Quick Tip Tuesday: A climate that promotes inquiry

November 23rd, 2010

In Nonfiction Matters, Stephanie Harvey offers teachers the tools to help students explore nonfiction and dig deep to reach a more complete understanding of the real world. In this week’s Quick Tip, Steph shares some ideas on creating a classroom environment that promotes and encourages students’ natural curiosity.

Denver kindergarten teacher Sue Kempton maintains a classroom that looks like the Denver Zoo, complete with a working beehive. The bees fly in and out of a tube through the window to the outdoors, where they collect pollen and bring it back to the hive to produce honey. Sue’s kindergartners keep a daily log of hive activity. Intermediate students who wander in for announcements or buddy readings can hardly drag themselves away.

First-grade teacher Debbie Miller teaches science and social studies through a jobs curriculum: students are assigned real jobs such as geologist, archaeologist, mathematician, historian, reporter, comedian, poet, surveyor, zoologist. They learn to view the world through a different lens and begin to make important new discoveries.

It’s not fair to restrict these wonderful activities to five- and six-year-olds. Adolescents would revel in these explorations. Stimulating classrooms like Debbie’s and Sue’s spark enthusiasm and curiosity at all levels. Engagement follows naturally.

Comfortable classrooms foster inquiry. Teachers need only hearken to the libraries of their youth. Rooms lit by soft lamps, containing overstuffed couches, area rugs, bulging bookshelves, framed pictures, fresh flowers, promote reading, thinking, and discussion. Clusters of small tables lend themselves to the easy exchange of ideas. When kids engage in inquiry, busy conversation is the norm. I search far and wide for inexpensive furnishings to soften the classroom and frequently hit the jackpot at garage sales.

Conveniently placed resources and equipment keep unnecessary teacher interruptions to a minimum. Baskets of nonfiction books placed on each table assure that kids always have something to read; no unnecessary scrambling around in a harried search for text. A relaxed environment eases daily tension and contributes to thorough inquiry.

Don’t Forget the Halls and Walls
Walls can teach. In classrooms that value inquiry, teacher- and student created charts summarizing research reminders and strategy guidelines hang throughout the room. Topics, questions, sign-up sheets, and kids’ work cover the walls. The information is topical and useful. Teachers no longer need worry about coming up with cute bulletin boards.

Halls offer the open space environmentalists dream of. Use the halls to your advantage. Shelley Harwayne considers corridors rich with life an essential ingredient of inquiry-based education. Halls can house student-led classes, club sign-up sheets, announcements, presentations, kids’ work, popular Web sites. Halls come alive when we see the tracks of the students who inhabit them. Hospitals are sterile; schools are not. Let’s not confuse the two.

Classroom Correspondents
Classroom correspondents who keep everyone informed about goings on in the community are central to inquiry-based classrooms. Literary correspondents stay in touch with the bookstores and libraries through newsletters or occasional phone calls and report upcoming author signings and storytelling sessions. Broadcast correspondents follow radio and TV schedules and enter the day and time of important programs on a weekly chart. Film and drama correspondents report on films and theatrical productions of interest. Everyone tells everyone else about good books, magazine articles, films, plays, and TV programs read or seen, either through oral announcements or
written reviews.

Take Note of Real Events
Classrooms engaged in nonfiction inquiry celebrate real events, real issues, real people, and real stories. They invite a veteran in to share experiences on Veterans Day. They study the electoral process during a national election They follow a breaking news story. Replicating real situations fosters inquiry and enhances understanding. To help students get a sense of their place in history, some teachers encourage kids to chronicle public and personal events in a scrapbook or on a time line. Birdie, a seventh grader, highlighted sixteen events, half public and half personal, from her birth in 1983 through the fall of 1994. Taking a scrapbook, she headed to the library and copied old newspaper headlines and magazine covers that marked important public events during her young life, including the space shuttle Challenger disaster, the Gulf War, and the arrival of the Colorado Rockies in baseball-starved Denver. Personal artifacts included her first lost tooth, a blue ribbon for diving, and a picture of her first day of kindergarten. Exploring public events alongside personal milestones helped her understand the relationship between her life and world affairs in the eighties and nineties.

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday

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