From “Experiment” to Two Grade Levels of Inquiry
Last year, my students did an abundance of research on topics of their own choosing, through Inquiry Projects. My initial goal in developing the Inquiry Projects was to give students’ something other than COVID to define and brighten their experience of distance learning. Throughout the year, the Inquiry Projects became so popular that by May and June, my grade level colleagues joined me to give all Third and Fourth grade students the opportunity to do their own Inquiry Project. Their support was important because throughout the months as the popularity of the projects grew, approximately three students joined our Inquiry Project group each month. I needed support if all students were going to have a chance to keep exploring their interests, and thankfully, my colleagues allowed student’s passions to take over our curriculum.
Ultimately, the Inquiry Projects became Third and Fourth grade’s favorite part of our school year (the cerulean blue on the graphs below). Check out this post to find out more about their reflections and learn their other favorite projects of on 2020-2021.
As a teacher, I also learned a great deal through the Inquiry Projects. In December, I practiced using Seesaw and other digital tools to help students plan their projects. We met over Zoom on Friday mornings, and students frequently got feedback from their peers. Seeing how greatly students valued peer feedback, I placed students in teams that would meet consistently throughout the month to support each other throught discussion (both questions and feedback). Students were required to use their peer feedback in their projects, and we also discussed Internet safety at length, not just focusing on the content of websites, but the emotional and spiritual effect it had on it’s audience. In December, I also expanded the project team to include students with high academic performance but whose standardardized test scores were likely lower than their abilities, due to Spanish as their primary language (and some tests being inevitably based in English, despite how much we try to test bilingually in our bilingual school context). In January, I focused on helping students connect their faith to their research by giving them increased tools to link biblical texts and themes, Catholic saints, and Catholic Social Teaching to their projects. In February and March, I supported students to test out alternative project ideas, including Kahoot, Youtube videos, and Prezi. As our Third and Fourth Grade teaching team decided to expand the Inquiry Project to all students, I supported my team to spend much of May and June making sure that students had both the structure and graphic organizers to develop clear research questions and do a little research day by day. In this post, I will describe the experience of Third graders who had never before completed an Inquiry Project, but who through the tools my team shared were able to draft clear questions and dig deep into their topics.
Interested in learning more about the Inquiry Project content as it developed? Check out these posts.
December Inquiry Projects – Empowering Student Interests (7 students, individual): 7 fourth grade students
January Inquiry Projects – Connecting Faith to Research (10 students, theme groups): 10 fourth grade students
February/March Inquiry Projects – Experimenting with Alternative Presentation Ideas: 12 fourth grade students
May/June: All third and fourth grade students (36 total)
Greater Focus on Asking Specific Questions
One of the highlights of May and June’s Inquiry Project was seeing how students were able to use this inverted Triangle organizer to ask measurable questions. Through narrowing questions by historical time period, region, type, individuals involved, and other boundaries, students were able to understand not just their topic not just as a genre, but within a set context. In turn, narrowing their research focus allowed them to find more specific information that gave them a deeper understanding of their topic.
One great example of how students applied this skill was by setting the specific breed of animals some researched. By and large, Third grade’s great love of animals became the topic of the majority of their Inquiry Projects. One student who was interested in researching rabbits ultimately chose to research the “American Fuzzy Lops” rabbit, in order to find more specific information. Another example was a student who instead of researching “tigers” chose to research “Sumatran Tigers”. While these changes may seem small, they gave students a sense of greater expertise and confidence come presentation day. Check out this post to find out how Students’ great love of animals has shaped more of our lessons.
Sample Weekly Progression
Another excellent change that my colleague pioneered was to break apart the Inquiry project topics not just by week, but by specific activities within the week. While I had previously assigned Fourth Graders one activity for the whole week (a new aspect of the project each week), we agreed as a team that Third grade would have greater difficulty managing their time and breaking the week’s activities into pieces independently. By labeling the activity with specific days of the week, we were able to better support Third AND Fourth graders who struggle with time management. Check out this activity from the “Connecting Faith to Research” week to see how one students’ love of ducks was reflected in Catholic Social Teaching (Monday), the Bible (Tuesday), Catholic Traditions and Saints (Wednesday), and Prayer (Thursday).
Overall, the Third graders did a tremendous amount of work! In the future, we hope to share tools like Youtube, Prezi, or Kahoot with them to give them alternative final presentation formats. For this round of Inquiry Projects, many of them chose to focus on learning how to format a basic Powerpoint.
While just one student chose to create a poster, he was able to use many of the same concepts of Powerpoint creation to his project, from including a blend of photos (at least one per category) to limiting text for simplicity. Overall, I’m extremely proud of the level of detail students’ were able to produce on their first Inquiry Project!
Presenting her Ideas through Video
Several students also chose to record themselves on Seesaw explaining their project instead of presenting their projects live. I have found that students who have difficulty with public speaking prefer this option, as well as students who are verbal processors and just want more talk time. Lastly, I’m starting to find that as students become more passionate about their topic, their excitement makes them more likely to record their voice explaining it. Check out this video I dubbed of a student explaining the function of Electric motors! The passion in her voice comes through!
I value reflection so much! I decided to give students this opportunity to reflect, not just to consider the strengths and weaknesses of their project, but also to give students who struggled to meet the rubric requirements a chance to plan ahead for next time.
Again, through these reflections, students’ passions really shone through. I was shocked to see this student admit that she had woken up at 4am one morning to finish her project. I would have never asked that of her, but her level of committment blew me away. She also described her sense of accomplishment when she finished her project.
How will the Inquiry Projects Change this Academic Year (2021-2022)?
Over last year, I so greatly enjoyed seeing the random topics students chose for their projects. From shark attacks to robotics to Dragonball Z to Art murals and Mayan Cuisine, the direction of students’ projects were as diverse as their authors.
I have noticed that the former Third Graders (now Fourth Grade) and our incoming Third Graders (formerly Second Grade) really crave predictability, and need additional support in time management. These developmental delays are no significant challenge, but should be expected after last school year’s experience of distance learning. In order to create a balance of student choice and structure, I have decided to link our Inquiry Projects to the Science and Social Studies block. While students will still connect their projects to their faith and other disciplines, students will be able to have greater support in designing their project topics and pick from a list of genres.
This year, I am hoping to do Inquiry Projects on a monthly cycle that introduces a theme through small group Guided Reading, in the Science or Social Studies Block. By meeting with one group each day for a week to help dive deep into a category of books, I will be able to help compensate for the reading loss students’ experienced last year as well as help them think about related topics (using our Apple TV to research their ideas after finishing a text at their levels). In each topic, there are a variety of books that are at students text levels, so that all Reading Groups will be able to participate (check out the example below). For students whose reading level falls below this range, I can also select a book on Kids A-Z or the Libby App to read as a group, to build students’ background knowledge.
As you can see, there are a variety of topics (sorted by genre and topic) that connect to our Social Studies and Science units (organized by month).
Here are the topics in order:
- Folktales about People
- Folktales about Animals
- Specific First American Legends
- Extreme Weather
- Doctors and Nurses
- Natural Disasters
- The Desert
- Conservation (Animals)
- Conservation (Nature)
- Natural Resources
- Power and Energy
- Citizenship and American Symbols
- Inventions and Products
- Personal Story (?)
- Missing Objects
In addition to the Book Interest survey I give students each year, I have assigned students an activity where they can vote on their favorite topics, of the list above.
Through analyzing their responses, I will be able to highlight the categories students are most interested in, both as a class and as groups. I will use this information to plan what Social Studies or Science topics we use in Inquiry Projects this year.
Hopefully, the progression of this project throughout the Month will include:
- 1 week of Reading books
- 1 week of Researching Facts
- 1 week of Researching Faith
- 1 week of creating Projects (with Presentations during the Morning Meeting the following week, or digitally)
Starting in September
In order to give students’ a chance to respond to their reading interest surveys, I have decided that our first Inquiry Project will connect to our Topic for Social Studies this month: Things in DC. As we focus on what it means to be a school community, biblical teachings on community relationships, and our local context, students will have the opportunity to explore any organization, building, or people group in DC
I am grateful for the support of colleagues and for the hard work of students during 2020-2021 to make these projects possible! I can’t wait to share how students’ interests have continued to propel these projects, the gains they will make in Reading, and the connections they will be able to develop to their faith in and through these projects. Please pray that the Inquiry Project of 2021-2022 would be even more fruitful than the projects of 2020-2021, and that students would become more curious, passionate, and faithful through these projects.