Tag Archives: Inquiry

Ways to Celebrate the Eclipse!

On August 21, the Moon will block the Sun, as seen from North America and down through mid-South America. The Sun will be entirely blocked on a path that is about 60 miles wide. This path will go through parts of 14 states. 

When I was in grade school, I remember working with a few other students to build a pinhole camera out of  of cardboard. We stood with the sun at our back, while trying to look at the projected image on a second piece of cardboard. Here are some more modern ways to get students engaged with the eclipse.

Invite students to look at historical and primary sources about eclipses throughout history. Then compare that coverage with the news we see today. What is the same? What has changed? Student can record the similarities and differences as a Venn Diagram or in a Compare & Contrast Map.

All Summer in a Day” is a science fiction short story by Ray Bradbury that was first published in March 1954. The story is about a class of school children on Venus, which in this story, constantly has rainstorms and the Sun is only visible for one hour every seven years. Invite students to make connections from the short story to this current eclipse. If you would like to engage more with the text, check out this lesson plan from ReadWriteThink.org.

In this lesson plan from ReadWriteThink.org, students listen to and discuss poetry that pertains to the study of astronomy and write their own poems to enhance their learning of the subject. As a final project, students use the ReadWriteThink Printing Press to compose original poetry books about astronomy.

What makes a shadow? Do shadows change? These and many other questions provide the framework for students to explore their prior knowledge about shadows as fiction, informational texts, and poetry. In this lesson, language arts skills are linked to the learning of science in a literacy-based approach to the study of shadows.

Will you be able to watch the eclipse? What are you planning to do with your students?

Questions as Open-Ended Explorations

This blog post is written by NCTE members Lisa Diomande and Nargiza Matyakubova. 

Question Mark“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire,” emphasizes William Butler Yeats, one of the most prominent poets of the twentieth century.  That burning passion is so ingrained in our teaching that it continuously sparks ideas to enhance our classroom experiences.  To address our students’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as our successes and failures, we often set a time to meet and collaborate, and as a result of these meetings, we have identified an important skill most—if not all—students lack, and that is the power of questioning.

In a rushed modern world, it is difficult for educators to slow their students down enough to engage them in the act of inquiry.  For most of them, inquiry is asking a question, answering it, and then moving on.  For us as educators, inquiry is a much bigger and more vital activity that teaches reasoning, discernment, discrimination, evaluation, assessment, and ultimately, independent thought that engages the world.  Most of all, inquiry teaches us to see connections all around us.  So, how do we get students’ attention?

The key, of course, is engagement.  In the lower levels of literacy learning, this concept may mean teaching students how to engage with a text, a challenge for students who see letters and words swimming on a page and have no experience with creating an internal dialogue with the content.  For more advanced learners, who can skim the surface of texts enough to spit back the main ideas and then move on, our challenge is different: How do we ask them to converse with the text in a deeper and more open-ended way?  How do we move them away from result-oriented thinking toward the potential pleasures of a treasure hunt, a pirate’s booty, a scavenger hunt?  How do we show them that the pursuits bring them rewards apart from grades, honors, and graduations?  These objectives are doubly hard when all our pursuits are designed to show an immediate outcome.

While raising these questions, we developed a set of ideas that we started applying in our classroom practices.  We also decided to share them with other instructors at the Teacher-to-Teacher Conference held by the New York City Writing Project.  In our workshop titled “What Is Inquiry? Scrutinizing Evidence to Uncover Truth,” we outlined different strategies an educator could use to develop students’ abilities to raise thought-provoking questions that ultimately lead to deep discussions of the subject matter. We distinguished two categories of questions: content-based and form-based.

Using the text “The Miracle in Front of You: Raymond Barfield on Practicing Medicine with Compassion,” Janice Lynch Schuster’s interview published in The Sun magazine, we followed several content-based questioning steps:  What central idea / message does Dr. Barfield convey?  What are his implications?  What themes or underlying issues does the text reveal?  What questions can guide us to thoroughly explore these themes and ultimately help us discover truth (which was another central focus of our presentation)?

Both in our classrooms and during the presentation at NYCWP, we witnessed what engaging and unique questions every individual could ask to challenge others’ understanding of and relationship with a text.  Below are a few themes and questions developed in the process of inquiry (based on “The Miracle in Front of You”):

 Does Dr. Barfield claim that hospitals need more hospitality?
 How can the field of medicine be improved
_ with treatments?
_ with administration?
_ with doctors’ / medical personnel’s demeanor?
_ with education?
 What is a cure?
 How can a doctor best serve a patient?
 Is there always a solution to a disease?
 Do people need to fear death? What happens if this fear prevails?
 How can we define one’s life purpose? What are the fundamentals of satisfaction and happiness?
 What does it mean to be fully present in the situation?
 How could language help connect a doctor to patients? How can understanding of the following help a doctor better address the needs of patients?
_ the patient’s personality and background?
_ their interests and expectations?
_ their fears and hopes?
_ their life goals and dreams?
 How important is it to make a place for creativity in a life devoted to professional advancement?
 What is the price people pay for over-emphasizing achievement over exploration, expansion, and investigation?

Such questions not only engage students in the act of inquiry, but also develop their critical and creative thinking skills.  They learn to do close reading by discovering what is beyond a text.  They learn to synthesize information more efficiently to discover the truth and, in the long run, compose more complex and distinct thesis statements and essays.  Once they have generated content-based questions like those above and developed meaningful answers to them, they can focus on the form-based questioning.

The purpose of form-based questions is to help students construct their own argument.  These questions involve rhetorical situations: audience, genre, stance, tone, purpose, media, and design.  Some of these guiding questions are: Who am I writing for?  What am I trying to accomplish?  What will I be contributing to the assignment?  How will I reach my goal or purpose?  How am I supporting my claims?  How rich is my evidence?  How valid is my reasoning or analysis of evidence?  How can I best present information?  What layout of information is the most logical and appealing to readers?  How am I different at the end of this project?  What did I gain as a student, researcher, scientist, etc.?  How can my work affect readers in a positive way?

Facilitating student questions is best done in groups as collaborative thinking yields more results.  We believe that student collaboration and partnering, while time-consuming, can present inquiry in a way that is mutually beneficial when the questioning and exchanging are based on open-ended inquiry, not simply finding the answer.

Lisa DiomandeLisa Diomande’s background in theatre, dance and Orff-Sculwerk music instruction informs her passionate commitment to transformational and performative adult education at The City College of New York, La Guardia Community College, The College of New Rochelle, and Brooklyn Library.


Nargiza MatyakubovaNargiza Matyakubova teaches Writing for the Sciences at The City College of New York and Disciplinary Investigations: Exploring Writing across the Disciplines at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  She considers writing a crucial tool every student needs to cultivate knowledge. 

Where Equality and Freedom are School Values

Nova staff and students
Nova staff and students.

Last week’s piece about the Nova Project explored two benefits of democratic societies that also seem to benefit democratic schools like Nova: a better educated population, and a population more enthusiastic about their society’s (their school’s) success.

But there are two more benefits that may be part and parcel with democracy as well: a responsible freedom, and a culture of equality.

Teacher Brian Charest, who left teaching in a traditional high school to teach ELA at Nova, reports that equality is certainly a benefit found here. Traditional high schools, he says, divide students into at least three tiers: advanced, general, and special-needs. But at Nova, where students work with teachers to create the classes they want, where students choose the classes they take and can choose independent study as well, tiers aren’t needed any more than tiers are needed in colleges. Students work enthusiastically and at their own pace.

Students are not ranked or judged with grades, either. All courses at Nova are pass/no pass. But to receive a passing grade in any course, Charest says, students must present a project that demonstrates their mastery of the subject. “In some ways I feel like we’re a more rigorous program academically than some of the traditional schools. . . . You can’t fill out a worksheet and say, ‘Hey, look, I’ve demonstrated competency.’ You really have to be able to show clearly that you understood, that you learned something.”

Most public schools struggle with bullying. At Nova, students work to be more sensitive to one another. Students form various committees to help them express their needs. There is a committee dedicated to supporting LGBTQ students, another for students from racial minorities, and more. Students who have been bullied in other schools, Charest says, are delighted to find Nova a welcoming environment. Every floor of the student-run school, in fact, has three restrooms: one male, one female, and one gender-neutral, so transgender students can know that they, too, belong at this school.

Equality between students and staff is part of Nova’s culture as well. The staff does not dictate what classes students take but supports them in following their own curiosity. This freedom can require some adjustment for youth inured to traditional K–12 schools.

“There is a real process of unlearning that has to happen,” Charest says. “Many students start Nova not quite knowing what to make of it. ‘What do you mean I can pursue my own interests?’ Given the choice to learn what you want, a student is suddenly faced with an often overwhelming number of choices. We work hard to support students through this discomforting, yet ultimately liberating, experience. And, over time, most students begin to embrace the deep learning that happens through inquiry.“

And as students take ownership of their education, their new-found freedom seems quickly joined by a sense of responsibility, leading students to get a stronger education. Principal Mark Perry says that, while he opposes standardized testing, Nova complies with all testing requirements, and he finds the test results satisfying. Nova students score as well in math as do students at traditional high schools that “teach to the test,” and Nova students actually score better in reading and writing.

“I attribute most of this to our liberal arts curriculum that is not driven by Common Core or [various standardized tests],“ says Perry.

And what happens to Nova students after they graduate?

“Students who go to a four-year college report back to us that what they learned [at Nova] about personal time management, making good choices, and their use and understanding of depth of analysis in all subject areas gives them an advantage over other students, [including] many who come from elite or AP programs,” says Perry. “We also have colleges like Mills and other liberal arts schools who directly contact us to recruit because of the success of our graduates at their schools.”

After teaching in more traditional school settings, Charest sees clearly the benefits of a democratic school. He says:

What I don’t understand is why our public officials, including school boards and local school district administrators, aren’t doing more to encourage and support the creation of more schools like Nova. There’s a lot of talk these days by so-called education reformers about the need for more innovation and collaboration in schools, but then these folks turn around and open a charter school that looks almost exactly like the school the charter was meant to replace (i.e. they continue to do school in very traditional ways). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think every school should look like Nova, but I do think it would be great to give teachers, students, and parents the ability to shape curriculum and decide for themselves what’s worth knowing and doing.



If you missed our interview with Brian Charest last week, read it here.

Democracy in a Public High School

Nova students
Nova students

Most American high schools tell students democracy is the best governing system, but the Nova Project practices what it preaches. At this Seattle public high school, students decide what classes are offered, how the budget is shaped, what hours the school is open, and what rules are enforced.

Brian Charest, a second-year Nova teacher, came to the school after teaching English for six years in Chicago’s traditional high schools. At NCTE’s 2015 Convention, Charest gave an eye-opening presentation about Nova and the possibilities that unfold when students are invited to make the important decisions.

The school’s 380 students came to Nova by choice. Youth in Seattle can choose to go to their neighborhood school or to an “option school” offering something different. Nova is an option school that utilizes inquiry-based education, with students encouraged to investigate topics of their choosing.

Students at Nova work with teachers to design independent study or design more organized classes. Among the student-shaped classes at Nova: Terrifying Samurai (the films of Akira Kurosawa), Food History, Utopias/Dystopias, Philosophy, the History of Skateboarding, and That’s Funny (a study of comedy). And those are just the ELA courses.

Some may wonder whether students get a serious education in The History of Skateboarding, but Charest says they do. “The idea is for students to learn about the evolution of skateboarding and its place in our culture. We watch documentaries, read articles, and discuss how skateboarding has been marketed over time,” he says. “Students are required to write one-page conversation papers every two weeks on a skate topic of their choice. And, as a final project, students need to do a multi-genre research project. Students can make a ‘zine, do a video edit, interview local skaters, map local skate spots, or something else entirely. So, yes, I think the class is as much about writing and inquiry as it is about skateboarding.”

Charest adds, “We are an academics-based program [but] we provide something that’s missing from a lot of schools, and I think we provide something that looks a lot more like college than you’re going to find in a lot of big schools.”

Nova students confer
Nova students at work

Nova is run by a governing group called the Mothership Committee, made up of several students and staff. The students here can easily outvote the adults, but Charest says the students deliberate carefully and tend to make good decisions. When asked if he has ever seen the students make a decision that worried staff, only one example came to his mind. Some students wanted to eliminate the Mothership Committee and restructure how decisions were made. The staff largely opposed the restructuring, but nevertheless, they put it to a vote of the entire school and agreed to abide by the students’ decision. The students voted to follow the advice of staff.

This system, he says, does have drawbacks. “It’s like any sort of democratic system. It’s messy. It can be challenging at times. Committee meetings can take a long time. . . . If you want everybody’s voice as part of the decision-making process, it can take a while.”

But democracy has at least two advantages that have made it a popular way to run nations, and Charest finds these advantages in a democratic school as well.

The first advantage is buy-in. Machiavelli advised rulers they would enjoy more power as elected leaders than as kings because the citizens of a democracy are more loyal and more invested in their society’s success than are the citizens of a dictatorship. That buy-in, Charest reports, can be seen at Nova. “[D]iscipline problems (e.g., fights, class disruptions, etc.) are not really problems that we face regularly at Nova. Yes, we have students who need extra support and coaching to help them deal constructively with their problems and behaviors, but we don’t have the kinds of problems you might see in a large, comprehensive high school.”

The second advantage of democracy is a better educated population. As Dr. James Brent, a political scientist at San Jose State University, explains, “Decision makers study to make good decisions, and they learn from the results of their bad ones. The process of deliberation forces participants to examine and reconsider ideas. So the more that people are included in the decision-making process, the deeper their understanding becomes.”

That, too, can apply to a democratic school. Charest reports:

At Nova we link our committees to courses so that work we do in these spaces is connected. Students learning about democracy can see firsthand how democratic processes function when they work on a committee like Mothership that makes schoolwide decisions. Linking committees and classes creates a connection between academic work and civic or community engagement in much the same way that a lab links the work in a science classroom to experiments and work in the field.

After teaching in both traditional schools and in a democratic school, Charest is sold on the benefits of bringing democracy to high schoolers. “It definitely works here,” he says. “Having student voice be a part of what we do makes this a better school. It builds a kind of community of the school that’s not present when students feel like they don’t really have a say in what’s going on.”


In one week, we’ll deepen our look at Nova. Meanwhile, you can read more on the value of student-led inquiry and students making their own choices.

Student-led Inquiry

Learners with agency can “intentionally make things happen by [their] actions,” and “agency enables people to play a part in their self-development, adaptation, and self-renewal with changing times.” To build this capacity, learners should have the opportunity to make meaningful choices about their learning, and they need practice at doing so effectively. Learners who successfully develop this ability lay the foundation for lifelong, self-directed learning.

Those statements come from the National Education Technology Plan.  They resonated with me as some colleagues and I were recently discussing themes we’ve noticed here in NCTE publications. A topic we have seen woven through many of our journal issues is student-led inquiry.

The May 2015 issue of Language Arts was themed, “Writing as Creative Construction“. The guest editors reminded us that “We don’t need ‘creativity’ programs, we simply need environments that don’t constrict and judge. We need space to be BIG.”

The current issue of Voices from the Middle includes the article, “Their Own Voices: Empowering Students with Choice in Writing Tasks“. Choice in writing assignments empowers students to take ownership of their work. Choice alone will not help students become better writers, so teachers must guide students in careful study of mentor texts and models of exemplary writing.

The latest issue of English Journal is on “Rethinking Research: Cultivating Inquiry in the ELA Classroom“.  This issue overflows with practical ideas for engaging students in research that originates, transpires, and ends with the lives of learners, with the ultimate goal of interrogating the word and the world to tell their stories.

English Leadership Quarterly recently addressed “Voice and Choice“. One article, “Voice, Choice, and the Optimal Mismatch: Empowering Students’ Voices by Making Them (Un)comfortable with the Student-Directed Multigenre Research Paper” discusses a new way to teach the research paper that encourages students to use more than just their academic writing voices.

The College Composition and Communication article, “The UnEssay: Making Room for Creativity in the Composition Classroom” makes the case that if we theorize creativity as a highly sophisticated and valuable form of cognition, it must also then be regarded as a necessary and indispensable part of the curriculum in the writing classroom.

New Pedagogical Engagements with Archives: Student Inquiry and Composing in Digital Spaces” from College English advances a new pedagogical approach to engaging with archives in undergraduate courses. The pedagogy described in the article invites students to inquire into the relevance of archival materials to their own everyday lives and composing practices in digital spaces.

Teaching English in the Two-Year College‘s article “Classroom Reading Experiments: Systematic Inquiry to Motivate Sentence-Level Instruction” shows how brief reading experiments can illustrate the effects of various grammatical features, pique students’ interest, and position them to construct their own understanding of English grammar, separate from the teacher’s dictates.

How do you address student-led inquiry and provide students with opportunities for agency?