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.
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.
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!
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:
- Students will slow down while exploring, and pause to recount to themselves what they have read, viewed and are thinking about
- They will notice when something doesn't make sense, and will stop to self-correct
- Students will acquire and be able to apply some strategies for comprehension, such as going back to re-read or review a section, or reading ahead to see if there is more information to clarify, or stopping to think about what they already know or have heard about this topic and perhaps make a connection, or -- ultimately -- if the text is too difficult, boring or irrelevant, abandon it and find a more suitable text at the station from which to learn.
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.