Posts Tagged ‘constructivism’

Teacher, Don’t Tell Me!

In Uncategorized on July 22, 2011 at 12:15 am

I promised in an older post (Why I Don’t Like Only FUN” ) that I would demonstrate why constructivism – and inquiry- work, and the simplest and most likely convincing way is to show my classroom experience.

If you don’t like long posts, you may very well give up. I intend to give a full picture of the inquiry unit as it developed in its 4 weeks and include photos, documents and, sure, explanations…

*NOTE: My students are second–language learners in second grade.


So here it goes.

Every inquiry unit develops around a Central Idea (which may or may not be revealed by the teacher at the beginning). This unit’s idea was “A city has complex systems that influence people’s lives and its development.”


I chose NOT to tell it to my students so they would struggle a little…


1. Nice, but how do you teach an abstract concept such as “system” to 2nd graders?  

Simple: I divided the class in three groups and gave each group something different: a toy car, a pen and a puzzle. The trick that the kids didn’t know…was that each was missing a piece! They tried to assemble the pen (hey, but the spring was missing!), the toy car (oh no, a wheel is not there!) and the tree-puzzle (again, part of it was missing). The kids thought, argued, rearranged…”Cri, we can’t finish it!!”

So we sat down and discussed . Their conclusions:

a system is made of interconnected parts (yes, Ioana said that magic word!)

if a part is missing the entire system will not work (Elenis formulated it exactly that way!)

Some will ask, “So what? No big deal. How do you know they UNDERSTOOD the concept at a deeper level?” Well, I asked students to prove they understood it. How? By asking them to actually give an example, illustrate a system that is familiar to them and then share with us.

What systems did they draw and illustrate? Lots! From the anatomy of a bunny (heart, bones, lungs etc) to complex machines, buildings, laptops, musical instruments, plants. All included parts of the system and each student explained HOW it worked and how they were connected.


Question: did I “cover” or engaged students “dis-cover” the concept?

*I gave another example of how I teach abstract concepts here

Step 2. Back to the “city”…

BRAINSTORMING: “What words come to your mind when you think of CITY?”

Purpose? Connect with prior knowledge (so I would have a foundation to build on later).

The photo is illustrative enough: tens of words began to pour.


But that was the easy part. Next step: CLASSIFY them. “Can we put them in certain classes/groups? Can you find criteria to divide them?” (certainly, this is a higher thinking skill…) They grouped them using the Affinity Diagram technique:


I also challenged students to create a diagram that would best illustrate the concept of “system” (visualizing abstract concepts is critical): they struggled because the diagram would not represent connections (e.g. the pyramid, or the tree –diagram etc). That was when Eliza came up with a simple yet powerful way to illustrate it (see how each part is linked to others and also to the whole): 

Step 3. Hm, let’s throw them into the central idea “figure-out” phase.

They already knew the unit had some connections with “city” and “systems” so they thought…and thought… and came up with these ideas (remember they are in 2nd grade 🙂 

Cities help many people survive.

Cties are part of our habitat.

Cities are one of the greatest things that help people.

Almost all objects are from cities.

All people need cities.

People need cities because they can buy things for them to survive.

There are many places to visit in cities.

I have to know where I live and other places.

I need a lot of things from the city.

We listened to each student, marked the “key words” and then I showed them the Central Idea. To let them play with language (because, you know, they are second-language learners) I cut all the words and asked them to put them together. Of course they figured out everything. We then discussed the “complicated/fancy heavy” words in it (“complex”, “influence”, “develop”).


Step 4. Good so far. Kids understood and applied the major concept…but let’s connect with others.

Find out what THEY think and know about cities. So off you go, kiddos! Go around the school with this questionnaire:



Upon return we made the T-chart (so we can get ALL the answers) and then used Create-a-Graph to illustrate the data (it is one of the simplest apps).

Step 5. Switch.

“What do we NEED?” (And you go, “Hm… How is this connected to your unit???”. Just wait…)

NEED: Kids brainstormed and concluded: food, water, shelter, to be safe, to be educated, to be healthy…

Next, “What do you WANT?” Well, as you can presume, they could hardly stop: toys, to travel, candies, a roller –coaster….

Now take a step back, I said…Let’s visualize this…and see how these connect to “city”. Bingo! ALL the systems in the city developed because of our needs and wants! AHA! So it all makes sense now…

Food———??? shops, supermarkets

Water —-??? water systems, sewage systems

Shelter——??? houses, buildings, blocks of flats

Health—??? hospitals, medicine, utilities

Safety-??? police, fire departments….

Education–??? schools, universities, museums, libraries… (and so on)

Ain’t that nice? For STUDENTS to get big ideas with just a push? *below is the final concept map 


Step 6. Global perspectives.

Wait, shouldn’t we hear from OTHER people about their city? Just so we can compare with our city (Bucharest) and see how the systems work there?

Thanks to a wonderful bunch of people on Twitter, in two hours after having posted the Google Document on Twitter, my class received over 10 responses! We had answers from Portland   (@ccassinelli), Tokyo ( @tokyoedtech) , Czech Replublic (@sandymillin), Bangkok ( @simreilly) and more!


*As a side note, what were the odds that a former student of MINE (whose teacher I was a decade ago!) to see the document and contribute to help my current generation of students? She currently lives in Turkey and wrote about Istanbul city systems. 😀 The power of connections!


Step 7. Okay, we have a foundation now to build our own questions.

(We cannot simply ask students to be inquirers without giving them some provocations AND build a little knowledge about the topic).

The kids wrote their questions which I printed the next day so they would classify them into “skinny”(closed questions – such as “What is the biggest city in the world?”) and “fat” questions (questions that drive the inquiry further and need more research). *see some samples below.

Each inquiry develops around these personal questions and kids research with little support from me. At the same time, we continue with whole class activities so kids can get a better picture of the concepts involved. 


Step 8. Let’s go even deeper…CAUSE-EFFECT relationships between systems.

Now this was rated as an “interesting yet challenging activity” by my students (I always ask them to give me feedback on how the unit develops). Of course it was…because making things too easy demotivates in the long run. And because mind-stretching is a good thing for our grey matter.

Since I like to alternate tech with paper-based activities, I simply gave students a flip-notebook (blank sheets of paper cut in the middle: Cause on one side, Effect on the other).

We sat in a circle on the floor and thought. Hard. We took each system and wondered…(e.g.”If the transportation system did not work…what would happen to the city? To the people who need to work? To the children who need to go to school? To the police and fire deparment?…etc)


Step 9. Guest speakers : why not inviting them for a “real” interaction?

Nothing beats a face-to-face discussion! So we invited Andrei Avram (from a Romanian Institute) and …??? one of my PLN friends , Vijay Krishnan aka @bucharesttutor!      

Each replied to our questions (and we had LOTS brainstormed prior to these meetings!) and engaged us in great conversations. In English, of course (lucky us – because we could practice listening, speaking and reading skills!) Below is the Google Document turned into a PDF (kids wrote the questions prior to Vijay’s visit; his answers – in bold or red – were written by me as he kept talking to the kids). 



Step 9. What about a visit? Hooray!

Yes, I plan visits at each inquiry unit: kids need to see REAL things, interact with REAL people, get LIFE as it is. But this time it was different because I did not get involved. Yes, I didn’t. PARENTS, whom I asked for help in an e-mail, offered to take groups of kids to their workplace! They came on the same day and took them to different places (bank, technology company and shop) and brought them back at lunch time. Needless to say that the kids had a wonderful time and learnt. A lot. Because they were armed with a reflection paper:



Because I don’t want to make this post longer than it already is…I would just mention that kids also created cities online , wrote in the class blog about a city in the world they chose …., answered quizzes that I created on the class blog etc. (see our links for the unit here ).


   The conclusion is that you CAN develop critical thinking skills and creativity without “teaching” ONLY the old way. You can. Without a textbook. Without talking much (just notice how little I actually interfered with collective knowledge in this classroom). 

And that constructivism is not a synonym with laissez-faire or “poor random learning”. 




To…Thinking and Beyond (Facts)

In Uncategorized on April 19, 2011 at 10:26 pm

Paraphrasing the old Chinese proverb I would say,

“Teach your students facts and you empower them for a test. Teach them how to think, and you empower them for a lifetime.”


Having a good vision on education answers the WHY and is essential in our profession. But that is not enough. Because the next day you need to be in the classroom. And face curious minds that will need the HOW of learning. That is a hard and the most time-consuming part of our work. Hence I think it is more useful for educators out there to see others’ teaching and learning journey.

WARNING: This is the longest post I will ever write. I must be insane because long posts kill the number of readers but I have never seen a teacher’s effort to show the planning and learning process throughout a long period of time. I did it because it would have given me a better picture of strategies and vision of teacher had I seen it on someone else’s blog. 

WARNING 2: My students are second-language learners. Romanian is their mother tongue (like mine).  


Therefore…here is my teaching/learning journey …and how it unfolded the past month.

Briefly, my second graders inquired into wild animals and habitats, guided by the central idea, “Animals survive best in their habitat.” It might sound like a “nice” (over)done unit but there is more to it. We move past thematic units that cram all the information possible in a specific period of time and across all possible disciplines. We move past “cute” hands-on activities that do not illustrate anything but business and do not challenge kids to their potential.


How did this work?


Principle 1: Connect with prior knowledge

How? I just asked kids to tell me facts they know about animals. As simple as that. And then recorded them on a big paper in class, for everyone to see and, why not, learn from others.  


Principle 2: Make students comfortable with terminology (so they can focus on ideas later on)

There were a few key-words that students were expected to encounter in their readings and discussions later on. Students selected them (e.g. species, habitat, survive, endangered etc). Then they paired up, looked some words up in dictionaries (either online, from the class wiki, or from regular hardcopy dictionaries), and shared with class.


Principle 2: Allow and encourage student questions

Let students ask questions right then, at the beginning of the unit. Yes, they will ask skinny questions. Closed questions. But they are part of learning: “How many wild animals are there?”, “What are the rarest wild animals?” etc.  I displayed them on our Wonder Wall. 


Principle 3: Allow students to generate content. Be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.

We focused on a very “big” word in our central idea: “habitats”. It was a concept we would need a lot in our inquiry. So I simply wrote the word in the centre of a big paper and encourage students to add:

         habitats they knew

         animals that might live in those habitats

I need not tell you that they came up with ALL the answers except one (they did not know about “tundra”). Don’t you just love it when you need not “teach”? …


*Note: I also downloaded and printed a huge world map that resembled a puzzle. The kids glued the pieces together (which reinforced their knowledge on continents and oceans, learned in another inquiry unit Maps and Explorers) and we could add each habitat on the map throughout our inquiry. They were not showed the habitats – they located them and colored them on the map. 


Principle 4: Model thinking. Empower students to replicate the process.

Of course, as a language teacher, I needed to teach how to “read” informational reports, how to summarize information and how to process it. I printed a non-fiction text about tigers on a big A3 paper; I read-aloud each paragraph and thought-aloud (so students can “hear” my thinking – I tell them I “turn on” my brain volume). I slowly invited students to join-in and add their own thinking by placing post –its with “big” ideas (see photo). Next, as we have to gradually release responsibility, students paired up and had their own texts to work on and summarize information (visually, too).


Principle 5: Play games to practice thinking skills

Prior to the game I simply asked kids, “What do animals need in order to survive?&rdquo
They came up with 4 answers but we selected together only three important ones: food, shelter, water.

Kids love play and I am fervent supporter of movement in elementary school. I used a game to anticipate the next learning target: The Deer Game. Basically, each kid had a different role: the “deer” have to run after “food”, “water” and “shelter” kids. Once they catch them, these turn into more deer.

At the end of the game students could conclude what I expected them to: the number of a species in a habitat influences the habitat to a great extent. Not only could they figure out the big idea, but they used CONCEPTS in relation to the game:

CAUSATION: Because the number of deer increased the vegetation and water were less and less.  

CHANGE: Due to the use of too much water, food and the need for shelter the habitat changes.

CONNECTION: Deer depend on the habitat which provides them food, water and shelter.


Principle 6: Encourage students to make connections

Bingo! The Deer Game was the link to the next big concept: food chains. I used the flipped class method: I posted an explanation of the food chain topic on the class blog prior to “teaching” it. The next day I asked students to teach ME what the food chain was and how it worked. They were brilliant!


Principle 7: Use technology to reinforce knowledge

I created two online games so students could deepen their understanding. They played food chain games, practiced on customized online quizzes, and even created some for their peers.

 *See this page of our class wiki to see what online resources we used in this unit. 

Principle 8: Encourage students to think visually

Visual thinking is essential in brain processing so I modeled how to turn a written text into a visual organizer. Kids had a different animal and practiced in their Learning Journal.


Principle 9: Encourage kids to build on the acquired knowledge

I modeled the tiger adaptation and kept asking students, “Why do you think it has retractile claws? How would a flexible backbone help the tiger? Why do you think the tigers fur has black and brown patterns?” etc. The students “got” the idea and I asked them to come up with their OWN examples of animal adaptation and explain them. They would hardly stop!


Principle 10: Encourage kids to THINK BIG

The next day, I told students, “OK, we know lots of information about animals. We know lots of stuff about how they adapt. But how can we organize all that information into a BIG THINKING MAP?”

And yes, kids are smart. They brushed over all the details and came up with a great mind map (see below). Basically, they identified major types of adaptations! (physical appearance, physiological etc).


I always try to encourage them to “think big” by asking them: “What do you think you will need to understand and remember not the next week, not the next month, but the next year – and it is worth remembering?”


Principle 10: Immerse kids in real-life situations. Use these as a trigger for thinking.

Going to the zoo was essential in my planning. Not only could kids see real wild animals, but that would prepare them for a new thinking session. We had the chart below during our trip; we completed just the first two columns there, and the last one in class.

Upon return, I had 4 choices spread on the white
board and a single sentence in the middle of it: Animals are better off in zoos because they have food, water and shelter there. The strategy is called the Four Corners: Strongly agree/ Agree/ Disagree/ Strongly disagree. It is used when ethical issues are raised (war, gender conflicts, poverty, media bias etc).

Step 1: Without any other prompt, kids posted their names under each choice. They were sure of their options!


Step 2. Challenging students’ opinions: kids were given a list of pro and con arguments for having zoos. Each read carefully, became a bit puzzled and thought. Bingo! Complex issues are never white and black. You need to rethink. You need to consider more points of view. THAT is where I wanted to bring students to. So what did they do? Well, they placed their names in a slightly different category. A more balanced approach. Of course a very vivid discussion followed. 


Principle 11: Stimulate creativity

After the kids posted their option I asked them to create a poster to illustrate their choice (see some samples below).


Principle 12: Use thinking strategies that allow for deeper thinking


After kids made their estimations, I provided them with the real data – which, in some cases, completely reshaped their thinking and stirred discussions.  

The Whys Stair 

Write a statement on the whiteboard and keep asking Why questions. This helps students deepen their understanding of the CAUSATION concept (they “dig” deeper and deeper into the problem until they find a root). My example was: Some species are endangered. (/ Why?/ Because people hunt them./Why?/ So they can get their fur? /Why?/ etc…). After this think-aloud with student input, they practiced the strategy in pairs and then independently (from different prompts). 


Principle 13: Review knowledge in a more challenging and collaborative way

Summative assessments are necessary from now so we played Jeopardy! in teams using Bloom’s taxonomy. Nothing was based on facts – but on understanding (see some samples below).


Principle 14: Multimedia stimulates creativity. It also appeals more to emotional intelligence.

I created PPTs, I showed videos and breathtakingly beautiful photos throughout the entire unit. That helped students react in more powerful ways, ignite discussions and encourage debates. I also used this approach to create teach students about design, effective use of fonts, colors, shapes etc.

*Source of photos in my PPT above: World Wild Life 


Throughout the entire
unit of inquiry, students had Learning and Reflection Journals. They would write, doodle and reflect based on some given prompts: What have I learned? What would I like to know more about? What am I proud of? What do I still have difficulty with? What activities did I enjoy best? etc. 

We used photo tools, VoiceThread and other online sources to collaborate and create. 

Kids invented new habitats for given (fantastic) animals. And did the opposite as well – invented new species based on given habitats. They had to apply their knowledge of habitat, adaptation and food chains in a new context. 

They would also devise their own inquiry process, suggest final project formats, find materials, research, create and present their work. They establish criteria for the process (inquiry) and product (their end of the unit projects), assess themselves, reflect on their learning journey etc. Below are two samples of what their final projects look like.

*Elenis: Draft 

 *Pitu: Glogster

They guided their inquiry according to 8 big concepts: Form, Function, Causation, Change, Connection, Perspective, Responsibility, Reflection. These 8 concepts are transdiciplinary. Think of each of them and relate them with anything – from , say, multiplication (What is multiplication?  How is it connected to addition? How do multiplication results change if we use other numbers? etc) to language (e.g. Adjective: What is an adjective? How is it connected to nouns? How does an adjective change into an adverb? etc).

If I haven’t bored you enough…I would love a comment. Tell me what I could improve. What you would have done differently. 

Thank you for reading!





The Art of Questioning

In Uncategorized on April 3, 2011 at 12:05 pm

“Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers…” (Voltaire)



Kids are born with it. It is in our genes. Somehow, for various reasons, it gets extinguished though as we go through school. And yes, it is curiosity.

So how can we keep it from vanishing out slowly? I think it is by nurturing curiosity, but also by teaching the art of questioning.

I would like to share a few ways I tried to give my students opportunities to inquire. And understand the frame of their questions. Because not all questions drive the inquiry. 

NOTE: My students are second-language learners. We are in second grade now. 🙂 What I show below is what we did last year, in first grade. 


The Open- Closed Box Analogy

Through this lesson I wanted to introduce the two types of questions:

         closed questions (those that can be answered by yes/no or by simply giving a piece of information. E.g. “When was Einstein born?”)

         open questions (questions that need research, reflection, understanding at a deeper level, sometimes rethinking opinions and perspectives. E.g. “Why are there conflicts in the world?”)

Step 1:

I simply brought a box and had it closed. Kids had no clue whatsoever what it contained. So they asked me, “What’s inside it?” and I invited them to guess. Below are their answers: 

I showed them what I had: glue sticks, paper, scissors, a book etc.

Step 2:

I asked them the next question, “Which item do you think is most important?” Not only did they have to think more, but they had to bring arguments for their choices (see below).

I invited the students to compare the two types of answers. They observed that in the second case the answers were longer and they had to THINK in order to give them.

Thus we concluded that OPEN (“fat”) questions help us more in our learning because we need to read, research or think much more to answer them.

Step 3: I encouraged students to practice classifying the questions. I gave them paper strips with many questions written on them and together we figured out in which category we should place them (“skinny” or “fat”). Examples: What is the most endangered animal today ? (skinny) How do we know what a fact /opinion is? (fat)

Step 4. Last thing I did was to get students thinking! This time they had to come up with their own fat and skinny questions. And, boy, I could hardly stop them! “Why do volcanoes erupt?”, “Why do seasons change?”, “When was the iPad invented?” etc.

P4300009P4300008 did this help us? We could since then (last year, first grade) inquire better. And ask smarter questions relatd to our units of inquiry.

The Wonder Wall in the classroom helps us rethink our questions as we learn more and more. We also use questioning techniques in our reading sessions as we have a Thinking Board in the classroom. 


I also adapted a PPT – The Power of Our Questions – created by Angela Maiers, an exceptional educator whom I have been following on Twitter for the past two years. I shared the presentation with the kids, stopping after some slides to ask them questions and connect what they saw/read with own knowledge and experience.

In another session we brainstormed answers to the question, “What does it take to be a THINKER?”. See kids’ answers (first grade) below. I displayed them on the wall so we can remember that when we feel like giving up. 


I used quotes, too. 

We made concept maps

We self-evaluated

From time to time I change the mini posters I create near the Thinking Board. Below are some of them. I added the Download feature in case you would like to use them. 

I know this was a long and overcrowded post but I always try to give evidence instead of lecturing. And I also found that I like better the blogs that have photos of practice or samples of student work.

Would you share how you nurture curiosity and an inquiring attitude in your classroom? I am always willing to learn more, reflect more on my own practices and share. 

Thank you for reading!

*Photo credits: Marco Belluci, Flickr

*Music: Kevin MacLeod ,

Inquiry, Creativity and..Fun

In Uncategorized on February 2, 2011 at 9:01 pm

Some of you who read my previous blog entry ( know that my students and I inquire into the arts, music and writing as tools for self-expression. Some of you also gave me ideas and links to use – a warm thank you to you!

Reminder: My students are second language learners. They are second graders (7-8 year olds). 


I promised I would share our learning journey…So here is how I tried to accomplish my goals:


Change the classroom space – so it would look like and feel like an art room.

  1. Image2133Copy_of_image2094Copy_of_image2099Copy_of_image2116Copy_of_sam_0353Graffiti2

Mission accomplished!

         we painted the furniture

         we created a graffiti wall

         we painted the window glass

         we will hang painted fabric on the walls

 The focus was on the PROCESS & COLLABORATION rather than the final product.


     Create an Inspiration Board – so kids would share and get inspired in return.

Mission accomplished!

Kids brought books, pictures, photographs, quotes, toys, jewelry and whatnot J! They also offered an argument for their choice (How does this inspire you?)


 Turn the kids from CONSUMERS into PRODUCERS of artwork

Mission accomplished!

As I am the English language teacher, I focused on Web applications that combine illustrations and writing. We created comics, posters, drawings, stories on We will also create poetry and photo shows using the links in our class wiki (


    Johny the Young Pirate on Storybird


    Take field trips to art galleries and museums – so students would get to see authentic artwork and meet artists in their workplace

Mission accomplished!

The kids went to 2 art galleries, to a museum, and (wohoo!) to the Institute of Belle Arte where they could actually see college students CREATING art pieces! Seeing artists at work was a powerful experience for them. They will also go a web designer studio and see how technology can impact our notion of art and beauty.


       Integrate TECHNOLOGY

Mission accomplished!

Out of our 3 hours of English daily 2 were spent using Web applications and the blog. Wallwisher, SpicyNodes, Wordle, Scribblar and others (aside from art-related web apps) were used to record student thinking, their creative process and encourage reflection and collaboration.

Wordle: Art *Wordle by Andrei


Bring in guest speakers

We invited the Arts teacher to answer to our questions!

Goal: I would love to Skype with an artist from another part of the world but none has offered so far…(Need to work on my social skills, maybe? So I can motivate people to collaborate…)


Create Reflection Journals – a new, more creative approach

Zoe Elder (@fullonlearning on Twitter), a terrific teacher AND my remote resource of inspiration, was kind enough to let me use her very own journal and I shared it with my students. The kids were all “wows”and “ahas” when seeing that our thinking is more powerful when we “translate” it graphically! Unfortunately, I need to take a new set of photos of their reflection journals because my US drive was in coma L. I also created my own journal which I share with students!

*Zelda’s journal – thinking visually 


*My journal – I know, I still need to use more colors 🙂



We have our Wonder Wall and student questions are recorded there. They have personal questions that are pursued until the end of the inquiry unit. I also challenge them with my own questions from time to time (see below).




Aside from the very process of creation (of a story, comic, poster etc) I would challenge students in other ways. I posted videos and photos in the class blog and gave students various tasks:

         make your own quote about art

         give us tips on what inspires you to create

         imagine a new scene for the video you watched etc.

Some of the videos and pictures can be viewed below. 

A SHORT LOVE STORY IN STOP MOTION from Carlos Lascano on Vimeo.

let yourself feel. from Esteban Diácono on Vimeo.