Saturday, March 22, 2014

Ancient Civilization

Our grade 4/5 students are exploring Ancient Civilizations! To get started, we spent time building background knowledge. This of course, develops interest and curiosity for our topic. Pete modelled a lesson, teaching them how to skim for information. The students worked in groups, we provided reading material, gave them post-it notes to jot info, then gave them a chart paper to post their findings and their questions.

Following this step, students shared their findings and questions with the class. We took note of questions and corrected misconceptions. The charts were filled with student questions, this provided us with ideas to develop work stations for our unit.  We were surprised to discover that many of the students wanted to know about food!

Stay tuned, more to follow! 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Organizing for Inquiry Learning!

In my previous blog (here),  I wrote about our daily schedule and explained the day in the life of our inquiry-based classroom.

This post, outlines how we get started with an inquiry and how we organize the workstation block.
First, we spend up to two days building background knowledge, interest and curiosity around the content area that we will be exploring. During this time, the class builds a bank of questions and a list of vocabulary words that are connected to the topic.

Next, teachers create activity cards that are built around the questions and interests that the students showed during the background knowledge building.  These activity cards are designed to be open-ended and to allow for creativity.  The students are provided with a large block of time to complete the activity with the goal to present at the end of the day. 

The following chart is an example of how the groups (4 to 5 students per group) rotate through the stations. For this unit, we let the students pick their team members, then they picked a name connected to our topic.

The list below is a summary of the activities we used for this unit.  More information about this unit can be found on our website - - Take a look under the Social Studies Lessons tab.

 1.  Dream Catchers.  Create a dream catcher, research its origins, and write a poem.  These can be easily created using found materials, some wool or string, and items from home.  There are dozens of good suggestions online for creating dynamic dream catchers.  

2.  First Nations Settlements Diorama.  This is fun for the students to research.  Have a list of dwelling types for First Nations groups, or have your students research.  Using any of the many materials available commercially or home-made, have the students create dioramas.  If time permits, use stop animation software to film figures moving through the diorama and to create short movies that tell a tale of life at the time. 

3.  Soap Carving.  Using soap blocks and simple plastic or wood carving tools, design and carve a 'soapstone' sculpture.  Combine them with members of your group to tell a story or relate a legend.

4.  Art Cards.  Combine poetry and visual arts by creating 'Norval Morrisseau'  pieces that have a theme supported by text.  Have the students write stories or poems that are depicted in their piece.  It could take the form of a legend of how something came to be, or a lyrical poem.  

5.  Legends.  Comic Life is such a wonderful app that supports both text and graphics in a graphic novel format. Students who are more visually talented may find the lower emphasis on text appealing. Students can write and produce a Comic Life piece that is as detailed as they desire.

6.  Totem Poles.  The students love anything that lets them get their hands on building materials.  There are dozens of totem pole creation ideas, from highly elaborate carved pieces to more simply constructed poles using construction paper and glue.  'Pinterest' has dozens of great activities to get you started and great photos to show your class as examples.  Each member of the group can be responsible for an addition to the whole.  The students can write short pieces about the characters that tell a story about the life of the First Nation group they are studying.  They are not limited to the Haida, for example, because all First Nations peoples' stories can be told by using any appropriate figures.  The totem pole simply becomes a story-telling vehicle.

The students really enjoyed this unit. The classroom was buzzing with learning, curiosity, interest and creativity.

 What does your day look like? 
How do you organize for student inquiry?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Day in the Life of an Inquiry-Based Classroom

Daily Schedule 

8:40-9:10- Computer lab - keyboarding skills, researching and writing. 

9:10 – Mini-lesson – may include any of the following: a read-aloud/think aloud, teacher models reading/writing strategies, shared/interactive reading and writing. The lessons are connected to the theme or topic (curriculum content) we are exploring. We introduce new concepts and/or focus on certain skills that we notice the majority of students may need. (Most skill-based lessons & conferencing is done with small groups or with individuals, during workstation time).

9:20- Workstations – All students work in groups to accomplish their station for the day. 

Students work in groups

Students are: Collaborating, reading, writing, researching, questioning, creating, and preparing to share their learning. They are moving around, talking, engaged and motivated.

It should be noted here that this routine takes time to establish. In order, for the workstations to run smoothly, we need our students to be independent. Setting rules and expectations about how to collaborate is the most challenging. This can take time and you need to be patient. It’s worth seeing a classroom work together like clockwork. To begin with, the focus of the teacher is to build a positive relationship, create a safe classroom environment and establish rules, routines and expectations for learning. This ensures that students become independent problem-solvers which then gives the teacher time to work with small groups or individual students without interruptions.

Teacher is: Conferencing, leading a guided lesson group, pushing thinking and learning, asking questions, teaching a mini-lesson to a group or to individuals. The teacher never sits down at a desk but is in constant motion facilitating the learning of his/her students.  

10:20 to 11:20 – Nutrition break and recess

11:20 to 12:00 – Planning time - we co-plan with the planning time teacher (prep teacher), the students continue working on stations from the morning block. Time is built in to allow students to share their culminating task. (Students realize they will have to present again to the classroom teacher and peers– but that’s OK, they love to share!)

12:00 to 1:00 – Math – this part of the day is moving toward an inquiry approach. It takes time to shift a way of teaching and our focus has been to use inquiry in all other content area.

1:00 to 1:40 – Lunch

1:40 to 2:20 – Gym A day only
                       Presentations & Sharing – B day

2:20 – Independent Reading - We use the first 20 days of independent reading by Fountas andPinnell as a guide for our reading routine.  

Independent Reading Time

Classroom full of books!

3:00 – Agenda & Dismissal

Our schedule is not perfect, but it works for now! We are always looking for ways to improve our practice and often that means change. We feel our success, in this inquiry classroom has been to give our students large blocks of time to go deeper, to explore and to create quality pieces of work. Transitions are few which helps our students with autism.

Next post – I will share examples of the workstations we’ve used. While content/theme changes, there is always a (guided) reading group and writing group. The rest of the workstation may include, drama, art, religion, math, science, social studies, health…it depends. In other words, all areas of the curriculum are integrated into the workstation block.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Variety in the Classroom Benefits All Learners!

There is the old saying 'variety is the spice of life' to consider when running an inquiry based classroom.  True.  But is it enough to provide variety without a focused goal?  I think this leads to confusion and a sense of disjointed, scattershot teaching.  Better to have a clear focus and to provide learning opportunities that reflect an overall theme.  I can provide a couple of examples from my own class to support this idea and which will highlight the importance of maintaining a certain rigour to the development of curriculum goals.

First, let me tell you about our most recent exploration.  We've been working on a project called Canada from Coast to Coast to Coast.  The kids came up with the guiding question, 'What's it like to live in other parts of Canada?'  This was just about perfect: open-ended enough to allow true inquiry, focussed enough to provide a clear framework for the work ahead.  Now, the creative and challenging part is to design tasks that will stay within the guiding spirit of the question, but not be too constricting.  We feel we really nailed this one with the following activities:

1.  Newscasts. (iMovie and Photo Booth) The kids wrote, recorded and presented a beautiful series of newscasts using iMovie.  They used the news from the Canadian region they were studying to explore current events, climate, and culture.  Photo Booth allows for the creation of endless backdrops and background videos using the effects tab.  The 'newscasters' can appear in the middle of a typhoon or in some exotic locate.

One section of a newscast

2.  Tellagami Weather Reports.  The students strung together 30 second Tellagami (you have to check this app out for your class.  It's brilliant) avatar clips to explore weather phenomena from their region. Absolutely hilarious, highly creative and the end product is so polished, it's perfect.  Script writing and using two apps (Tellagami and iMovie) to create a short avatar-based film is pretty rich stuff. Wonderful to share with the group, click here!

3.  Tourism brochures.  The students loved creating travel brochures for their region using the Pages templates.  Any word processor can be used and the students love the challenge of making a content-rich professional looking publication.

4. Stop Action Claymation.  This was a huge hit.  The students had to think of special recreation or occupation activities going on in their region and create a stop action movie.  It was a blast to see how creative they were in depicting all kinds of regional quirks.  We used the simplest app I could find, called Stop Animator. It's free on the App Store and couldn't be any easier to use.  Once again, the students can string their films together to make a whole-class movie.  What an amazingly fun and truly creative task, click here!

5. Google Earth Tour Builder.  This new offering from Google is in beta form, apparently, but to me it's ready for prime time.  It was a very simple task to show the students how to add pictures and text for the various locations they were exploring.  Once imported, the material uses Google Earth as the guide to take everyone on a virtual tour of the area.  This is very rich in content and allows for refined research and editing.

6.  iMovie.  The kids love making their own movies and are always intrigued by the process of assembling material from a wide variety of sources.  The goal was to take images from their region (hundreds in some groups' presentation) and overlay music and voiceover to create a true exploration of their region, highlighting important geographical features.

This exploration hit all the right notes. At the end of each work day, we sat back and watched some truly amazing displays which were both rich in content and creativity.  The kids absolutely loved it. In my next blog, I'll discuss what happens when things don't go so well.

This post was written by my colleague Pete Douglas. You can find the original post on our website.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Why Teach Concepts of Disciplinary Thinking?

The 2013 Ontario Revised Social Studies/History & Geography (SS/HG) document has a list of tools and strategies (p.7) that encourage teachers to shift how they might teach SS/HG.   The concepts of disciplinary thinking is incorporated into this curriculum and by applying the concepts, we give students' a way to learn and engage in the material presented.  It encourages them to think critically about history and challenges them to rethink the past, present and future. "... it is crucial that students not simply learn various facts but that they acquire the ability to think and to process content in ways best suited to each subject" (p.12).  By moving away from memorizing facts, teachers will need to plan and promote students' inquiry to explore issues and deepen their understanding. Teaching historical thinking and pursuing challenging content knowledge will develop students' ability to "do" SS/HG. 

Getting ready to "do" Social Studies

Thing we know (we think)

Disciplinary Thinking will help students organize and understand knowledge in a meaningful way. The following is a chart from the SS/HG curriculum, it is included in the front matter of the document. (p.13)

So how and why do you teach concepts of disciplinary thinking in your SS/HG classroom? 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Combined Grades

We recently had the opportunity to plan and work together with the new revised Social Studies/History and Geography Curriculum document. One of the activities at the Ministry of Education roll-out was to plan for combined grade lessons. We are working with a grade 4/5 split and the new document allows for easy planning for combined grades. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Workshop Presentation 2013

Pete and I enjoyed sharing our work on inquiry-based teaching at a conference in Toronto. Click here to view the slideshow we shared with participants. We had over 80 participants but managed to make it a hands-on, and engaging workshop. It's fun to share our learning about teaching with the inquiry approach!

 Grade 4/5 Classroom