Posts Tagged ‘inquiry’

Under the Surface

In inquiry, vision on February 24, 2013 at 1:06 am

As I am planning for the new inquiry unit I was looking over some of my older notes and thought of organizing them into a chart that some might find helpful. Sure, I could have used the fanciest web tools to make it look nicer  but I guess simplicity is often underestimated. Or I am a bit lazy. Take your pick.

*Side note: This is my notebook. You can tell I prefer doodling to organized stuff. And drawing to blogging.


Back to my notes. One error that some teachers make is mistaking engaging activities for inquiry. How can it be? They use a hands-on approach, their lessons are interesting, they organize learning around a theme, and, yes, even emphasize “interdisciplinarity” – “Dinosaur” theme in Science, Math, Art and whatnot. Read the rest of this entry »

Thinking: Shaken Not Stirred

In activities, inquiry on February 22, 2013 at 11:47 pm

prov·o·ca·tion  (prv-kshn) n.

1. The act of provoking or inciting.
2. Something that provokes.
Our brain needs it. To engage. To learn. To remember.
In an inquiry-centered environment learning provocations abound. They motivate, sustain, invite to future wonder.
The recipe? Confusion, strong reaction, interest. One or more.
What are some ways to put that into practice in a classroom?
1. Photos
Because they are worth a thousand words.
Use various strategies:
I See / I Think / I Wonder
Silent Conversation
Musical Tables etc.
There are millions of photos available that can be used in inquiry on various concepts – poverty, conflict, power, gender, multiculturalism, pollution – basically anything and everything.

A Question of Identity

In education, school, Uncategorized on February 23, 2012 at 6:27 pm

My blog readers know I rarely dwell on generalizations and that I prefer to share what I do in my classroom. If you are here now, I invite you to see how my students and I inquired into the concepts of “similarities” and “differences” in relation to ourselves and the people around us.

Obviously this is just one way to “teach” and by no means it is to be taken as a model of perfect teaching. I just share what I do and if you find some good ideas go ahead and use them. If you don’t, well then you wasted some precious time and I can’t help you with that. J

*NOTE: My students are second-language learners (like me) and are now in 3rd grade.

The central idea that guided our inquiry was, “I am a unique individual with similarities and differences in relation to things and people around me. “

The process might seem linear but it is only apparent. For the sake of easy reading I had to put the learning experiences in a timeline so you can have the big picture of the learning process as it unfolded.

Collage Profile

– provide students with a sketch of their own profiles

– students draw and write inside (words and pictures they feel relate to themselves)

– share and discuss (Gallery Walk strategy)

This activity gave me and my students an authentic glimpse into what they see themselves like. As usual, I made my own profile,too, because students need modelling and enjoy learning about their teacher. I also share my reflection, reading, writing  and doodling journals with them.


ME Box

– students share items they brought from home (favorite toys, books, other items)

– video record students and post the videos on the class blog for later reflection

– reflection: What do these object tell about me? 

– communicating likes/dislikes, abilities, interests helps in the inquiry process, but also in building orla language skills

This “box” is highly relevant because it contains what children cherish most and items that are related to their interests and abilities.



– brainstorm with students things that people can “see” about us

– students complete the outer circle with personal details

– sharing time, discussions

The purpose of this activity was for students to notice what is “visible” about themselves and and it was also a springboard for the next activity where we went deeper into the concept of “identity”. 


The ME You Don’t See

– students brainstorm things that cannot be “seen” by others but are very important to us as persons

– they complete a blank Iceberg Model and the words are then written by teacher above and under the “water”

– students complete the second part (Share some things we don’t know about you.)



– discuss the concept of timeline, show models

– students create a personal timeline with the most 5-7 most important events in their life

– I brought a timeline, too 

Some events shape our life, our personality and even goals. It was important for students to identify “big” events in their lives and make connections with who they are now as persons. 


If I Were…I Would Be....

I often encourage metaphoric thinking because it does stretch the mind and it provides a new perspective. The kids enjoyed this activity a lot and became aware of their uniqueness (even if, for instance, some chose the same color they did so for different reasons).


Knowing YOU

A. Human Treasure Hunt

– an in-class survey is designed by students (Find Someone Who….)

– students came up with a list of questions that we immediately put in a document and started “hunting” for answers around the classroom (e.g. Find someone who…plays an instrument.) We made a graph in the end and visualized both similarities and differences within our class.


B. Interviewing Our Classmates

– students paired up and prepared questions to ask their partner

– they interviewed their classmate and we “broadcast” that (we used a microphone, headset etc) under the theme “Today’s Special Guest”.

These interviews varied as I empowered students to make up their own questions and find out exactly they wanted from their peers. It was an engaging experience and one that deepened student reflection as they could see themselves in the videos posted on the class blog.


Tug of War: Similarities vs Differences

– prepare two statements and attach them to the end of the “rope”:

SIMILARITIES are more important because they make us a community.

DIFFERENCES are more important because they make us unique.

– students bring arguments that “pull” towards the end they select (use post-its)


As you can imagine, at the end of the activity we concluded that both similarities and differences help us as individuals.


A. Conceptual understanding

– make three groups of students

– provide 3 sets of photos, each set illustrating the same object but from a different perspective

– question prompt: “What do these pictures have in common? What do you think the big idea is?”

– the groups share their ideas; provide the key-word at the end (Perspective) in case students do not know it

You’d be surprised how smart kids are. After initial struggles ALL three groups concluded that “perspective” was the major concept.


B. Walk in My Shoes

– students bring  a pair of shoes that belongs to another family member

– they try to run, skip and move but it is, obviously, hard because the shoes are either too big (the parents’) or too small (their siblings’).

After the initial fun and smiles, we sat down and reflected. Their “big idea” was  that we sometimes judge people based on appearances without knowing what it feels like to be “in their shoes”.


C. Poems 

Reinforce this idea through poems, books, artwork. I used two poems and played music in the “background” for a greater effect. Allow students time to “sink in” and then reflect.


While we were engaged in these  whole-classroom activities, the kids had their own questions (see our Wonder Wall). They pursue them individually and complete their Inquiry Journals.


However, at some point, I noticed that many kids had inquired into gender differences (“Why are boys and girls different?”) so I changed my planning to address that.

GENDER Stereotypes


– bring magazine covers, ads and website pages (printed) that are designed for each gender

– use I See / I Think / I Wonder strategy so kids can make connections, clarify their questions and thinking

– bring the class together. Question prompt, “What words would you use for describing each set of pictures?”

– use Wordle to visualize the most frequent words

Kids noticed how different were the words used in relation to each gender, and also how different the pattern was – for describing girls there were a lot of adjectives about appearance, while for describing boys the focus was on personality/skills. Of course, this finding caused a very lively discussion! J



– make a chart and divide it into Shapes/Colors/Animals/Symbols

– ask students to select and glue them under the headings Boys/Girls

– gather students as a class. What were the most frequent items associated with each gender? Record together on a big paper.

– discuss findings

You can only imagine the debate that followed! I also contributed my own view (at the end, so I wouldn’t influence their choices). I told the kids how I dislike shopping (an activity usually ascribed to women), that I love dogs and used to play a lot of “boy” games when I was young, and I never wore pink in my life!


These activities raised many questions and the kids’ feedback was that “labeling” is unfair, that we do, indeed, are different gender-wise but that is also influenced by the media and the grownups around them.

Well, hoping that I didn’t bore you too much, I conclude here. I am aware that this unit of inquiry could be designed in many ways and that I certainly can improve. I had to take into account age-group characterstics and the fact that my students are scond-language learners (this involves simplifying language in some cases). Retrospectively, however, I feel I created activities that are engaging and relevant for students, developing skills and a sense of awareness that goes beyond “cute” busy activities. The end of the unit feedback from students also emphasized that aspect.

If you have time, leave a comment and do not refrain from criticism – I always prefer it because it makes me reflect and grow. Thank you!

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”. 




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 ,