Tuning in to author studies

We are about to start author studies here in my Kindergarten class, but first, we took some time to tune in.

The notion of tuning in is often misunderstood. Some teachers regard tuning in as initial explorations of a unit’s content or concepts, which is not altogether incorrect- provoking student interest and identifying personal connections is a necessary component of the start of a unit of inquiry in order to help students begin their journey to deep conceptual understandings. However, teachers must also tune in to their students– What do they already know? What do they think they know? What do they want to know? How is this relevant to their lives? This valuable information will expose misconceptions, reveal student interests, uncover students’ own life experiences, and encourage questions, all of which should, in turn, guide the direction of future inquiries.

Kath Murdoch (the well-known inquiry rock star) suggests the teacher’s primary role during the tuning in phase of inquiry is to “… stimulate, question, record, mediate and, above all, to listen.” (p.12).

With this in mind, I started the process of tuning my students into the concept of authorship via a simple thinking routine, whilst I tuned into them, their prior knowledge, and what may interest them as we learn about various authors and their work.

Part one

First, we defined what an author is. The general consensus was that an author is someone who writes a book.

Next, the students brainstormed what authors do. It was a slow start for the students (“It’s their work….. it’s a job”), but once the first student mentioned that authors write to tell us a message, “….like something they want to tell you…”, then the ball really got rolling!

– To help us learn to read.

– Because they want to tell a story.

– So they can tell us something.

– So we can listen to an author’s story.

– Other people might enjoy their stories.

The students noticed that a lot of them had the same idea, that authors write to tell us something. This is when we made our first generalisation, a ‘big idea’- authors write to tell us things.

It was at this point that one student called out, “Authors write books and poems and posters, too!”. After lots of excited “Yeah!” comments were made, we all agreed that this should be our new definition of ‘author’.

Part two

We started to think about the different things authors write about. It was another slow start, but after I asked the students to think of their favourite books and what they were about, then the ideas flowed!

I especially like the comment that authors write about “….what they are thinking about.” When I asked this student to elaborate, he replied that they write about what they like, which another student connected to the students’ own published books that are displayed around the room. This led the students to the realisation that they are authors! Whoa!

As we had been thinking about authors some more and we had uncovered new information, I revisited our first ‘big idea’- the generalisation that authors write to tell us things- and asked if the students wanted to change it. It was a 50/50 split as to who wanted to change it, and who wanted to keep it the same. A bit of persuasive discussion ensued:

– It’s OK already.

– But we can put the things that authors write about.

– Everything?

– Yes! It tells us more information.

– Yeah!

It was at this point that I jumped in and asked if we could say all the things authors can write about in one or two words. Silence. I suggested the word anything, then another student suggested everything. One student called out, “Authors can write to tell us about anything!”. We had our new ‘big idea’.

Part three

I changed today’s question from ‘How do authors write?’ (waaaay too abstract) to ‘How do authors share what they write?’ (much more focused on what I wanted the students to think about, which were the different ways we can access and read authors’ work).

One student had mentioned recipes yesterday, and I explained at the time that recipes were also a way authors could share what they were thinking about and what they liked, so it was added to today’s section of the poster, too.  When we started today, the word ‘recipe’ seemed to prompt the students’ thoughts immediately. Students got into the flow of this idea straight away, which surprised me as the relatively straightforward questions from the past two days seemed to stump them at first. Sometimes they just need a little nudge!

Once we had thought of different ways authors can share their writing, we made connections between them- can you read a recipe in a newspaper? On an iPad? How about via an audiobook? The students realised that there are many different ways authors can share their writing, and many different ways we can read about things, not just via books.

One student suggested we change the definition of author again to include all the different ways authors can share their writing……..

Which brought us back to our ‘big idea’. Did it need to change again? The students all agreed that they wanted to change it to include today’s new information, so we ended up with……..

We wrapped up by stepping back and marveling at how our understanding had changed over the past few days as a result of thinking about new ideas and making connections between these ideas.

No student questions came up throughout this entire process- are they interested in author studies? I’m not entirely sure, but my next step is to actually ask them! Once the ball gets rolling, I anticipate my students will start to ask lots of why and how questions. In the meantime, we’re going to start with Dr. Seuss as he is a class favourite. They seemed to enjoy the process of creating generalisations, what we are calling ‘big ideas’- I wonder if we can make generalisations about authors and their work?

But for now, we are tuned in and ready to start finding out about authors through author studies!

Murdoch, K. (1998). Classroom Connections: strategies for integrated learning. Eleanor Curtain Publishing: South Yarra, Australia.

Basic Inquiry Doesn’t Have to be Sexy

I am now embarking on my second year out of the classroom, and surprise-surprise, I miss it. I’m not ready to go back just yet, but there are a few things that I am particularly excited about trying and nothing but my own classroom will do.

One is 1:1 iPads. I spend just about every minute of every day supporting a 1:1 iPad program, and in every class I enter, I can’t help wonder what exciting things I could have done with students if I’d had them in my own class.

The second is my evolving view of inquiry and assessment. Like most educators my age and younger, inquiry is a concept we’ve been quite aware of since teachers’ college. As PYP teachers, inquiry has been at the heart of our program and something we discuss frequently with colleagues and students. We don’t take assessment lightly either. In fact we often design elaborate projects that span weeks in an effort to create a meaningful final assessment.

There’s a problem though and it lies in how we choose to define our terms in practice. I’ve become concerned that all too often, despite our best efforts to resist it, “meaningful” degrades into “sexy”. What activity will get the kids really excited? What product will wow parents and colleagues? Can I one-up my teaching partner with my pedagogical wizardry? We lie to ourselves when we say we are immune. When we walk into a room of students working collaboratively on an avant-garde project, our impulse is to label it good and it may well be, but it also may be “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

A little competition is healthy, and I’ll be the first to promote creative projects as a valid way for students to explore new ideas, but we must resist two assumptions if what we are trying to win is student understanding:

  1. Don’t automatically assume that teacher-directed discussion is antithetical to inquiry.
  2. Don’t assume that a lengthy project assesses understanding better just because it took longer.

I hate to say it, but after 10 years in the classroom, these are things I’m just coming to terms with. These ideas are not my own and they are not foreign to IB audiences. I’ll focus on the first question of inquiry and save the second for another post.

Collaboration and group projects are not synonyms for inquiry. They may be good strategies to facilitate student inquiry, but we should not mistake those activities as proof of meaningful inquiry.

Most of us have taken an “Inquiry in the PYP” course, and in them there is usually a little bit of everything approach. I agree that we need a mixture of structured learning, guided inquiry, and open inquiry.  In my opinion, however, we all too often focus our planning around open inquiry because it lends itself so well to designing activities and products of which we can be proud. But if student learning is to be the true object of our pride, then we must come back to guided inquiry as a central element of our teaching — even if we risk being labelled “traditional” — the ultimate put-down in a PYP school.

For those looking to really focus in on inquiry free from all the bells and whistles,  Kimberly Lasher Mitchell is a great place to start. She recommends the following teacher stances to promote inquiry. Note that these are norms of communication rather than clever frameworks to design engaging activities.

  1. Provoke discussion and challenge thinking
  2. Stay neutral and judgement free – don’t say “good, great response”
  3. Invite elaboration– let them think through their theories
  4. Honor student theories – even the wrong ones
  5. Teach students to listen to each other
  6. As students think out loud their opinions becomes clearer and teachers can assess student knowledge and understanding
  7. Ask students where they have got their information from
  8. Wait time –give time for students to think and to get the courage to express their thoughts
  9. Paraphrase or reiterate to guide discussions back to the central idea
  10. Use the IB Learner Profile to elicit responses

Most of it is basic stuff, but reading that list doesn’t do justice to Kimberly’s insights. Her DVD, however, brings each of these into full focus and there are several extended model lessons to watch. There’s nothing sexy about these lessons, but in them, you get to see her go into an unfamiliar classroom and lead students in a unplanned, guided inquiry that owes more to Socrates than to Maria Montessori. At first it is almost painful to watch as she patiently follows the students’ silly theories, but in time, it becomes clear that there is a purpose and this purpose is being pursued with some very specific teacher behaviors. If nothing else, it is good to be reminded that, like doctors, we practice our profession. There are specific methods that we can employ when working with students in order to promote their learning. Sometimes they aren’t natural or easy.

Here’s a snippet I’ve uploaded:

Here’s the problem though. If you, a parent or an administrator were to walk into that classroom and stay for just three or four minutes, you would leave thoroughly unimpressed. They are sitting at their desks facing a teacher at the front of the room for God’s sake!

What do you think? Is it possible for PYP teachers to resist the circus-act and strip inquiry down to its most basic form and purpose? Is this dialectical method really compatible with constructivist theory? If there’s room for both, how do we resist falling for the sexy one every time?