Questions & Authors: Integrating inquiry, assessment, and strategic teaching

July 29th, 2010

In Pulling Together: Integrating Inquiry, Assessment and Instruction in English Classrooms, Leyton Schnellert and his coauthors present a comprehensive answer to the current big ideas in teaching: formative assessment, backward design, inquiry learning, strategic teaching, and metacognition. In this edition of Questions & Authors, Leyton talks about the origins and inspiration for Pulling Together, and how he and his colleagues find connections between English language arts and inclusive education.

Pulling Together emerged through collaboration with my colleagues Krista Ediger, Mehjabeen Datoo, and Joanne Panas.  Over the last few years, we have met about once a month to build text sets, redesign lessons, explore strategy instruction and wrestle with assessment.  However, somewhere along the way, we began to realize that the various approaches that we were pulling apart and trying to make our own actually supported one another.  Our inquiry then became something more satisfying and even elegant – an attempt to pull various practices together.

Pulling together seems to be a theme for me; I have spent much of my teaching career finding connections between my two passions: English language arts and inclusive education.  For me they go hand in hand, classroom communities with diverse student populations open up opportunities to explore multiple perspectives and literacies from the inside out.  Krista, Mehjabeen, Joanne and I use inquiry as a planning and teaching framework because inquiry invites students to engage with ideas and experiences by asking questions and developing and sharing their own perspectives. Planning from our knowledge of students – what they know and believe, looking at their strengths, interests and stretches – helps us to develop culturally relevant curriculum.  For us, ongoing formative assessment plays a big part in inquiry-oriented classrooms.

Through teaching English language arts and co-teaching with peers (in my role as a resource teacher), I have learned to invite students to tell their stories and develop their own insights.  Instead of looking for right answers, I ask students to develop an idea and/or interpretation and to explain their understanding using evidence.  When there is an aspect of oral or written language that we all want to develop – a common outcome – I invite students to generate criteria with me.  Even if criteria or rubrics exist, I prefer to involve the students in figuring out what our shared criteria might be and invite them to find positive examples of these criteria in their own and others’ writing and thinking.  In my teaching I work from a belief that all students bring experience and skill – I don’t expect all students to at the same skill or knowledge level, but what I do communicate is that each of them needs to move from where they are as a learner to a deeper, more accomplished place.  In my planning and teaching, I’m asking students to pull together their background knowledge, the texts they read and create, the criteria we develop together and the mini-lessons I teach to help them get closer to those criteria.  Together my students and I make curriculum together.  The learning outcomes or standards are part of this curriculum, but so are we.

Inquiry learning builds enduring understandings and thinking strategies.  In Pulling Together we show how we have combined inquiry, formative and summative assessment, and strategic teaching. Within inquiry units we find that we can both (1) help students to develop deep, conceptual understanding and (2) explicitly build the thinking skills they need to help them develop these understandings. In each unit we focus on a few key thinking, reading, and writing skills. This is how we develop thoughtful readers and writers, who choose to read and write beyond our classrooms.

To help us in this process we:

1. Start with the end in mind.  We look at the learning outcomes and/or or standards to determine what we want students to know and do in a unit.  We also think about what themes and/or aspects of the human experience we can students to explore. Then we group these into one or two big ideas.  By the end of the unit, we want students to:

–      link examples and ideas across texts and explain how they are related to the human experience

–      explain how technology shapes the way we live our lives

–      use more than one medium to analyze and share a personal example of technology impacting how they communicate and behave

2.  Recast big ideas as questions that can be explored through inquiry.  Joanne, Krista, Mehjabeen and I were able to shape an entire three month unit around the questions:

How does communications technology shape our humanity?

How do we communicate with each other?

How does technology impact the way we communicate?

How does the way we communicate change the way we behave?

How does communications technology humanize and/or dehumanize us?

3.  Plan one or two performance assessments for the unit.  These allow students to show the understandings and skills they have developed.  For this unit students:

– wrote a personal essay on the topic how communications technology impacts them personally

– created a video, blog or broadcast (ie podcast) on how communications technology affects humanity/ society/other groups

– reflected on their learning in their metacognition journals

4.  Engage in lots of formative assessment especially descriptive feedback and student self-assessment.  These activities and assessments are not usually for marks, but rather to help students practice working with ideas and approaches, getting feedback along the way.  In this unit:

-students co-created a personal essay, guided by the teacher, on the topic “how does YouTube affect behavior?”

-they created a communications technology timeline

-They participated in quickwrites, a class blog, group discussions, information circles, and read and discussed articles on the impact of technologies

-wrote a reflection on their learning in their metacognition journals

5.  Teach mini-lessons use gradual release of responsibility for key knowledge and skills.

–      Students saw a teacher model ways to brainstorm ideas, start essays, create a flow for their ideas and back up their ideas with examples.

–      The strategies and approaches used and practiced along the way were the same ones they used in the performance assessments.

–      By the end of the unit everyone had a change to see examples and practice with feedback related to criteria.

–      All students had more success as they got personalized feedback related to shared criteria.

For Mehjabeen, Krista, Joanne and I, we are working to help students develop foundational skills for working with texts, ideas, each other and beyond the classroom. What is key for us is that it is the thinking skills and communication approaches that allow students to deeply engage with and understand complex ideas and information being taught.  This is a principle of inclusion – all students have a right to access ideas and techniques that can help them to develop themselves and engage with others and the world.

It is exciting for us is to hear and read how students’ thinking and understandings are developing.   By spending this extended time developing thinking skills, we have found that our students are able to grasp increasingly complex ideas and synthesize information and concepts with insight and appreciation. Using inquiry and performance assessment has also helped students to see the unique perspectives of their peers and any number of ways that these insights can be represented and communicated.  This provides us with a deep satisfaction as teachers; pulling together inquiry, formative and summative assessment, and strategic teaching is helping our students to develop the ability and sensitivity to appreciate diversity and difference.

Entry Filed under: Literacy,Questions & Authors

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