Inquiry Project – looking to next year

Summer, that rejuvenating expanse of time that captures ideas, piles them in the dust bin and allows hints of thoughts to resurface in November. By sketching out some ideas here, I hope to create a platform to starting next year. Moving forwards!

  • Kick-off the year with this project. Students come in fresh from summer and have plenty of ideas. (Do they lose ideas as the year progresses or does the glitter of a new year tarnish with time?) Tap into their questions. Use the questions to build discussions and a strong classroom community.
  • Round-table brainstorms – other groups provide input and help one group problem solve
  • Spend time building questions and helping students develop good questions. Solid questions at the beginning help students get into observations with a better feel of what they are doing.
  • More days for the inquiry project but less time at each session. This year, I gave a class period (block schedule) a month to the project. Feedback highly encouraged more data collection days. Give it to them. I might have to give a half block twice a month but send them outside more often.
  • Scheduled meeting times – I need to spend more time with groups. I’ve leaned towards chats in the field while students are collecting data. The conversations give me a good understanding of student progress but I don’t think it pushed student thinking far enough. (No kidding – they were focused on data collection and I was a distraction). Towards the end this year, I scheduled 10 minute sit-downs. The questions poured out and directed conversations about ideas and observations took place.
  • Quarterly PechaKucha-style presentations. Scale down the time frame but have students give quick, interactive project updates.
  • Keep sharing – students need to talk and share their ideas a lot more.

Student Inquiry

At the start of the school year, my 8th graders grouped up and began work on an inquiry project of their own design. The campus where I teach has a small pond, a highly manicured green strip, a miniature soccer field and a little garden space. Either individually or in groups of up to three students, they developed a question of interest and worked out a means of collecting data. Final reports and presentations are just coming in.

I like to turn to the reflection section of the report first to get the feelings of students as they wrap up large projects. A few quotes:

  • “I’m not sure in this short amount of time we can find out the answer.”
  • “It’s really hard to make a thermometer but I still enjoyed the process.”
  • “The year is almost ending and through this yearlong project I learned a lot. I can feel how hard it is to be a scientist. You need to go through a lot of procedures in order to know the answer. And you often need to face problems, errors, failures and wrong hypothesis. Admired those who survived these.”
  • “I learned that the scientific process was difficult to accomplish and stick to.”
  • “I was really surprised at the end that my hypothesis was totally the opposite of what our data collection showed, but I enjoyed discovering these mistakes or error to help us improve in the future.”
  • “Some variables that are included in your project might seem minor and not important to you, but they actually affect the whole result of your experiment.”
  • “Through the research I learned about a species I had little knowledge of, and since I live with mosquitoes all the time it is a good thing to know about them.”
  • “Even though our experimentation failed scientifically,our group nevertheless learned a lot. In my opinion, experience is also as important as data because a person can use past experience for the future.”
  • “In addition to being able to learn the importance of being consistent, I’ve realized that accomplishing such a huge project provides a satisfaction unique to long-term projects.”
  • “I would suggest next year to stop the inquiry project and just concentrate on learning things from projects that would have short term results or have immediate results. Although I have definitely learned things from our inquiry project the knowledge acquired was not proportional to the time spent doing the inquiry.”

The majority of students lamented the small amount of time devoted to data collection. This year, I picked the first Friday of each month for students to collect data, upload it onto their web pages and plan for the next data collection outing. The shout-out for more time has me thinking to double the number of outings next year. One student disagrees by saying, “I would suggest next year to stop the inquiry project and just concentrate on learning things from projects that would have short term results or have immediate results. Although I have definitely learned things from our inquiry project the knowledge acquired was not proportional to the time spent doing the inquiry.”

I lean with the majority on this one. I worry that students spend too much time working with discrete bits of information and want them to expand their focus. I want them to look for patterns and to spend time connecting with the seasons, to see trends and find relationships. This takes time but I think that I need to continue carving it out.

Standards Based Grading shift

I hopped in with both feet. With the writings of Dan, Shawn and Jason in my mind I took off for the summer. Ferry riding through the Greek Islands did a lot to help me forget school and the sneaking suspicion that a major revamping of my teaching loomed in the near future, but returning to Taiwan moved the process to critical level. The kids began in a short period and I needed to get my act together! Fundamentally, I was sold. Practically, I was a bit scared at the work involved and the possibility of moving further from the teaching norm. Could I just dabble and try out one class? This would be a bit like putting a toe in the cold waters of the Pacific. There’s plenty of time to go for the big swim, right?

Being completely sold was my downfall. I’ve always struggled with traditional grading practices. Where do the percentages come from? Should homework be 15% or 20%? What about the student who knows the content but doesn’t do the work (likely bored out of her mind…)? Finding more people out there with a system that made sense gave me the nudge to make a whole-sale switch to a version of standards based grading.

So, the work began. Two different models seem to exist out in the SBG world. One was to break out course content into a set of skills that students show mastery over. This was quite appealing to my math class. The second model was to group several standards into various topics. For science, it made more sense for me to go this route. I think that it helps students work towards developing connections and increasing the sophistication of their thinking. Math followed – I don’t think that I could have worked on two different SBG flavors at the same time.

Jason then suggests creating a series of scales used for assessment. This has shifted a bit as I keep working to explain to students my system. The current conversation puts the scale like this:

1 = No evidence of learning (I really don’t have a good reason for starting at 1 instead of 0)

2 =  Still working on developing a base knowledge

3 = Level of base understanding. As a student, I know the vocabulary associated with the topic. I can label and identify general diagrams. Input in = input out. Students can typically find the necessary information in bold text.

4 = Concept level. Using the words and general level of understanding in L3, students explain concepts. They connect ideas relating to what we have discussed in class.

5 = Go beyond what was directly taught in class.

The shift to the topic scale has made the struggles worth it. Written assessments are keyed to these levels and it is easy for me to determine the level of understanding of students. Gone are the days of seeing that a student scored 83% on an assessment and having to wonder what he really knows or what he needs help on. Students get their feedback according to what they need to know in the course, not how they scored on particular assignments.

Getting Started

Two years ago, I was a teacher in Portland, Oregon. I worked at a school with an amazing curriculum that integrated subject material and involved students in their local community and environment. Due to integration, middle school teachers taught most subjects through a core class and teachers constantly worked together to develop and improve methods of teaching. I loved it but due to a variety of reasons, my wife and I left Portland to continue our teaching careers within the international school system.

Suddenly, I found myself the sole middle school science teacher without an established curriculum. Last year was a scramble to develop curriculum for three levels of science and a math course. Accustomed to constant talk with other teachers, I missed bouncing ideas off of others, listening to ways more experienced teachers dealt with students and planning units. Towards the midpoint of the school year, I turned more and more to the online community for discourse.

Admittedly, I’ve been an observer. I’ve read and read and my ideas have shifted. As a year of professional development goes, it has had the most profound effects on my teaching. Recently, several blog authors have posted about the richness of writing and processing one’s teaching online. So, here I am. Another crazy year is almost behind me – my wife and I are just finishing the process of adopting two babies – and I want to end with a commitment of writing. Writing to find my process of teaching. Writing to push my thoughts on curriculum, assessment and grading. Writing to refine what I really want my students to walk out of my class with. Writing because I find that I enjoy the process.