How Facebook, the NCTE, The Secret Life of Bees, and My Pissed Off Freshmen Got Me Into Guided Inquiry


My name is Susan Smith (yes, that is my witness protection program name), and I teach high school English in the suburbs of Boston, MA.  This year I took the plunge and did my first guided inquiry project. This is how I got there. (Warning, I tend to make short stories long.)

I have taught all four high school grade levels at one time or another, but I have taught freshmen every year for the last ten years.  One of the novels we do in freshman English is The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd, which takes place during the Civil Rights Movement.  Although we definitely do some activities related to the historical context of the novel, as the years have passed I have been more and more itching to do something beyond teaching kids about civil rights in the 1960s.  I have wanted to have some discussions and increase awareness of how those events and those issues are not just “what it was like in the old days before things got better like they are now”— if you know what I mean.  Sometimes in speaking about racism and social injustice, I feel like I am teaching them racist and homophobic and sexist content that they may have never thought of before—almost like I am teaching it TO them instead of teaching them about it.  Like if I talk about how there is a history of a stereotype of lust and violence around black men and white women and how white men have (created and) reacted to that stereotype (as in the story of Emmett Till), I am teaching them terrible concepts that they never thought of before (and didn’t need to know?).   Still, it is important stuff.  Recently, with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, with the increased awareness of cases of police brutality and institutionalized racism and voter rights discrimination and so many other social justice topics and issues, I have felt more compelled to figure out what to do.  

In September of 2015, the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) put out a statement to English teachers that basically said that it is somewhat of a moral responsibility to address and discuss with students what has been going on—to discuss racism in our country and our history  ( Paragraph six in particular, and this line—“In addition to the revolution on the ground, we seek a parallel revolution in curricula, instructional models and practices, assessment approaches, and other facets of education that would lead to a future free from the barriers of prejudice, stereotyping, discrimination, and bias”).  The NCTE piece helped me feel more confident, so I found some articles related to current day racism and social justice, including the wealth equity gap, the school to prison pipeline, and even the Syrian refugee debate.  We read and discussed the articles in class and I felt somewhat more satisfied.  At the same time, I heard from some teachers that they didn’t feel comfortable having a social or political “agenda” in their curriculum.  They were uneasy about teaching kids things that might contradict the beliefs of their parents.  

Then, over this past summer, as so many social issues cropped up in the news and in popular discourse due to the upcoming elections, I saw more and more compelling posts and articles in my Facebook feed.  I learned a lot, and I again felt a desire to bring such topics to my students.   I just wasn’t sure what and how.  I knew that I could possibly put some time in and gather and curate some articles and posts from various figures that were popping up in my feed and educating me—like New York Times articles and Shaun King posts and stories about Black Lives Matter, but I just felt unsure of what to gather, and ultimately, how exactly to present or integrate those items  into my curriculum.   

That’s where I landed this fall—still with these ideas in the back of my mind, and chewing on what to do with my thoughts and my impulse to do something more deliberate with my students.

They say that there is no bad publicity, and although there are other reasons that guided inquiry was on my radar, probably the most memorable reason is because my 2015 freshmen hated it.  I heard their chatter before class started. Usually I don’t pay attention to it because it is a bit of a boundary for me; I feel like they should have their semi-private social time when they can get it.  However, the freshman chatter about the science inquiry project was fairly constant.  When it began to seem that they had been griping, stressing-out, and commiserating with each other about the science inquiry project (their first guided inquiry experience) for months on end, I finally asked them about it.  Given the chance to vent, their volume nearly blew my hair back.  On the other hand, though, anything that arouses that much passion in a 14 year-old can’t be all bad, right?  So I talked to them about it, and I talked to some other teachers about it, and nearly a year later I talked to our media specialist about guided inquiry.  In the end, in spite of, and because of, the notorious science project, I put all the pieces together and walked right into my own guided inquiry design project on civil rights.

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