December Inquiry Project: Successes and Adjustments

For the month of December, I took on a new enrichment project to keep my advanced students curious as they learn at home. While it is my desire to eventually open up this project to whomever of my fourth grade students are interested, during quarter 1 and 2, I’ve prioritized giving targeted instructional support to students who are lacking important skills in reading or math, based on beginning of year Scantron data (among other sources).

Based on this data

  • Of the Scantron sub-topics, most students had at least one topic within reading or math that they needed to practice (number operations, algebra, geometry, measurement, data, fiction, nonfiction, or vocabulary)
  • About half of fourth graders are performing at grade level expectations for reading, with one quarter above grade level and another quarter below
  • About one third of fourth graders are performing at grade level expectations for math, with one third above grade level and another third below

Who was selected to participate?

Students who were above grade level expectations in both reading and math were invited to participate in this month long project (a total of six students). This project (the “Inquiry Project”) was largely self-directed, with weekly small group check ins on Friday mornings before whole group Zoom calls and teacher feedback throughout the week.

Sequence of December Inquiry Project

Week 1: To begin the project, students had to pick a topic they found interesting, and create a plan of study. This plan included one central research question, and two supporting questions, and challenged them to consider what materials they might need to complete their final project.

Week 2: Next, students had to begin to use digital or print sources to explore their research questions. Students shared the information and sources they had found in our conversation on Friday morning. It was my goal to have students give one another feedback that morning by asking questions, but it had to wait until the following week due to issues with technology and time.

Week 3: After that, I gave students specific feedback about ways they could strengthen or add detail to their projects. For students who had found an abundance of sources during their first week, I challenged them to consider the connection between their faith and their topic. More on that below! This week, students had a chance to explain to each other what information they had found so far, and ask one another questions. I shared copies of students’ questions to one another after our meeting, so that students could have the chance to respond to their peers in their final project.

Week 4: Finally, students designed a final project (a powerpoint, poster, or research paper).

I invited other members of our 4th grade team (instructional coach, Spanish all subjects teacher, principal, vice principal, etc.) to join us for students’ presentations. I considered inviting parents, but was concerned it would have a divisive effect. For January, a colleague suggested that students decide if parents should come. For now, I felt more comfortable keeping the trial run of this project in-house.

Presentations

Overall, the topics students selected were FASCINATING, ranging from:

  • black holes
  • white holes
  • black footed ferrets
  • environmental justice/plastic alternatives
  • mining and rock ores
  • Greek myths
  • Carnivorous Plants

As students presented, they sometimes had me advance slides for them as they explained what they had learned (about 5 minutes per person). After each person spoke, we gave constructive feedback as a team by typing it into the chat on Zoom. Students had participated in various thinking routines (like “See/Think/Wonder”) in discussions before, and the feedback they gave one another was strong. I also noticed that there was a collective sense of grace for students whose presentations didn’t include as much detail as others. The group seemed determined to celebrate everyone’s work, which was heartwarming. I was proud not just of their scholarship, but of their supportiveness.

My favorite part

The most satisfying part of this project for me as a facilitator was being able to challenge students to consider how their faith intersected with the topics they were studying. I really appreciated how some students were able to consider how Greek culture/myths might have shaped some Greek’s reactions to the gospel (Acts 17), how verses from Genesis and Revelation support ongoing stewardship of the Earth’s natural resources, and how carnivorous plants and black footed ferrets reflect the diversity of God’s creation.

Student Reflections

After student presentations, I asked students to complete a simple reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of their project, considering what they’d improve for next time. Unsurprisingly, students whose projects had lacked detail made it a goal to add more detail for their January projects. It was exciting to see how the grace given to them by the group equipped them to take responsibility. In general, I was able to take the feedback students gave in this reflection to consider how to design January’s projects for increased equity and greater instructional support. For many students, this was their first mostly self-directed research project. I am so excited that students’ were able to set goals for January that exceeded the feedback they could have received from me or the group. To me, that demonstrates a greater understanding and appreciation for self-directed learning that will hopefully continue to feed their scholarship. Especially given how many high achieving students’ default to anxiety and perfectionism as they get older, I hope that these students will find joy and awe in the learning process, and see God at work within their interests.

Adjusting for Equity

It is my goal that students continue versions of this project each month during distance learning. Now that I’ve been able to get a feel for how to facilitate these kinds of projects, I am ready to expand the project to students who are performing at grade level in both math and reading (receiving As or Bs, Honor Roll). It is still my goal to leverage student interests to eventually motivate students who are performing below grade level at one or more subjects, but I sense the need for more support (potentially delegating some of the work to a colleague) to pull that off.

For the January Inquiry Project, I brainstormed with my colleagues about students who might benefit from participating. We have invited 3 more students to participate, and now have approximately half the class completing an inquiry project. This decision to expand the project to students who are performing at grade level in both subjects has the effect of including more Latino students and students learning English, which is exciting! Due to the ways that race and SES interact within this area of D.C. and the advantage native english speakers have on standardized tests, english learner students in DC often score lower than their peers on standardized tests anyways. It is likely that these students are just as capable as their monolingual or white peers, but their abilities aren’t fully captured by standardized testing. Including more students and increasing the equity of the project will increase the diversity of students’ ideas, which I am more than thrilled about!

Changes to the January Inquiry Project Design

In order to support bilingual Spanish speaking students and their families, I have made all of the Inquiry Project activities bilingual, giving students the choice of the language they will utilize. It is important to me that students can present their findings in the language they feel most comfortable in. While I technically teach all subjects in English and am not required to make this change, I am hoping that it increases student access AND will help develop my primarily Spanish-speaking colleagues interest in the project, so that we can include more students at their instructional levels. Truthfully, I would love for this to be a multi-grade level project next year and have intentional elements of math and reading. BUT I am still tinkering with that idea and would need much more support among colleagues to pull it off.

I’ve also decided to:

  • Break our 9 January students into two groups (of 4 and 5) to complete their discussions in Breakout rooms on Zoom. Students already have a lot of experience in Zoom Breakout rooms and I am confident that this will increase their ownership of the project (and feedback to one another).
  • Move our Inquiry Project Friday check ins from 9:30am-10am to 9:15am-9:45am, to give students a break before our whole group 10am Zoom calls
  • Add an “affirmation” section to students’ Inquiry project proposal, so that it will be closer to a learning contract. It is my goal to support an increase in student responsibility for January projects, and to watch as students make it more their own. Therefore, I felt this clause was important.

In February, I hope to give students the option to transition from Independent to partner or small group inquiry projects, with clearly defined roles and responsibilities!

For our January Inquiry Projects, please pray:

  • That God awakens callings and passions in my students that will stay with them for life
  • That students’ develop increasing levels of maturity and responsibility that lead them closer to God
  • That all students would feel a deep sense of belonging and purpose as they study, and that there would be no linguistic or cultural barriers preventing student and parent participation
  • That these projects would be a light to students during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • That by the end of the year, all fourth graders would have the option able to participate in an Inquiry Project of their choice, through increased support from colleagues and planning graces

In Christ,

Haley Nus

Published by Haley Nus

I am a bilingual Christian Educator in the heart of D.C. who longs to see revival transform K-12 education both domestically and internationally. I believe that inquiry-based and experiential teaching methods pair seamlessly with godly awe and point us through the gospel towards a Creator who invites us to taste and see his goodness (Psalm 34:8). While I love sharing the gospel with people, I take Jesus's invitation to welcome children in his name (Luke 9:48) and Jesus's exhortation to become like children (Mathew 18:3) literally! In order to shape the world well for adults, we must serve the youngest among us so that we will truly understand who we are as sons and daughters (2 Corinthians 6:18).

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