Paths of Inquiry: Explorations in Pedagogy and Research or A Very Long (even after a lot of revision) Thank You Note

Yesterday, the Connecticut Council for the Social Studies (via the Fairfield County Regional Council) and the Fairfield University American Studies program came together to host a full day workshop for teachers about authentic inquiry and research. My head is still spinning after listening to A-list scholars share their passion for and dedication to their work. So while this post includes some of my thoughts about the day, it is essentially a massive THANK YOU to Fairfield University and the American Studies program.

We started the day with Dr. David Lerner, Professor of Film, Television, and Media Arts sharing this quIMG_2121ote, which Rebecca and I will have to revisit multiple times. He discussed the importance of persistence throughout the research process, especially when faced with dodgy interviewees, and challenged us to think deeply about what it means to explore “text” when researching.



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Statistics revealing the lack of funding for the arts in the United States compared to other countries and other sectors in this country.

Dr. Philip Eliasoph, Professor of Art History, then presented about the importance
of understanding the historical context of art over time (rapid speed!) and challenged every educator in the room to embrace the rich resources in Connecticut and the tri-state area to further explore American history and inspire students to engage with visual sources. His questions about defining America, specifically “What defines Americanness?” resonated throughout the room.


Dr. Anna Lawrence, Professor of History, arrived and described feeling like a detective when she is doing her work. Her ability to ask questions about early American women and find documents both written by and about women provided invaluable insights into women’s lives and the history of our nation. The best part was at the end when she revealed that her book had an anti-climatic ending because she had more questions and more research to do.

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Brian Torff, Professor of Music and Music Center Director, brought the music of Duke Ellington and his own talents with the harmonica to welcome us back from lunch! He talkedScreen Shot 2016-04-21 at 11.10.41 PM about American music, saying, “We bring the past forward…that is a magnificent part of who we are and what we do.” Teachers, like musicians, artists, and scholars, have the difficult job of bring the past forward too. What a wonderful way to think about our work in the classroom.


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Frank Waln

Dr. Peter Bayers, Professor of English and chair of the American Studies program, who was instrumental in making this day happen (extra thanks!), illustrated for all of us that research is never linear. The spiral of his research on American masculinity through literature, gender studies, history, and geography got me thinking about how important both passion and persistence are during the research process. His current research relates to Native American hip-hop artist, Frank Waln, which is a relevant and engaging inquiry topic that had teachers scribbling in their notebooks.

Dr. Marti LoMonaco, Professor of Theater, brought one of her students with her to talk about using theatre in the social studies classroom. She built upon a common theme of the day Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 11.10.58 PMwith layers of research and parallel narratives by showing educators how plays can be paired together to demonstrate that one is an outgrowth of another and a reflection of a historical moment or issue. For this reason, she made very clear that plays belong even more in a social studies curriculum than an English one! While performing plays in the classroom might make some teachers a little uncomfortable, they were really thinking about how theater can be an important part of inquiry and research.

We finished the day with Dr. Yohuru Williams, Professor of History and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, who brought a contagious energy and paScreen Shot 2016-04-21 at 11.11.05 PMssion for public education. He modeled his strategy for historical fingerprinting and built upon themes from the day about historians as detectives, the importance of incorporating social justice in classrooms, and the need to encourage student inquiry when evaluating the American narrative. As Rebecca noted on Twitter, we stopped taking notes to simply listen and be inspired. It was the perfect way to wrap up the day.

As I am writing this, I am filled with gratitude and many, many more questions. Countless thanks to Dr. Bayers for helping to create a meaningful dialogue among K-12 educators and Fairfield University scholars. Thank you to the professors who spoke so passionately and left us with big questions about our own practices and the role of authentic inquiry in our classrooms. It was a professional experience that left us all energized and filled with new ideas and questions to explore.

We can’t wait to do it again next year!




PD in PJs

We were so fortunate to be able to participate in The Educator Collaborative gathering today. From 9:45 until 4, we drank coffee, watched, listened, took notes, tweeted, and talked about MANY best practices that we heard through a variety of workshops.

Our brains are swimming, so we wanted to reflect before we forget some of these great ideas! As Kate Roberts  mentioned, research shows that we lose the knowledge that we don’t use! For us, part of blogging is to have a record of the great work we see being done all around us so that we can come back to it, dusting off our memories before they disappear.

Reminds me of the movie Inside Out when the Mind Workers start vacuuming up all of the memories that are fading.

Today was inspirational, so if you were not able to attend, or you didn’t see the same presentations that we did, here is a quick recap of our greatest take aways. (However, there were multiple sessions for each time slot, so we know we missed MANY other great points.)

If you missed today, here is a link to the archive

Keynote: Sara Ahmed and Smokey Daniels – The Curiosity Driven Curriculum: From Identity to Inquiry

Even though we had heard some of the ideas in this keynote when we were in Santa Fe, Sara and Smokey are so inspirational when it comes to student inquiry, that we loved them as much the second time around, maybe even more. They always make us think differently.

For example, when referring to teachers’ potential reluctance to inquiry because it is not “the curriculum,” Sara stated: What happens when the world hands you a curriculum?

Brilliant. Definitely going to use this question a lot when discussing curriculum with teachers.

Session 4: Heather Rocco and Friends- Independent Reading at the Secondary Level

First and foremost, we need to buy Book Love by Penny Kittle. She is the beloved guru of anyone who wants to use student choice in a classroom. It reminds us of Nancy Atwell’s Reading Zone, a book we LOVE for middle school.

We see more and more students who have fallen out of love with reading, or have never developed even a “like” of reading. This approach, 10 minutes of independent choice reading at the beginning of EVERY English class is something we have been thinking about for a while. However, this session presented two very new and refreshing ideas for us to consider, pushing us further towards trying to make this structure a reality:

  1. We need to build a community of readers, including parents. At back to school night, show parents the books you have read over the summer and discuss expectations for reading over the course of the year. A few times a quarter, update a link to a recommendation page and make sure you share it with parents and students. Parents need to be reading partners!
  2. Encourage students to create a school book club. They choose the book and run the conversation. Invite administrators, other teachers, the nurses, students, anyone in the school community. This further reinforces the idea of a community of learners.

Great slide from this presentation:Screen Shot 2016-04-02 at 11.05.50 AM

Session 6: Kristen Ziemke and Katie Muhtaris – Amplify! Digital Pedagogy for Today and Tomorrow

Even though we work in a high school and their book  Amplify is for K-6, we have found so many useful tools in it. Their motto is that technology must be used purposefully and should never replace another tool if unnecessary. If you can use chart paper, then use chart paper!

New learning from their session included our excitement to learn about the Global Student News Network. It is a website curated by students in Missouri. Here is their mission:

“Every month, our team will tweet out a new theme using the hashtag #GSNN. The rest is up to you! Students K-20, all over the world, are encouraged to produce a multimedia project relating to that month’s topic. Once you submit a video, check our website to see if your video gets featured!”

We can’t wait to share this with students and teachers!

SIDE NOTE: Through tweeting about this session, we found this iBook from Don Goble with lesson plans for students creating their own digital six-word-stories. It is FANTASTIC and FREE!

Session 11: Mary Howard and Linda Hoyt – Maximizing Deep Thinking and Reflection through Independent Reading and Read Aloud

These masters of literacy had more ideas than we could keep up with! However, there were three ideas that really stood our to us.

  1. Two Word Strategy: Asking students to choose two words from a reading that reflects their thinking about the reading
  2. Information Equation: Help students to see the relationship between ideas

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Once again, even though these are targeted at elementary students, if we up the level of complexity of the reading, the same activities can be used with older students. For example, high school students can use the information equation to think about the complexity of characters in a novel or the cause and effect relationship of events in a social studies class.

Session 12: Amy Rasmussen and Shana Karnes – Choice as the Keystone in Secondary English Classes

Can you see that we are really serious about trying to change the way we approach reading in high school?

We are planning to read this article by Alfie Kohn on the fact that a democratic classroom needs be filled with choice.

In addition to student choice in independent reading, these high school English teachers use book clubs and whole class novels. They often let students choose the whole class novel they want to read. So simple and so smart!

Session 16: Wonderopolis and NCFL – Bridging School and Home with Fun and Family Friendly Resources

Unfortunately, a thunder storm caused major buffering problems in this session, but we are happy we can at least see it in the archives. However, we DID learn about Wonder Ground, a new resource from Wonderopolis that helps teachers collaborate with one another about student inquiry and wonderings. We have signed up and are really excited to participate!

Closing Session: Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts – The Right Tool for the Job: Practical Planning to Bring Big Ideas to Life

What an amazing way to end a day filled with inspirational teachings! Kate and Maggie focused on ways that we can teach students the tools they will need to succeed in learning when we are NOT there.

Returning to the beginning of this post, the purpose of this post, memory. Kate cited brain research that states that that:

  • it is hard to remember things you haven’t paid sustained attention to
  • we have storage issues as certain information never really sticks
  • it is really tough to move information from working memory into long-term memory

and the reason I am writing this blog the night of…

  • knowledge once remembered will fade without usage

The point is that when we plan the tools to use with students, we must think about using the right tools for our purpose.

Tools to use:

  • Charts – a tool that helps students remember information because it is in the classroom for them to refer to
  • Demonstration Notebooks – models how to use a strategy for students
  • Student-Made Bookmarks – helps readers remember familiar reading strategies

Each of these tools are ones that we have seen and used in our classrooms before, but this session made us think about deepening our understanding of them and being more purposeful in WHEN we choose to use each one.

In addition, Kate and Maggie reminded us of two other very important ideas:

  1. Rigor without relevance is simply hard.
  2. Differentiation is not making everyone the same, but rather helping students reach similar goals through thinking about what students need

As the day came to an end, Chris Lehman, founder of The Educator Collaborative gave his final remarks. In the background we saw one of our favorite quotes from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax.  It really summed up why we loved today so much

The next Gathering is September 24. Mark your calendars.

Top Five Outcomes In a Question-Filled Classroom

Since we are very excited about #QuestionWeek, we will be posting more than once this week! With the advent of the C3 Framework, inquiry standards and inquiry-based instructional practices have been a major focus for social studies teachers. The teachers we work with have been doing incredible work to get students to think critically and creatively as they explore their own questions.. We want to share what we have seen in classrooms when teachers make questioning and curiosity a priority, and students become champions of inquiry.

Our TOP FIVE outcomes in a question-filled classroom:

#1 Students keep it real. In question-filled classrooms, students are engaged in real-world issues and thinking. Just today, I saw a group of students discussing a documentary in an American Government class. When I told them they were going to have an opportunity to meet two of the people in the documentary, their questioning was unstoppable.

#2 Pre-reading strategies mean something. Purpose, purpose, purpose. Teachers who use questioning to help students find a purpose for reading and analyzing text have the ability to engage their students in sources that they might not have explored deeply with teacher-created guiding questions. Reading the title of an article, study, or source and asking questions before reading has become a beloved practice.

#3 It’s 3-D, and you don’t need an expensive printer. Our favorite social psychologist, Josh Aronson, talks a lot about the brain’s need for three dimensional problems. Questions have dimensions. Take a minute to think about a question and then take a walk around it in your mind. That’s what students do when they have the time and space to engage in questioning in a classroom.

#4 Graphic organizers are not required. Go ahead, make one if you must. But seriously, students can use their questions to make their own. Once they have identified and prioritized questions, they are much more prepared to explore ways to organize their thinking and research.

#5 Teachers look more relaxed. Well, at least on the outside. A question-filled classroom takes a lot of brainpower for everyone. Teachers with lessons that are driven by student questioning are thinking with their students. The best example of this was a student who posed this question during an intro to the Russian Revolution: “What happened to the social contract between the people and the government?”

Our political theory-loving hearts nearly exploded.

It’s #QuestionWeek

The researchers behind the book Make Just One Change are calling the week of March 13 #QuestionWeek. We are big fans of their Question Formulation Technique (QFT) because we have seen the results of students improving their questioning after moving through this protocol in the classroom.

The idea behind the QFT is to lead students through the questioning process, asking them to reflect and refine upon their questions along the way. This is a group activity and often takes us about 45 minutes to get through with a class. However, it is also a technique that is best practiced multiple times throughout the year, as students need to consistently practice strong questioning across content areas.

The following examples are ways that we have used their protocol as a basis for questioning activities in our classrooms. We have found the best time to use the QFT is to start a new unit/topic of study or introduce a text.


The Statement:

The QFT always begins with posting a statement that the students must use to formulate their questions. Students spend time posing questions they have about the statement without judging one another’s questions or answering the questions. Some of the statements we have used are:

  • A young black man is shot.
    • We used this to introduce the book How it Went Down by Kekla Magoon in a 10th grade Honors US History Class. Students posed questions relating to how it happened, who did it, and if race and/or gender was a factor etc.
  • In China, a teenage girl is bullied.
    • This statement was used to start a book club about the memoir Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji-li Jiang. The 9th grade Global Honors students had to think about what they had learned about the culture in China in order to ask questions surrounding class,  religion, and politics.
  • A young black girl is raped.
    • 11th grade students in an English class grappled with asking questions about this statement as a means for introducing The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.  This chart demonstrates the wealth of questions they brainstormed about many different topics.IMG_0350








  • Nine million people were killed in the Russian Revolution.
    • 9th grade Global Studies students had to use their prior knowledge from studying the French Revolution and learning about the structure of revolutions in order to ask questions that will ground an inquiry study of the Russian Revolution.

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  • Teenagers are fleeing their homes without their parents.
    • Students in a co-taught ninth grade Global Studies classroom were questioning this statement as a means to get them thinking about the refugee crisis in Syria. This was a way for them to activate any prior knowledge they might have before reading an article on Newsela.

We do not require a note taker or that students all ask their own questions. We just give each group a piece of chart paper and some markers. The way they decide to generate questions is up to them. They just can’t judge one another’s questions, comment on them, or answer them.

The key to having students write a variety of questions is to have an engaging but vague statement. As teachers, we were introduced to this technique by going through it ourselves using the statement Donald Trump is running for president.  You can imagine the questions that came out of this statement!


Closed vs Open Questions:

Once students have determined their first list of questions, we introduce the idea of closed vs open questions. We explain that a closed question has one answer, which is often yes or no. An open question has multiple answers, needs supporting evidence, and often is a catalyst for discussion.

Students look through their questions and code them open vs closed. Most often, students find that they have MANY more closed questions than open.


The next step is to have them think about the advantages and disadvantages of both types of questions. It is really important for students to understand that closed questions are not “bad” questions. We need specific information in order to formulate ideas about open ended questions.


Part of this discussion includes making a list of words that start closed vs open questions. Some words we have come up with are:


Open: WHY, HOW

Once students have coded and discussed the advantages and disadvantages of these types of questions, we have them practice turning three closed questions into open questions.

IMG_0353 example for closed to open

This requires them to consider the complexities of the information they are trying to uncover. For the example above, the students questioning the statement “A young black girl is raped” asked a closed question about the perpetrator:

Did he have a criminal record?

Through their discussion, they decided that a stronger question that would evoke more of a response would be to think about the perpetrator’s past in general. They changed this to the open question:

How has his past led to this event?

Now, the students are going to be thinking about character development throughout the book in order to gather evidence to discuss this question.


Determining Class Questions:

The final step in this process is to have each group prioritize their questions and choose the top three that they want to contribute to the class. We ask students to choose the questions that they are genuinely curious about as these will be the questions that guide the discussion of the unit/text. When sharing their questions, each group needs to explain WHY they chose the three questions they did. We also do not allow groups to repeat questions.

Final class chart for "A young black girl has been raped."

Final class chart for “A young black girl is raped.”

Final class questions for "Nine million people were killed in the Russian Revolution."

Final class questions for “Nine million people were killed in the Russian Revolution.”











A collection of group charts for "Nine million people were killed during the Russian Revolution."

A collection of group charts for “Nine million people were killed during the Russian Revolution.”

In reading the class collection of questions, in each case it has become clear that the students are asking questions that will evoke thinking during the unit. Many times, these have been questions that we might have given students to think about prior to beginning the unit. Yet, this is a much more powerful way of engaging students as the foundation of inquiry is that students drive their learning.


Final Step:

Reflection on student learning is the final step in this process. Before students leave the classroom, we discuss the different types of thinking that they engaged in throughout this process.  We take the terms and definitions directly from the QFT protocol.

These include:

  • Divergent thinking- The ability to generate a wide range of ideas and think broadly and creatively.
  • Convergent thinking- The ability to analyze and synthesize information and ideas while moving toward an answer or conclusion.
  • Metacognition- The ability to think about one’s own thinking and learning.

In helping students to become aware of the various types of thinking they employed throughout the lesson, they are going to be more cognizant of the type of thinking they are doing during other activities.


We will continue to post more work with students and questioning during #QuestionWeek.

To get involved with Question Week, you can follow this link to the Right Question Institute.

To gain a better understanding of the QFT, consider buying the book Make Just One Change. It is a fantastic model for eliciting authentic student questioning.



Strong Female Characters: The Quest to Find Diversity in Texts

One of my favorite parts of being a literacy coach (and when I was an English teacher) is that my job requires me to read, a lot. In addition to all of the professional reading I do, I am constantly searching for new books that my students will love (or at least are willing to read!).

Recently, I have been thinking more and more about the lack of diversity in the books that we use in our classrooms. Even when giving students choice, many of the books we offer or book talk are written by the same type of author or about the same types of people.

In choosing books to read , ones that I am thinking about sharing with students, I try to think  about race, ethnicity, culture, religion, and gender for ALL of the following:

  • What lens is the author taking in his/her writing?
  • Who are the characters represented in the text?
  • Who are the characters left out of the text?
  • What genre is the writing?
  • Where is the text taking place?
  • Which characters’ voices are heard the most?
  • Which characters’ voices are heard the least?
  • What format is the writing?
    • narrative
    • graphic novel
    • diary
    • illustrated text
    • article
    • digital
    • picture book

Full disclosure: It is REALLY hard to keep all of this in mind when choosing books to read as we, as readers, are obviously drawn to certain texts due to our own interests and preferences. But, as teachers, we must be conscious of reading and offering texts that we might not always be drawn to for the benefit of our students.

I try to glance through as many book lists as I can. I have even started a list of books I want to read based on these lists, searching for a more balanced reading list for our school.

Most recently, I have been reading books with strong female characters written by (mostly) female authors. Here are some of my favorites:

Honor Girl: A Graphic Memoir by Maggie ThrashScreen Shot 2016-03-02 at 12.42.39 PM

I really enjoyed this memoir about a teenage girl’s experience with her first crush at an all girls sleep away camp. Maggie’s exploration of her own sexuality, the questions she asks, the reactions from her peers and the adults at camp are raw and real.  I love the content and format of this book because it makes the topic of sexuality accessible for mature readers of all levels.

Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 12.49.32 PMDumplin’ by Julie Murphy

This fictional account of Willowdean Dickson explores the role of body image in teenage girls. Willow has always been comfortable in her plus sized body, despite the fact that she does not feel supported by her mother, a former beauty queen who still runs the town pageant. As a result of the fallout from her first crush, she begins to question her confidence. In order to regain control of her strength, she decides to go against her beliefs and enter the town beauty pageant. I read this book in two nights. I could not put it down. It so perfectly captures what it feels like to be a teenage girl without being perfect.

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Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

As far as historical fiction goes, it does not get more action packed than this book. Based on the female pilots who flew for the Royal Air Force during WWII, this is a story of two girls who are best friends, and what happens when one of them has to save the other after a plane crash behind enemy lines in France. Before I read this book, I was completely unaware that women flew for the RAF, often in broken down planes, under the cover of darkness, without even instruments to guide them. They were as integral in the war as the male pilots, yet have been left in the shadows of the story.

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Philip HooseScreen Shot 2016-03-02 at 2.21.04 PM

This nonfiction text challenges the perspectives about the Rosa Parks story and the Civil Rights movement. It is the story of a young teenage girl who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This predated Rosa Parks’ decision to take action through her involvement with the NAACP. This book is not a challenging text to read, but it is a complex text in terms of the ideas presented, especially because it challenges our assumptions about a very important event in the Civil Rights Movement and, even more so, the history of our country.

Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow

Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 2.24.32 PMThis fictional account tells the tale of a young girl who is the sole survivor of a tragedy. As the daughter of a Danish woman and a black G.I., she is thrust into a situation where she encounters racism due to being biracial. A great example of how literature can teach us empathy, this book explores the social constructs of race and class.