent years just sourcing information about the topic, but I had to say “no more”.
I also realized that through vetting each of the sources, I myself learned a ton of information about each of these communities.
So, after a month or so, we had together created six beautiful, glossy learning centres for our students housed in brand new bins; graphic organizers on which students could record their thinking; and an extensive assessment form on which to record our observations of student learning.
Handing it off to the Students
I have to admit when I looked at those bins that represented our learning journey as teachers, I was a little worried about putting our work into the hands of students who may (or may not) treat the resources with the respect that I felt they deserved.
This worry was short-lived as I watched the students dive into the resources with curiosity and enthusiasm. Who cared if the pages ripped...they were engaged and learning! They were reading, asking questions, having conversations and debating the merits of the resources provided (one student wondered, “Why is the book Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged in the Female Canadian station?).
My students spent twelve, forty-minute periods perusing the materials we provided for them. Each student was able to visit three different learning centres.
I assigned them the first centre, and they were given choice for the second two centres. During this time, my instructional coach and I watched the students and engaged them in conversations, recording our observations of the skills and thinking demonstrated.
Tracking Student Learning
I quickly discovered that our extensive assessment form, co-created prior to the beginning of the inquiry, was almost useless.
We had selected a variety of curriculum expectations as “look fors” and although these points were important, some of them, like “summarizes key information from videos”, were difficult to observe without directly comparing student graphic organizers to the videos (which would not have met my goal of reducing my “marking”!), and some students didn’t even watch videos at all, choosing instead to focus their time on reading books and articles.
I found myself making use of the “notes” section of our assessment form to record what students were saying, what critical thinking skills they were employing (or not employing), and how effectively they were collaborating with one another as they worked together at the various stations.
Supporting Student Thinking
I knew in advance of beginning these learning centres that students were going to need a lot of support in terms of selecting main ideas, identifying key vocabulary, developing questions, and making connections between topics and to big ideas (Charter of Rights and Freedoms, UN declaration of Human Rights)… I just didn’t realize how much support they would need!
I felt incredibly overwhelmed by all that I needed to do to support the growth of the students: I had to teach them critical thinking skills like determining relevancy and importance of historical facts. I had to teach them how to create higher order-thinking questions. I had to teach them how to read complex texts and use fix-up strategies to overcome obstacles in their reading. The list of all the things I needed to teach them could go on forever.
So much for trying to reduce my workload! And thank goodness for Twitter, Pintrest, and Google…because of the vast professional learning community present on the World Wide Web, I was able to find some solid teaching strategies and activities to address these student needs. I even turned to colleagues at my school who were not involved with this inquiry for help, and so “Q-Chart Battleship” was born.
RAN Bulletin Board
One of the strategies that I felt most beneficial for both the students and myself, was the use of RAN (Reading and Analysing Non-Fiction Strategy).
Now, I have to admit that over the course of my career, I have often attempted to use similar charts to help students track their own learning, but I always failed to follow through. Take the KWL Chart as an example. I was always great at getting students to fill out what they knew on the chart as a primer to a lesson, a way to activate that prior knowledge that we as educators know is important for students to access in order for new learning to take place.
Getting students to jot down what they wondered was a little more difficult because sometimes, they didn’t know what they didn’t know.
I always started out with the greatest of intentions of using the KWL chart to be able to show students how much they had learned over the course of the unit, but if I’m being perfectly honest, I’m not sure that I’ve ever gone back and had students fill out the “Learned” section of the chart.
So when Vera first proposed the use of RAN, I hesitantly agreed to give it a go. I was overwhelmed by the number of sections on the chart (What we think we know, What we wonder, What we learned, What we couldn’t prove and/or misconceptions, What we still wonder)…if I couldn’t follow through with a KWL Chart, what was I going to do with RAN…and how would it even fit on a piece of paper???
I came up with a solution. I used a large bulletin board in an open space of our school. I thought, if I put this up in this public space, I will feel obligated to use it and by using the bulletin board, the chart became a collaborative document of our learning. Also, because the space in which this bulletin board is housed must be signed out for use, I had to commit to using the space, thereby “forcing” me to make time in my schedule to reflect on our learning journey.
I told the students that I was the “gatekeeper” of the board, anything that was going up on the board had to go through me first; in this way, I was able to monitor the quality of the contributions made to the board, and give differentiated feedback to students along the way.
By sharing their learning with one another, students were able to hear about topics that they themselves didn’t have the opportunity to investigate, correct misconceptions, and develop questions for further inquiry.
Independent Inquiry: Taking Differentiation One Step Further
After the collaborative inquiry learning centres, students were encouraged to choose a topic that they would be interested in pursuing further. Although the independent portion of the inquiry did not need to be focused on one of the communities already studied, it did have to relate to our overarching question, “Is Canada fair and just?”
Even though we had spent a lot of time working on how to develop good questions, Lise and I still had to spend a lot of time conferencing with students one-on-one to help them develop inquiry questions that were thoughtful, relevant, and connected to the ideas of fairness and equity. It took about three periods for us to make sure that everyone had a quality question.
When I look at a list of the questions they created, I am astounded by the thoughtfulness and insight of my grade six students.
They were asking questions like, "What do LGBTQ Canadians feel is being (or can be) done to create equality in Canada?" or, "Why were Residential Schools a good idea in the minds of Canadians of the past, and what do they think of their idea now?".
Could They Succeed?
Once their questions were selected, I started to worry that I as setting my students up for failure. How could eleven- and twelve-year-olds try to answer questions that are so complex, when educated adults would have difficulty?
I was worried that they wouldn't find enough relevant information, I was worried that the information they did find would be outside their "zone of proximal development", I was worried that they wouldn't have the grit to persevere with a long term, difficult task and wade through the quagmire that is the internet.
Although my students found it difficult, they did persist with the investigation into their questions. Along the way, they needed a lot of support from me and I spent most of my days walking around the classroom helping students figure out the best way to do a Google Search (No, you can't just put your question into the search bar and expect an answer), reminding students to use criteria for judgement to determine the credibility of a source (just because it's on the internet doesn't make it true), and asking prompting questions like, "Is there a different perspective?", in hopes that they would delve more deeply into their topic.
It Won't Be Perfect Every Day
Inevitably there were days when I just didn't have it in me to be "on", and it was a struggle to conference with just a few students, and there were other days that my FitBit told me I'd logged 10,000 steps before lunch!
The whole process was utterly, undeniably exhausting...and awesome!
When the students starting sharing with me their inquiry reflections, I was amazed at their journey. Students who had once not known what Residential Schools were began to recognize their long-term impacts and the responsibility of all Canadians to right that wrong. Students who had not once known the about racist policies of governments past (e.g., Chinese Head Tax) were able to identify the importance of not sweeping such dark days of history under the rug, but instead bringing them to light and learning from them so as not to make the same xenophobic mistakes again (cue images of Syrian refugees arriving at Canadian airports). Students who had once not known for what the acronym LGBTQ stood, were wanting to make documentaries about what the government is doing to support equity for the LGBTQ community. The journeys were varied in depth and breadth, but there is no doubt in my mind that each student made a journey.
One's Student's Journey
One student in particular comes to mind: Sirob. Sirob began his journey wondering why LGBTQ people were different from "normal" people. (He was at the LGBTQ Canadian learning centre with a few of his peers when this statement was made.)
The group and I had a discussion about the word "normal", and what it might mean or imply in this context.
I struggled with how to have this conversation: I needed him to understand that by saying heterosexuals were "normal", he was implying that all others were "abnormal" and as such, it was not appropriate to use the word in our inclusive classroom. At the same time, I didn't want to shut him down because I could see that he was genuinely trying to understand something for which he had so little (or such conflicting) schema.
I felt like I was walking a high wire tightrope...step too far to the right and misconceptions go unchallenged, step too far to the left and a student feels that my class is not a safe place for taking risks...either way, the results are disastrous!
This feeling is something I encountered over and over again throughout this inquiry. I was constantly second guessing the words that were coming out of my mouth.
I'm sure that with some students I missed my footing on that high wire, but with Sirob, balance was maintained. He continued on his journey and even reached out to his community. He interviewed people who identified as being a part of the LGBTQ community with the intention of creating a documentary. I had the opportunity to sit in on one of his interviews and was nearly brought to tears. Sirob was articulate, respectful, and able to bring a lot of knowledge to the conversation about equity for the LGBTQ community.
Assessment "How-To": A Few More Thoughts
If you were to stop reading here, inquiry sounds great, and it is, but it doesn’t come without its obstacles.
One such obstacle was monitoring student progress, especially during the month-long independent portion of the unit.
With 28 students per class, and only 40 - 80 minutes per day in which to provide feedback, I sometimes found it difficult to get around to every student. As a result, there were some days when I didn't even get to speak to every child.
I also found that students who were vocal and advocated for themselves took up much more of my time than those who waited for me to come to them. I started using a class list to keep track of whom I had spoken to and whom I had not (seems pretty logical, but with all the other planning, it was something we had overlooked).
I created an "Inquiry Process Checklist" to make sure that I was giving feedback on each stage of the inquiry process, hoping that specific feedback on the process would help students to engage more deeply in each stage.
Because the students were so intensively involved with our work around this inquiry, I was constantly on e-mail after school hours reading work students had shared with me and providing additional feedback. I'm pretty sure that my goal of lessening my workload was put out to pasture. I am by nature a workaholic, and I found that with this inquiry, creating a balance between work and life became even more difficult.
Everyday, I felt that I was making withdrawals from my energy bank account, but, every time I was tired, exhausted, and thought I had nothing left, a student would share something with me that would be so profound that it was like making a deposit of energy into that very same account.
My point is this: inquiry is hard...really hard...for everyone. It's hard for the teachers to manage; it's hard for the students to navigate. But in the end, all my students have progressed, each in their own way, as evidenced by the development of the inclusive and inquisitive nature of their language, and the growth mindset most of them demonstrated over time. Some journeys were short and some were long, but everyone, including me, made a journey, and isn't that the point of learning?
This is the question my Grade 6 students have set out to answer.
After 90 hours of pouring over the Social Studies, Language and Drama curriculum documents together, a colleague and I, together with our instructional coach, have collaboratively "planned" (insomuch as one can plan such things) our first major, integrated inquiry of the year.
Push and Pull Factors
We began by considering push and pull factors through a dramatic exploration of Ghost Train, a picture book that details a young girl's journey from China to North America in the 1800s to follow her father who has left China to go and work on the railroads in an effort to lift his family out of poverty. This book opened the conversation to equity and immigration, and equity in the broader sense, in terms of how different people groups are treated in Canada, both historically and currently. (We wanted to support students in considering a bigger, broader, deeper picture of Canada than the gentle yet considerably more superficial ones presented by social media examples like this.)
My colleague in the other building had begun with the unit a bit earlier, and we went on a "field trip" to visit her massive "RAN chart" as inspiration a few weeks ago.
My students had been very impressed with the sheer size of the bulletin board their peers in the other class had set up, and marveled at the number of stickies the students had added to their chart over the course of several weeks. So when the opportunity arose to create our own "what we think we know" to "what we found out" and "what we're still wondering about" bulletin board, they were eager to get started with adding their own ideas.
This morning, our school's instructional coach came in to model how one might begin to collect "evidence" to begin to answer the "is Canada a fair and just society" question. She talked about the recent federal election, and about Trudeau's decision to create a cabinet that was comprised of half women and half men.
"Seems fair", she commented, and wrote that bit of "evidence" up on the board. But then she told the class about how some people were not impressed with the lack of diversity in the cabinet, and added another comment to the board.
Next, students were invited to think about the story of the Chinese railway workers (while reading Ghost Train, we had also learned that these workers had been paid only half of what the non-Chinese workers were paid, and also, that there had been a "head tax" on their entry into Canada), or about other people groups in Canada, and come up with their own "what I think I know" statement.
Students wrote their ideas on Sticky notes, and added them to the first column of our RAN chart out in the hall, on the bulletin board.
Next, it was time to begin the part of our unit that I had been waiting for: "Inquiry Centers"!
My colleagues and I had spent the vast majority of our after school planning sessions brainstorming and putting together seven centers, to represent different parts of Canadian society. Everything from Women in Canada, to The Experience of Black Canadians and The LGBTQ Canadian Experience had been considered. There was a center about the Experiences of FNMI Canadians, and another one for South Asian Canadians.
Each center included a stand-up menu board listing the resources at that station, and a tub containing said resources: Carefully curated books, maps, laminated infographics, photos, newspaper articles, timelines, etc. At each center, there was also a laptop or some other device, dialed in to a "padlet", on which we had already collected an assortment of relevant videos, articles and images from the internet. Rather than hours of searching, students merely needed to click on any of the resources posted on the padlet.
Truly, we had created a multi-media smorgasboard for our classes to feast their minds at!
What do Do?
While students immersed themselves in the centers, they were to gather and record key vocabulary, interesting or surprising facts, and outstanding questions on a graphic organizer we provided for them.
We teachers, meanwhile, were on hand to provide guidance, and to gather assessment data via observation and anecdotal evidence. Our handy dandy tracking sheet (which soon evolved into a Google form, so that multiple teachers could record observations on the same class) provided us with information in three areas: Social Studies, Language Arts (Reading and Oral Language) and several Learning Skills!
Initially, we began with a Jigsaw, sending one person from each group of four to one of the stations for half an hour and then giving "home groups" time to share a little bit about where each student had been. Most students agreed that they wanted time to return to their current station before moving on to another one (along with an additional graphic organizer on which to record their discoveries there).
Assessment Drives Instruction
After a little more reading/exploring time, we were initially going to teach a mini-lesson on effective question building, using the Q-chart. However, within minutes we noticed that students -- while in most cases highly engaged -- were in waaaay over their heads when it came to reading level!
Even deconstructing the images and videos was proving a challenge for many, and my instructional coach and I spent much of our time wandering around debunking misunderstandings and erroneous thinking, and encouraging students to consider if what they were writing made sense (one example that stands out for me is a student who wrote about Prime Minister Harper's apology for turning away a refugee boat from India in 1914. Until I asked her whether her resultant inference made sense, time/math-wise, she marveled at how long Harper had been PM!!!)
So we decided to throw the questions lesson out the window (for now), and instead co-teach a modeled lesson on reading comprehension: Tomorrow my instructional coach will think aloud as she explores the materials at one of the centers, and I will pause/freeze her and engage the students in a meta-cognitive discussion that we hope will accomplish three things:
Down the Road
Although we're just beginning with this unit (and are now about to be interrupted by two weeks of winter break), I am excited about the journey and its anticipated culmination.
As teachers planning this unit, we've discussed possible culminating tasks; after some Structured Academic Controversy or an EBS "debate", students might create a new song about Canada. They might write an ABC book about Canada for the 21 Century, or perhaps they will create the center that we lately and ashamedly realised that we ourselves had forgotten to create: Accessibility in Canada. Or perhaps they will come up with some sort of inquiry question of their own that they want to seek an answer to, or a problem they want to work at solving.
Based on what my colleague in the other class told me, these next few weeks will stretch my students in new ways; their thinking will be challenged, and many will be called to wrestle with assumptions and -- in some cases -- deeply held beliefs and ingrained prejudices.
I am hopeful that over the course of this inquiry, my class will glean a bigger, more fulsome picture of Canada, of our history and our current fabric, of our collective desire for equity and social justice, and of our need to constantly revisit its definition and consider whether we are meeting our lofty goals as Canadians.
I'm keen to watch my students become more engaged and personally powerful citizens as they consider their own role within the context of Canadian society in the century ahead.
Ahhh, the joys of retirement on the horizon!
One of the advantages of being a little older is that one can REALLY say what one thinks, with considerably less concern for the professional consequences than one might have had in ones youth.... We got quite a tongue-lashing at church today from our pastor, who is a short time from retirement.
His beef today was with the response of Canadians--including some from within our congregation--to Muslims in general and Muslim refugees in particular, many of them co-victims of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris.
Our discussions about "those" people -- both online and IRL--were often fear based and disrespectful, he pointed out, as he recounted some of the embarrassingly negative commentary he'd been hearing through the rumour mill and reading online in social media across Canada.
"We should not be slowing down our welcome to refugees in this country because of our fear of the people whom they, too, are fleeing." He admonished us. After all, one would surmise that the thousands of Syrians currently on the move are at least as traumatized by terrorism as is the west. They are coming to us for help, not to be feared and discriminated against!
In particular, Rev. Hawkes (who recently published a Ted Talk) admonished those in the congregation who have historically been biased against refugees because they only come once a month and do not "stay" with our church after they gain official refugee status. "Some will choose to stay and become bridge builders with us", noted Hawkes, "Others will simply cross the bridge here and move on in their journey."
He encouraged us to take up the challenge of offering a warm, welcoming place of peace and recovery to those who need it, whether they originate here or come from away. Whether people come sometimes or often, whether they stay for a short time or join the community on a more long term basis, "all are welcome" means, just that. And, we ought to remember that moto of our church as we think carefully what we write in social media.
Hawkes' message was well-received by many in the congregation. Hopefully his admonishment will encourage those of us who needed it to work towards overcoming our fears, and return to modeling the welcoming ways that attracted us to the community when we needed a warm, non-judgmental welcome!
The rainy weather and various "alternate plans/commitment" could not deter our enjoyment of this spectacular time of year.
More aware this year than any previous year of the systemic oppression imposed on those who do not conform to the norm, and having experienced first hand that "equality in law is not equality in practice", I was especially looking forward to leaving behind a rather disappointing school year and embracing this weekend, when it is not only "okay to be gay", but when in fact one's gender creativity and sexual identity is celebrated and encouraged.
So, I joined my aviation colleagues on Friday evening at the post-booth-set-up party. My partner had been helping to set up the Aviation Pride booth, and I met her downtown afterwards to have a few drinks and staff the booth for the Friday evening crowd which was large and celebratory... and lucky, since that was the only part of the weekend when it wasn't pouring rain!!!
We laughed and joked with flight attendants, crew schedulers and other pilots in the group, as well as reaching out to and making connections with those who passed by the booth. It was a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed the evening. (Tats did, too, as evidenced by this photo snapped mid-street-dance on our way back to the subway!)
The next morning, Alex joined us, and we headed back downtown. Bedecked in a colourful shirt and his rainbow airplane necklace, he was joining Tats for a soggy two-hour shift in the rain at the Aviation booth while I headed over to put in a few hours at the equally dripping ETFO booth, where I reconnected with a musician whom I had not seen or spoken with in nearly 20 years!!! (Turns out he is a teacher now, too (Kindergarten), and a darned good one, based on my observations during our time together on Saturday.)
After our shifts, we forwent the Dyke march and picked up a rainbow cake at the Village Loblaws before heading back to the west end to bring Alex to an end-of-year party hosted by one of his friends from school. But not before pausing in our rain jackets and soaked shoes to snap a photo at the Lucky Charms picture booth!
Sunday's parade was also missed, unfortunately, as we had to take Simon up to camp -- his first year of overnight camp! He and Alex bid a silly, huggy good-bye to one another in the lobby of our building before Simon, Tats, Vinx and I piled into Vinx' vehicle for the 2 hour ride up north. (Alex hung out with his dad for the day; he's decided on an alternative, self-directed camp week with a family friend while his brother is away dancing with the mosquitoes and canoeing in the Kawarthas.)
Simon having passed the camp's mandatory head lice check, I hugged my baby good-bye and walked back to the parking lot with Vinx and Tats. I shed a few tears, and then hopped back into the Van where I promptly pulled up the latest on the missed Parade on my iPhone, and eagerly read about Pussy Riot, Cindi Lauper and others who were headlining this year's event.
Pride weekend is the time of year when I am perhaps one of the more conservative people in the crowd, and it is a weekend I have grown to relish not just for social and entertainment reasons, but for the equity it promotes and the social justice it insists on. The celebration of Toronto's LGBTQ community for me symbolizes the rainbow of people with whom I share this planet. I love being amidst the great diversity of young and old, male, female and everything in between and outside of that binary, and the cultural milieu that descends upon Church/Wellesley and the surrounding area to experience first hand what inclusion can really feel like!
In celebration of Ireland's YES vote, I thought I'd post a few pics of the beaver we've seen recently paddling along the shore here in Mimico. She seems to enjoy coming to munch on the tender greens on the little island near our apartment before heading back "home" near the park by the EYC.
After writing for several teacher and multiple birth publications, including ETFO's Voice Magazine, Multiple Moments, and the Bulletwin, Vera now focuses most of her written attention to prolific blogging, including BiB, "Learn to Fly with Vera!" and, more recently, SMARTbansho and Homeschooling 4. Contact Vera by clicking the photo above.
The views expressed on this blog are the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of her family members or the position of her employer on the the issues she blogs about. These posts are intended to share resources, document family life, and encourage critical thought on a variety of subjects. They are not intended to cause harm to any individual or member of any group. By reading this blog and viewing this site, you agree to not hold Vera liable for any harm done by views expressed in this blog.