On November 6,7, 8 (2014) I had the opportunity of attending Reading and Writing Through Inquiry, a category 3 IB PYP Workshop hosted by the Western Academy of Beijing (China) and led by Carla Holmes. It was an interesting learning journey that I am putting to paper (so to speak) for the dual purpose of helping me remember and also to share with others. These are my big “takeaways”. Enjoy.

Our students need a framework for their learning. They need to understand why they are doing what it is we are asking them to do. What is the purpose? The outcome? The activity inquiry. A lot of the theory behind this workshop comes from the visible thinking routines developed by The Harvard University team for Project Zero. As teachers we need to be asking ourselves these three questions for everything we are doing in the classroom.

    • WHY —> are we doing this?
    • WHAT —> knowledge will we develop?
    • HOW —> will we learn the skills and strategies?

If you don’t have a good answer then it’s probably not worth your students’ time.

The greatest difference between inquiry and didactic teaching is not the tools but how the class functions as a community to develop, and use these tools, in the pursuit of new insights.” -Taking the PYP Forward

The key to reading and writing through inquiry is the ability to construct meaning.

In essence, reading and writing are tools for thinking about the self and world. How are we getting students to plan and assess their reading and writing?  Here are some practical tips.

Classroom basics:

  • A purposeful essential agreement

Much time and angst is spent creating essential agreements. An innovative idea I took away from the workshop is to have the essential agreement framed around the learner profile. Ask the students, who do you want to be as learners?  Framing the essential agreement in this fashion makes it more usable, purposeful, and with greater teacher/student buy-in than many of the other alternatives I have ever used in the past.

  • Classroom environment

The classroom we used during the workshop was very spartan. No displays or fancy bulletin boards present – only kids thinking.  Ask yourself why for everything that goes up/in/on/around your classroom. What is the purpose?  Don’t have a good answer?  Then get rid of it.

  • Choices, choices, choices

From the books present in the classroom, to the activities children choose to pursue, to the groups the students self-select themselves in – a classroom with choices = a happy and more functional classroom.

  • Voice

Whatever your learning engagement ask yourself … Whose voice does it value? Whose voice disappears? Two simple questions to make sure we stay mindful of the different learning preferences of our students.

Learning Tools:

  • The Toolbox

The students work around big tables that are cleared of basically everything expect for what they need at the moment.  Enter the toolbox.  Basically a tupper-ware box that has all the tools needed by the student for that learning engagement (lesson) easily accessible to the children then and their, not around the room, but on their workspace.

  • Writing process cards

Used as tools to frame the inquiry and construct understanding.

  • Double entry journal

Allows for choices and making personal text to text, text to self, and other connections.

  • Word Study

An interesting way to allow choice, personalize, and make meaningful the words that go up on a class word wall. There are three word categories:

      • Everyday: ie. wrong, right
      • Interesting: ie. research, wonder, investigate
      • Specialist: ie. open-ended

Eventually kids will argue that a word belongs in one category as opposed to another. This is the cue to “differentiating” – a word list that works for one student might not work for another → allow students the choice and freedom to personalize their own list.  Also a good way to tier words.

  • Check-in Reading

A reading strategy that is good for multi-ability groupings where students can benefit from peer teaching.  Basically, start by pairing a lower level reader with a higher level reader.  Taking turns they read to each other, however they are each looking/listening for different things.  For example, the higher level reader reads with a focus on comprehension – what did his lower level partner hear him read/understand?  The lower level reader reads for decoding.  The higher level partner can support him/her by giving strategies to focus the reading (for example chunk up the words, use a finger pointer, etc).

  • Class Reporter

Do you have a wiggler in your classroom?  Make them a “class reporter” writing or drawing about what they hear the teacher read. I am curious to try this.

  • Literacy quilts

A good formative assessment tool that lends itself to analytical thinking, allows choice (in which way to represent knowledge), a way of valuing language, and stimulating discussion. The basics is to ask students to represent pictorially the answer to a certain question. Put all the drawings up on a sheet of butcher paper.

  • Poetics Reflection

A fun way to reflect. The poetics reflection is from a narrative therapy framework. The key is the first two sentences and the other sentences can be altered. Always use the double phrasing and let kids respond through drawings, words, even frieze frames that can be photographed.  Follow the format below and allow for wait time.

  1. I remember I remember (this is the trigger, remember that the phrasing is double)
  2. I was thinking I was thinking
  3. I believe, I believe
  4. Because, because
  5. You will see, you will see
  6. They will say, they will say

Planning the inquiry:

Herein lies the rub. First of all, make sure resource content is not driving the inquiry but the other way around (in other words, don’t plan to use Foss kits just because you have them). When planning your Unit of Inquiry use the following process:

    1. Identify the Transdisciplinary Theme
    2. Define the Central idea
    3. Identify the Key concepts
    4. Define the Lines of inquiry
    5. Identify the Secondary concepts
    6. Now identify the Literacy genre best suited to your Unit needs. For example, if the unit focus is scientific then procedural might be the best suited genre.  This is the big change that makes incorporating literacy and inquiry into a UOI more purposeful.
    7. Then identify linkages to math, science, PSSP, Culture, etc
    8. Define Teacher questions
    9. Define Learning outcomes (delineated by skills, knowledge, action) – across all areas (literacy, science, math, etc). Learning outcomes should be phrased as concept questions that are themselves framed around the key concepts identified in the earlier planning phases. So instead of the learning objective being written as “today we will learn about modes of transportation” rephrase as “what are the different modes of transportation?” (if the key concept is framed around form). Alternatively “why are different modes of transport necessary?” (if the key concept is framed around function). The Making the PYP Happen document has a list of sample concept questions.
  • Do all our kids need to sit through the same mini-lesson? Probably not, but how many of us have them do so all them same? Holliday’s framework provides a natural and convenient way to think about differentiation in the planning process. Holliday contends that literacy occurs in a context – a context that is different for each individual and in each situation. Some individuals are:
    • learning to read/write
    • learning about reading/writing
    • learning through reading/writing

By way of example, lets assume the text in question is Bark George by Jules Feiffer. A student that is in the early stages of learning English can access the text through the pictures and make connections to their home language (learning to read). A more advanced student can engage with the text by making inferences (learning through reading), and so on and so forth. The big idea is that oral/visual/written languages are all connected by the active expressive/receptive process (two-way communication) so irrespective of what type of learner you are there should be some way to engage you.

The goal is NOT to learn to read and write. That is but a very small piece of the puzzle. The final goal is to create readers and writers who have to connect, understand, and communicate in their world.

If you have any questions I am happy to help, however the real mind behind this is Carla Holmes who I will quote as saying “this is my passion, not just my job”