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Planning Less, Learning More

I remember very well a vocabulary unit I had planned. I had gathered all kinds of interesting information about words, including how words are added to the language, how their usage changes over time, and so on. I enjoyed every minute of my research and couldn’t wait to share my findings with the students. Unfortunately, they didn’t share in my enthusiasm, no matter what I tried. I might just as well have given them a list of ten words and told them to define each one and use it in a sentence.

I was…just another textbook.…

Why didn’t they share in my enthusiasm? Why weren’t they curious about the words they use? I didn’t have any meaningful answers at the time (so many years ago), but I do now. Everything in the unit came from me. I was, in a sense, just another textbook, presenting a set of facts and details for students to learn. When instruction becomes too teacher-directed or too curriculum-directed, most students will either passively follow along, or they will simply tune out. This is especially true for middle-school and high-school students, who are ready for more direct involvement in the development of the coursework.

In a recent entry, “That’s a Good Question: Critical-Thinking Strategies to Promote Inquiry,” I made reference to Matthew Kay’s essay about the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. According to Kay, the school has created a wonderful learning environment in which teachers and students build the curriculum together based on asking questions (the inquiry approach). Students feel such ownership in the academy that they’re never in a hurry to leave at the end of a school day, even on a Friday afternoon.

This week I found another resource, “Exploring Inquiry as a Teaching Stance in the Writing Workshop,” from NCTE, dealing with the inquiry approach. In the article, Katie Wood Ray explains how shared inquiry changes the teacher-learner dynamic because (1) instruction is far less teacher-directed and (2) the curriculum becomes far more organic, a result of questioning and exploring. Ray points out that the inquiry approach “repositions the curriculum as the outcome of instruction rather than as the starting point.” Naturally students are more involved and more interested in such a process.

So how might you use this approach in your writing classes? Here are two things that you can do immediately:

  1. Turn your classroom into a writing workshop—a method of instruction that gives students more ownership of their work than they would have in a traditional classroom. The freedom that is associated with a workshop appeals to students and connects them more meaningfully to the coursework.
  2. Approach the curriculum inductively—as the end result of shared inquiry by you and your students. Working in this way will give students more say in their learning.

Shared Inquiry in Action

In Ray’s article, she describes the following study in a fifth-grade writing workshop. The teacher brought in 14 op/ed pieces by Leonard Pitts and Rich Reilly, both popular writers. The first step was to get everyone to read and to know the pieces. Then the class did a closer study of the texts through shared inquiry, and in the process, created a list of key features exhibited in the writing. The students, empowered by their discoveries, were then ready and eager to write their own op/ed pieces. With this project, the teacher didn’t decide beforehand what had to be learned about op/ed writing; rather, she let that evolve during the shared reading and questioning.

Another Idea

In a graduate linguistic class (again, many years ago), I remember one student, who was a teacher herself, asking how she could use linguistics to help her high school students understand grammar. The instructor thought awhile and came up with this idea, an immersion of sorts: She said to think of a point of grammar—say, subject-verb agreement with indefinite pronouns. Next, provide students with a list of sentences containing indefinite pronouns used as subjects. Then using shared inquiry, determine what is happening in these sentences, what patterns seem apparent. List the students’ observations on the board, and from this list, come to an agreement on a rule or standard for the concept. This seems like a wonderful way to approach grammar because it’s based directly on the students’ input and observations.

That was then; this is now: If I were planning a vocabulary unit today, I would follow my linguistic instructor’s advice and simply start with a few lists of words. Then through shared inquiry, my students and I would see what discoveries we could make about the words. This is a much simpler approach, requiring much less planning on my part, but one that would have been far more meaningful to the students—and far more satisfying to me.

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