Archives For Engagement

I am starting to feel more confident with teaching through inquiry based learning and problem based learning. One challenge can be getting started and deciding what to focus on for inquiry.  Though models of inquiry hint at starting points, I have 6 ideas in this post that came about through reading these sources.

Harvey, S., & Daniels, H. (2009). Comprehension & collaboration: Inquiry circles in action. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Barell, J., & Barell, J. (2007). Problem-based learning: An inquiry approach (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Stacey, S. (2011). The unscripted classroom: Emergent curriculum in action. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Capacity Building Series (2011) Getting Started with Student Inquiry

1. Use a factoid to invite and provoke student questions

In Problem-based learning: An inquiry approach (2nd ed.) the authors suggest starting with provoking factoids and then asking students to observe, think and question.  Use the factoid to get kids asking related questions.

For example, what questions come to mind when you read this factoid?

Tornadoes are nearly invisible whirling winds until dust and debris are picked up or a cloud forms inside the funnel.

Questions come to mind about vocabulary, but also about the shape and colour of tornadoes. Including a picture also helps students access prior knowledge and start wondering.

2. Quality Responding

Instead of thinking about what good questions a teacher should ask, think about asking students questions in response to their ideas. Ask students to expand and elaborate.

Teachers could try pushing student thinking forward by asking:

  • What do you wonder about now?
  • Does this suggest any new approaches, ideas to you worth investigating?
  • What kinds of connections can you make?
  • Where do we go from here?

3. Slow down

Both Susan Stacey, author of The Unscripted Classroom: Emergent Curriculum in Action and this Ontario monograph titled “Getting Started with Student Inquiry” suggest teachers slow down.  Observation is essential. Slow down and watch what children are doing. Reflect and interpret what you see. Then try to provoke a next step.  Slowing down and taking time to reflect and interpret is the fulcrum on which we can balance student’s authentic questions and theories with teacher’s agenda and the curriculum. We do not need to pit student interest and freedom in a fist fight with the curriculum.  If we as teachers know our curriculum and take time to reflect and interpret what our students are interested in, there is a way to honour their interests and curiosities. This is a chance for teachers to get creative and innovative.

balancing T and S agendas with time

4. Be on the look out for student’s questions, theories and persistent interests

Student driven inquiry does not need to start with a question. It can start when a teacher notices a student has a theory about something. This can be challenging since students are often bringing a lot of ideas, questions, and interests forward. Which ones do we focus on as educators?  When we notice that a student or a group of students are consistently interested in a topic, we should head in that direction. It’s best to focus on ideas that have some persistence according to Stacey (2011). Or, if you aren’t sure the idea merits moving forward with inquiry, test it out by provoking students with materials and resources and see if they take the bait.  The teacher can not and should not respond to every question and whim in the classroom. Or else, he or she will be like the golden retriever in this video, chasing after every little flash of student interest.

5. Use previous activities to feed forward

Don’t let the learning come to a full stop. Let investigations and units propel new topics. I need to work on this in a major way. So far this year we have taken a PBL or IBL approach to learning about magnets, friction and extreme weather. When the final assignment was in and graded that was it!  I didn’t go back and reflect. I didn’t go back and ask the students to look at each other’s work and see if there were some new questions to move us forward. I was the driver.  I was leading teacher directed PBL and IBL.  Now I know.

6. Help students make sense of non fiction text

Reading about an interesting topic is a great way to open up new questions. Help students use a coding system to monitor their thinking as they read. With paper books sticky notes work great. If iPads are available, Good Reader is my preferred markup app. This strategy comes from Harvey and Daniels (2008) Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action.

coding as we read

Bill Frakes at ADE 2013

July 15, 2013 — 2 Comments

Bill Frakes just spoke to the Apple Distinguished Educators here at the institute at the University of Texas in Austin. I hope it is okay with him, but at the end of this blog post, I share his top secret on how to be a world class, Pulitzer prize winning, photographer.  I took notes as fast as I could without missing an opportunity to see the amazing visuals that he was sharing. Tomorrow, he will take my picture.  But today, today I had the pleasure of hearing him speak. It was very moving. His words and his pictures were incredibly moving.  I thought it was a bit of a cliche when people talk about how the ADE experience is life changing.  But, listening to Bill speak, seeing his work with his collaborator Laura Heald, did move me. I think he changed the way I think. He certainly has begun to change the way I see.

I move fast. I love to move as fast as I can.  My friend Adele Stanfield and I say that we are like hummingbirds and it is natural to us to move fast, it feels right.  But, I loved Bill’s emphasis on moving slowly. He thinks rapidly and constantly but moves slowly to get inspiration.  More specificially, he says he spends the right amount of time to capture. He says it’s hard to know what the right amount of time is, which is amazingly true.  You never know the right amount of time to get that student to the next level. I think I am just like a photographer, always waiting for the light. Always trying to capture the light. Light is so elusive, but it brings with it the beauty and truth of our best moments.

But, capturing the light is not an accident. It is not about having your camera slung around your neck and it is not about a serendipidous moment. It is about staging moments of greatness.  Bill Frakes is a miticulous in his preperation and in his search for light and love and beauty. He carries three journals (yes, paper ones, a man after my heart).  One notebook is for stories, another for logistics and a final one for light.  The most inspiring to me is the notebook for light. He gathers sketches of situations he sees where light dances in beautiful ways. This is his research for going forward to compose, oh so carefully, his photos and the play of light. A story journal is where he gathers stories like an old retired lady cuts out coupons. Forever curating and gathering and collecting moments and cookie crumbs of life. Each one might seem small and indeed, most do not become epic visual tales. For every 50 or 60 ideas, he and Laura Heald select only 1 or 2. This is the thing about gathering ideas, it is how I imagine mining in the early days: you go through a lot of dirt and rock to strike gold. Gathering your thoughts somewhere as they come to you is so essential for building good ideas and stories.  His notebook for logistics is where he plans out all the gear that he will require for shots: lists upon lists upon lists.  His pictures are not accidents, the are highly planned, sequenced, researched. They are architectural in process and product. Carefully, lovingly, passionately and meticulously designed and brought to our eyes then bring us to tears.  Magnificent is his process and his product. In his casual and humble way, he simply says, “you gotta do what you gotta do.”

His parting message was to be a like a silk worm: to take in all these raw materials inside of you and then send them back out into the world into a newer more beautiful form.  I feel like this with light sometimes, with the passion I have for my students and teaching. I take in the light that I can from the world, and I try to push that light back out to the people I love, to the students I love.  It’s our responsibility as photographers, as teachers, as people to capture that beauty and make it something even greater.

I wish I could take a picture tomorrow that would show in my face what I feel in my heart. I wish I knew how to show in a picture my love and my light for teaching and learning. Maybe Bill knows how to capture not just light, but peoples’ light.  Actually, I am pretty sure he does know how. Every picture he takes is proof.  Plus, let me tell you his secret for doing so: he says that all you need to be a photographer is to fall in love every day.

With our student teacher Mr. Bawden from the University of Regina we learned how to write our own music in Garage Band on the iPads.  Mr. B joined our class several times over Skype to teach us how to use the app and compose a short piece.



And now, for your listening pleasure, 3/4 Math Musicians:

Ethan times 2

Maya times 3

Ermand times 2

Matthew times 1

Nathan times 4

Justin times 2

Justin times 3

Havana times 2

Taylor times 3

Ahmed Tristan Times 2

Zach times 0 

 Marwa and Shazzy

A rare shot of a pretzel log cabin moments before it's destruction!

A rare shot of a pretzel log cabin moments before it’s destruction!

The best part of making a pioneer log cabin is eating the pioneer log cabin!

The best part of making a pioneer log cabin is eating the pioneer log cabin!













The way to a student’s mind is through their heart. Or maybe their hands. Okay, definitely through the stomach!

We made pioneer log cabins out of graham crackers, pretzels and icing.  The key element, of course, were the pretzels as kids used them to form interlocking corners to help support the structures. This activity took 80 minutes to complete. In school world, that is a quarter of the day and a huge chunk of time. But, these types of tasks are essential to learning for three reasons: engagement, class culture and hands on competence.

I teach grade 3 and my dream for my students is that they develop into creative, innovative and passionate makers.  I hope they will make content on the web through writing or photography to share their life stories as they grow. I hope they will create wonderful work and home spaces with their own tools and hands that they love to spend time in. I hope the make widgets like guitar pedals or revolutionary solar panels and solutions to global warming.  Make stuff. You’ll feel better when you do. Plus, these kids are little, they need opportunities to develop their fine and gross motor skills.  Look how pumped Liam and Fraser are in these photos. They are so thrilled to have had the opportunity to hack at the crackers and have a go with making the house. Rock out boys, rock out.

As we made our pioneer pretzel cabins we listened to good ol’ Stompin’ Tom Connors.  We were really getting into the Canadiana feel as we listened to Big Joe Muffera and other classics from the legendary Stompin’ Tom.  We even took a little break from our houses to have a little time to dance around, which was a good way to fight off the sugar monsters.


I could probably have pushed through a lot of content and worksheets and tasks in 80 minutes. I could probably have exposed them to much more than log cabin houses. Soddies, plank house and more could have been on the lesson plan for that day.  But, the power of creating this shared experience can not be underestimated.  This experience is now the platform that we can build our understanding of pioneer homes and pioneer life.  The activity was never presented as an “If you are good, then you will get to…” or “At the end you will be able to …” No. The fun was front and centre and for every child.  This happy glow of engagement and positivity will hang in the air of our class like the smell of maple syrup at a sugar shack. It will carry us through at least a week of learning and getting along.  We laughed at ourselves, we laughed with each other. We tinkered. We made houses that worked and some that didn’t. But, we didn’t worry about whether or not the final product was a level 4 pretzel cabin.

We enjoyed the moment.

We had fun.

We danced.

We opened our hearts to school, learning, each other.  We opened our hearts to the possibility that school is a magical place where we can have the most wonderful time with people we love. We have been together for over 100 days of learning. It’s been a cold and wet winter with lots of indoor recess. We love each other, but at times students are starting to feel the effects of February blues and a touch of cabin fever.  This activity reinvigorated our love for our class, one another and learning.

Engagement, building class culture and hands on competence: these are essential to being human!  These are essential to a thriving learning environment. Every teacher does these sorts of activities in September to capture student’s imaginations. I am reminded that we should do these activities throughout the school year to keep our spirits high.  School should be full of these types of experiences because it makes a life worth living.


Examples of our pioneer log cabins.

Examples of our pioneer log cabins.