Question Everything

“The answers you have are only as good as the questions you’ve asked.” –Rebecca Trotter

    Throughout all of my experience with Guided Inquiry, I have faced one recurring problem. Questions. How do I teach my students to craft quality questions? How do I teach my students think for themselves? How do I help my students appreciate controlling their own learning?

    I have a feeling that if I were to discover the answer to this question, I would be able to retire on my private island. Really it’s more than one question, but like lions and tigers and bears, they seem to be inseparable. In order to teach my students to craft quality questions, I need to teach them to think for themselves, but in order to think for themselves, they need to control their own learning…. Yikes.  

    This isn’t a problem that I face alone. When Dana and I returned from CiSSL, we trained several other teachers in the full Guided Inquiry Design process. We continue to work with new teachers and, frankly, anyone who will listen about the importance of inquiry. Even when we cannot take a teaching unit through the full GID process, we keep inquiry at the heart of our teaching. We are working to create students who question rather than absorb information.

    The magic happens when we create that third space where the students realize the importance of the learning in their own lives. When the classroom and life cross over and become one. That’s when our students truly begin to question. In order to get there, we have to move our students beyond looking to us to give them topics and ideas to pursue. They must come to those ideas on their own because they are the ideas that matter to the students.

    Some of our students go there immediately. They come with ideas that need tweaked into questions. Others ask, “What should I do?” Not only do they not have a question, they aren’t sure where to start. Sometimes it takes longer to change the philosophy of our students than it does to change the philosophy of our teachers.

    Eventually, our students will see that, in the words of Thomas Berger, “The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.” Crafting quality questions can improve not only education but life. Guided Inquiry isn’t just for the classroom; it is for all of us. In fact, my new philosophy is Question Everything.

 

Jennifer Danner

@MrsDanner_JA

English Department Chair

Jonathan Alder High School

Plain City, Ohio

Taking Chances

“Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better.” –Albert Camus

     No longer under the yoke of Senior Project, we found ourselves with massive gaps in the curriculum. For the first time ever, I was not the only one teaching senior English, so Stephanie Tinberg (first-year teacher) and I sat down to discuss how we would most like to teach the standards left dangling by the hasty departure of Senior Project. It didn’t take us long to brainstorm a diverse list of activities/assignments/texts that would make fantastic additions to the curriculum. At the heart of all of our ideas was Guided Inquiry.

     In an attempt to expand the worldview of our students, Stephanie and I decided to experiment with a new genre: the podcast. Stephanie introduced me to the Serial Podcast produced by This American Life and hosted by Sarah Koenig. The podcast explores the case of a young man convicted of the murder of his ex-girlfriend. Seeing the story of a 17-year-old who had actually been tried for and convicted of murder was eye-opening. More impactful than a man their age going to prison was the reality that he may have been wrongly convicted. Koenig follows the information from the case and conducts her own investigation as she attempts to discover what actually happened that January day in 1999.

     Sometimes in life, everything aligns to create a teachable moment like no other. Serial provided exactly that moment. Adnan Syed’s case was back in the news as we studied it. Because of new evidence unearthed by the podcast and a follow up podcast titled Undisclosed, Syed had petitioned for a post conviction hearing. It was granted. As we finished listening to the podcast in class, the actual young man from the story, now in his thirties, went back to court to possibly receive a new trial. The students were riveted as they watched this actually play out on the news and social media. The outcome of the hearing has yet to be determined, but students ask almost daily if there are any updates.

     Guided Inquiry provided the perfect approach for students to explore this case and what it revealed about humanity, the justice system, and the idea of right and wrong. Students used the Guided Inquiry framework to conduct their own investigations into nearly every facet of the case. Because so many groups have worked on Syed’s behalf to uncover the truth, many of the primary documents from the case are available online including police reports, autopsy reports, police notes, depositions, and even evidence photos. We invited lawyers into the classroom to discuss what elements are required to craft a reliable defense. We invited the numerous teachers around the building who had also followed the podcast to join us as a Serial Support Group for students to discuss their theories and frustrations. Our ultimate goal was to share our findings in a sort of “closing argument” style presentation complete with an evidence board that allowed students to take their audience through their investigations and evidence.   

     When I spoke with my students upon completion of the project, I was surprised by their reactions. For the first time in my seventeen-year teaching career, my students declared that they wished they could have done MORE research. MORE! They wished they could have worked in small, supportive groups to go deeper into different elements of the case. They wanted real answers from this real experience. Eventually, a judge in a Baltimore courtroom will supply those answers. Now, we are at his mercy.

     Our new focus on Guided Inquiry provided a chance to change for the better. We don’t practice it perfectly yet, but we are getting better with each new teaching unit. Our reflection is key to improving our teaching, but reflecting with our students has also proven to provide immeasurable growth. Most of our students appreciate our attempts to approach learning in new ways and also appreciate the opportunity to shape how that learning takes place in the classroom. Others are surprisingly fearful of new strategies and the freedom that comes with change.

    

Jennifer Danner

@MrsDanner_JA

English Department Chair

Jonathan Alder High School

Plain City, Ohio

Finding a Solution

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”

–Socrates

 

     My adventure into Guided Inquiry Design began as all good adventures should, with a close friend and a road trip. It really started with desperation. The desperation led to the road trip….

     A few years ago, our school district required a senior capstone known as Senior Project. I was struggling to help seniors find their way and develop their projects to the fullest. Of course, I took my struggles to my teacher-librarian Dana Wright. Since she had been essentially co-teaching the project with me, she was well aware of the issues I was facing. Dana and I have always been on the same page and look at teaching in much the same way, so it was no surprise the day I walked into the library with an exciting new idea only to find Dana waiting to share her exciting new idea. Both of our exciting new ideas were the same. Guided Inquiry.

     Jonathan Alder Local Schools is small and is known for turning nothing into something because of our low expenditure per student. We are about 20 minutes northwest of Columbus, Ohio, in the small farming community of Plain City. When Dana stumbled across the information on the CiSSL Summer Institute. Our district agreed to send us, and the road trip began. Dana and I drove from Plain City to New Jersey for a new beginning.

     Guided Inquiry was a natural fit for us. We saw immediately that we were rushing the research process. Our students were developing questions (Identify) and fast-forwarding to research (Gather) and fast-forwarding again to writing/presentation (Create/Share). We left no time for developing interests or exploring options. Once we adjusted to allow for a fully developed Guided Inquiry Design approach to Senior Project, so many of the struggles vanished. The depth and quality of student growth improved significantly. What we did not realize at the time was that Senior Project would soon be a memory. Another new beginning was coming.

     Now we come to the current school year. This school year arrived with a new building principal and a new state mandate known as College Credit Plus. CC+ requires strict adherence to a state-wide set of standards for Advanced Placement and Dual Enrollment classes. Mike Aurin (our new leader), Ann (guidance), and I sat down to discuss the impact of the new requirements on Senior Project and our other curricula. To proceed with students’ best interests in mind, we needed to remove the Senior Project requirements from the English curriculum.

     At first it was a shock. Senior Project was an institution. It’s what we did. That’s when I realized that it was no longer what we HAD to do. We no longer had to “[fight] the old.” We could now “[build] the new.”

Jennifer Danner

@MrsDanner_JA

English Department Chair

Jonathan Alder High School

Plain City, Ohio