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Conflict and Consensus: Leading with Student Inquiry

Leading with Student Inquiry

Today we are pleased to present the final episode of Conflict and Consensus, a three-part conversation led by author and educator Pablo Wolfe. Last episode, Pablo examined why preparation is so important for teachers, students, and caregivers to effectively engage with civic learning.

Today, Pablo is joined by Hillary Usher, a Montessori educator in South Carolina. She and Pablo discuss the importance of inquiry in driving civic learning. They explore how to navigate conflicting viewpoints, how to thoughtfully engage with the community outside the classroom walls, and how following the child can lead to the most fruitful inquiries.


Below is a transcript of this episode.

Pablo: Hello, colleagues in the education world. Welcome to Conflict and Consensus, three teachers on the pursuit of civic learning. I'm your host, Pablo Wolfe, and I'm here for our third episode with my co-host for the day, Hillary Usher.

Hillary: Hello, everyone. Thanks for having me today.

Pablo: If you're just joining us, our series is a three part conversation with teachers about what it means to tackle civic learning in the classroom in this particular political climate.

In our first episode, we talked with Ylisse who shared how she dealt with calls for her resignation because she taught about race in the classroom. In our second episode, we talked with Rachel about how important transparency is to building the trust that makes civic learning possible. And today, Hillary will be sharing her teaching experiences in South Carolina and how student inquiry drives civic learning in her classroom.

Hillary, thanks for coming on.

Hillary: Thanks so much for having me today. It's such an honor to be here.

Pablo: Hillary, can you share a little bit about what you teach and the community that you teach in?

Hillary: Yeah, I can definitely share with you about that. My community is in a rural part of coastal South Carolina, so we're a pretty small tight-knit community here. Not the most diverse community, but it's getting better, which we're so happy to see is where people are starting to see the love in South Carolina and move down here. Our community is a Montessori school, but it is public. So our students who all attend, come to us through a lottery system and they're allowed to attend our school that way.

Pablo: Can you share a little bit about the role that inquiry in particular plays in the Montessori teaching practice?

Hillary: So inquiry's a huge part of the Montessori classroom. Dr. Montessori, when she developed this program over a hundred years ago, believed that the goal was to follow the child. And when you follow the child, that naturally is going to go hand in hand with inquiry. They are interested in things. Anyone who's had the pleasure of working with them knows that they're driven by curiosity and they want to be able to find out more.

So for our classroom, I work with an upper elementary classroom, which means the students are in a traditional fourth, fifth and sixth grade. So they are very interested in the workings of the world and where they fit. They've really built on their core knowledge and now they're really starting to explore deeper. They're wanting to know more.

So for that, you have to be able to take inquiry and see where they're going to lead with it, but also make sure that we're doing our due diligence to teach them what they need to know as well. So how do we apply inquiry to mathematical standards and concepts? How do we bring our history of hundreds of years ago into questions that they have today? So it's a definite balance, but it's a big driving force in my classroom community.

Pablo: Can you share an example of where some of that wondering has taken you in your class?

Hillary: Absolutely. So kids in our classroom naturally find themselves drawn to different things and it takes you off plan. And so there have been some times where we have found ourselves definitely going farther or deeper into something. Kids aren't really full of plans, they're full of wonders and they're always trying to dig deeper from that.

So a good example of one that I had in my class sometimes stems from what's happening in the world around them, the nature of the world around them. In fact, we are a coastal community. So a lot of times environmental is a big factor in our community and it gets the kids wondering about how they keep their ocean safe and how we keep our beaches clean and what we can do. And we want them to wonder about that. One day they will be the people who make decisions about that.

So now is the time to teach them about that civic responsibility, but also to care, to care for their community, to care for our environment, care for our planet. Especially being in a small town, you sometimes forget just how big the world is. So my kids have had some interesting opportunities.

One big one that came up in the past few years is about offshore drilling and it actually came to our local community about voting about them actually putting in an offshore drilling platform. And the students really didn't know what it meant. So first we had to start with the science. So we have to start with that.

And once they started to learn and realize that the drilling was going to happen in the same place where they have beautiful memories of building castles and surfing, "Why does this have to happen? And who gets to say if it happens? We live here."

And the students then became very interested in the local government and how state government affects the local government and how the national government affects the state government, who affects the local governments. So we had a natural ease into inquiry through government and what they can do.

And that leads to questions about who's right. Is the environment correct, the people who are on the environment side? Or there's also economic benefits to offshore drilling. And in our community we have people on both sides of that conversation, the people who understand that there's a financial aspect to drilling and they believe they can do it safely.

So we want to make sure that not only are we allowing them to wonder, but they're seeing that everything has different points of view and everything has different sides, and it might not be two, it might be three or four, increase so much about how we figure out in the middle how we can explore more than just one or the other.

So the offshore drilling information really got them running and a lot of them then were even going to local council meetings. They wanted to sign up to do protests and things like that. And then for others whose families might be on the pro side, they want it explained why it's not so scary to think about what could safely be done in that matter.

So it's very cool to watch kids as young as nine have these in-depth conversations about a problem that adults are still trying to find a good answer for.

Pablo: And I imagine that that's really empowering for kids. I mean, young people are usually taught in a traditional classroom what the teacher wants to study. So now that they're pursuing what they want to study, that must give them a real sense of power. Can you tell us a little bit about Gabriela? You mentioned that student to me in the past. What was her experience like?

Hillary: Oh, yes. So Gabriela is a student who I had the pleasure of teaching a few years back. She was very interested in the aspects of the offshore drilling and what was going to happen. She was a student who was very convinced that it wasn't something we wanted to see or have happen, and she was very interested in what was going to happen to the local fauna and flora and how the animals would respond.

I had the pleasure of working with her when she was in that upper elementary range and she went on to stay at our school through eighth grade and she just became more and more inspired by this to the point where she actually was able to share some of her thoughts with our local legislators and they invited her to go speak in front of a state senate committee on drilling.

And they listened to her talk about what it means to live on the coast and how this is part of our life and how they need to make decisions thinking about not just the humans but the animals and then the water and the air. And it was amazing to watch a child of, I believe when she spoke I think she was 15 when she finally went up there and spoke.

She was so empowered, she had so much knowledge, but she had done so much work, she had learned so much. I mean it might have started in the classroom, but it just blossomed and she was able to keep it going. And honestly now she's probably in college working on some environmental aspect of her information or possibly even going into government because she just had a passion for it.

And that's what we want. We want our kids to find their passion and connect it with what really matters to them. And that's how we see them really succeed and become who they're supposed to be.

Pablo: What an incredible story. I imagine though, in this particular climate that we're in right now, one of the words that is thrown around is this idea of indoctrination. You're indoctrinating our kids, you're feeding them ideas. Does taking an inquiry approach to some extent insulate you from those accusations of indoctrination? Or do you still feel like you have to be cautious?

Hillary: I think it's every educators' responsibility to be cautious. It comes with the job. We are being trusted with molding young people and helping them learn. And through learning, there is a natural process of your opinions and feelings. We do opinion-based writing. We have mock debates. We get into these conversations a lot in the classroom, whether it's the traditional, it still comes up because how you truly connect to what you're learning is by connecting it to yourself, but that becomes the danger.

So we have communities who believe that it's not your place as an educator to speak on such things, and I can understand. I can understand why, if you have values that are very true to you as a family, that's your child. So when you're trusting an educator to teach them, there's an expectation that you will honor their values.

I can tell you that in the past I have had students, this has happened with students about their religious beliefs, that's one that's common for me, where in the Montessori curriculum, we do a lot of start with the big picture lessons. So one of our big inquiries starts from how the world began and we talk about the story of the coming of the world. And it is a lesson, basically on evolution over time from base debris coming together through the Big Bang to when humans walk the earth today mixed with animals in our environment.

So you can see, depending on your values, your religious values or your morals, that might be hard to have taught to your child. And I have had students in the past where that was difficult. I can remember one family, they were Jehovah's Witnesses and they have a very strong belief system, but I want to honor that belief system. I'm not here to make you give up your faith. That's not what we're doing at all. I want to honor it.

So I want my kids to feel comfortable enough to come forward and say, "My family believes this, so how could we connect that to what we're doing?" And what's really interesting is Dr. Montessori was actually a Catholic herself. So the original story was God with no hands. So we actually had to evolve naturally from a religious text anyway.

And when we've had families who have come forward and say, "Hey, I don't think this is appropriate. I don't want you to promote something." And I say, "There is no reason not to believe." So the story just becomes bigger and we talk about all the different creation stories, what the indigenous people believed in this country compared to what somebody believed in India or China, down to religious, what they believe in Christianity or in Judaism.

So we want to make sure we're honoring everyone so that we see there are more than one way to look at things. And that's the best part about inquiry because you can bring in yourself too, and we want you to. But it's a balance and we definitely want to make sure that we are putting the wondering and the learning first so that they can get what they need.

Pablo: I think that's so cool how you use those personal beliefs to help broaden the ways that young people look at the world. Rather than to double down on something and narrow things down, you allowed the scope to get bigger, which is very, very cool.

Did you ever have a line of inquiry that was brought up by kids where you had your own very strongly held beliefs and you had to contend with what you believed, and then what was coming up in the class?

Hillary: Yeah, that has come up once or twice over the years. I've been fortunate to be teaching for the last 15 years. And prior to that I worked for the community I grew up in back in Michigan and I worked for a recreational program. We worked with middle school students. And when I was in that particular position, we had a child who grew up in a very conservative home to the point where it would almost be considered that they were an extremist thought process, at least that might be how it felt to me.

And it was very difficult because that family wants their beliefs to be allowed and they wanted their child to be able to function in the way they believed. The team that we worked with at that time, that was a very diverse community and we had students from all walks of life, whether it was racially different, religiously different, socioeconomic status different. So there became problems between this particular child and other children.

And ultimately when we had to speak to their parents we're like, "Well, we're allowed to believe what we want. This is a free nation. We are allowed to share our thoughts." And it had to then become a question of, I have to look at this just from the standpoint, not your beliefs. You are allowed to believe what you want to believe. That's part of what makes us a great country. However, it can't come at the safety of somebody else and their security in a program.

And it's the same thing in my classroom. You're allowed to wonder, and please, please, please keep thinking of these topics and change what you think or stay true to your beliefs, but that can't be at the safety of somebody else. So there does have to be a cut and dry line. And there have been many times where I have to step back and say, "It's not about me. It's not about what Hillary believes. It's about making sure that everybody is honored, safe and respected. And if I'm hitting those three, I feel like I'm doing my job."

Pablo: You've used this wonderful phrase with me in the past, Hillary, you've said, "You've got to dive deep, but you dive safe." Can you talk a little bit about that when you're going into a process or a project that's particularly challenging or loaded?

Hillary: Yeah. When you allow students to dive into a topic that might be a little more controversial, there's going to be content that might not be the most acceptable content for 9, 10, 11, 12 year olds, but their questions want to be answered. So we have to have a conversation before we even begin with inquiry about how we can be safe.

And that is my tagline there of saying, "You can dive deep, but we're going to dive safe." If you think about it like diving, which works for a coastal community of kids, if you're going to go out and snorkel or scuba, you have to learn all the safety precautions first.

A big safety precaution for us is making sure that you are using reputable resources, that you are screening things first, that you're not letting them just run with their questions onto unprepared websites. Thankfully, most of the education community is on board with that and things have become so fact checked, even though as we enter farther into this digital age, that does become a challenge.

But it's our job to make sure that if I'm going to push them to inquiry, I got to be right in front of them, making sure that they have the right information safely so that they can wonder and not worry. And that then allows us all to keep learning more safely.

Pablo: Could you speak a little bit, Hillary, about how inquiry can support students who might not succeed in a traditional classroom, who might have challenges academically in a more traditional class?

Hillary: Yes. So in the environment that I teach in, we are a public school, so we're still expected to teach to our South Carolina standards, to our district expectations, to our parent expectations. But some students don't fit in with that at the same time as they're supposed to. And when you think about what they're supposed to know and what you're supposed to teach when, which is a challenge in education because there are always going to be students who don't fit into that path, not at that time. They can get there eventually, and some of them never do.

So I had a student in the past named Beth who was very bright, but writing was a challenge for her. Getting it into paper was difficult. And for her, it always felt like school was just an absolute horrible place to be because your learning is suffering because you don't have this skill and everyone around you can do it. All your friends can write freely and trying to get two sentences on a paper is a challenge.

For me, and anyone who knows me knows how much I love history. So I try to think about if we're learning the content, there are multiple ways to learn that content and me allowing them, the children to explore.

So one thing I really enjoy to do is if we're studying a unit, let's say we were studying something like the Civil War, there is a lot of content. You can write about it, you can read about it, you can do book reports, you can make projects. Ultimately what I need to know is if you can understand what happened in the story, because that's the best part of history is the story. That's where we get all the parts that stay in our memory.

And for many children, it'd be very easy to just write about the Civil War, but Beth needed something different. So instead what we did is we really focused on what she was good at, which was art. So she took her love of art and turned that into the most gorgeous map I've ever seen in my life with details and drawings and locations of battles and how things were just laid out with barely a word written. And the things that were written probably were not spelled correctly, but then she showcased it and told you the story.

And you're so moved because she's so connected to this map and it might not have been the big written piece that so many others could do, but she had so much learning and she was so curious and she wanted to learn more. And it was one of the few times that she felt like she really understood what was being asked of her.

And it made it enjoyable because schools should be a fun place to learn and we have to understand that our kids are different and their needs are different. So we have to meet them where they are and figure out how to coax them into that because there should be joy in learning always. And when we can find those moments, cherish them because they're wonderful.

Pablo: Your school, Hillary, participates in a Model UN project that really puts their inquiry skills to the test. Can you tell us about that project and how it works?

Hillary: Absolutely. So Montessori Model United Nations is actually an international program. You can find their websites and their content and they are wonderful. And our school is very fortunate to participate in that program. And we have expanded on a traditional Model United Nations program because for us it is how we can combine all of these different elements of learning into learning about the world around us.

So we're talking geography, we are talking writing, we are talking about learning about their economic statuses, there's your math. We are creating through art, we are journaling, we're sharing opinions and thoughts.

So our students start by getting assigned a country, which is pretty common if you're familiar with the Model United Nations program. And we spend the first half of the year really having them do that deep dive into their country and learning about, not just its physical geography, but also its government and its people and their population.

So then we get these beautiful cultural lessons about how the students can learn about a culture that they've probably never had the ability to travel to. And I hope some of them do get to there, but there are definitely eye-opening moments during the learning about this culture. It's beautiful to watch fourth, fifth, sixth grade students realize just how different their life is from other children around the world.

And as we go through that process and we learn about the country, they have a beautiful cultural fair and they talk about the foods they eat and the games they play, but then they also get to make the amazing connections of how close you are to another culture as well, that everybody has favorite things to eat, everybody has sports they play, and dance and music and family life. And they're probably doing homework tonight too, and they might not be happy about it either.

So they get to connect globally and truly become global students and global citizens. So that's the beautiful part.

Pablo: I was just going to ask, you shared this wonderful story with me about a student of yours named Terri and how they blossomed during this experience. Can you tell us a little bit about Terri and what happened?

Hillary: Yeah. Terri joined my class as a fourth grader and she was very leery of this Model UN program, most of the students who come in, because we have our lower elementary students who are first, second and third graders, and they know this is something you do in upper el, and they know it's a lot of work. So when she first came to us, Terri was not super excited because this was going to be a lot of work, a lot of reading and a lot of writing.

And in fourth grade when you're starting, it's very much just taking the information and begin your learning. And they work with students at all three different grade levels. We purposely make sure that they are spread amongst a variety of students of different ages and experiences because we do this every year.

So fourth grade piques the interest, and then Terri gets a little bit older, gets into fifth grade and realizes, "Oh, I can do this. I can learn about this country." And then after learning about the country, then they get assigned a topic that they can research, which is more of a traditional feeling to the United Nations where they're focused on something like environmental concerns or gender equality or housing issues. There are lots of topics and they are the same topics that the United Nations is actually working on and talking about and discussing right now, today.

By the time Terri gets to sixth grade, she has grown to love this program, but she's nervous because in sixth grade we participate in the actual conference that is held in New York City. And that is a big deal for a lot of reasons for these students because one, for some of them, it's the first time they've stayed away from home, most of them. It's not parents going, it's a school trip. So you're going with your teachers out of the state. You have to fly. You're going to New York, which is very different than where we live in South Carolina.

And she was nervous, but then you throw on top of it, being nervous because you are sharing the information that you have learned. All that inquiry, all that research, all the hard work, you are now going and you are embodying an ambassador for your nation. And Terri was very nervous.

She was very nervous, but we worked with her. We got her speech and her paper and her information to where she felt comfortable. I can remember being there in the conference rooms getting ready and hearing her say, "I don't want to do this." Well, what's the worst that can happen? We go in and we need some help from other kids. That's okay too. We’re going to learn from them. You're coming ready, but you're also coming to learn too. And she went in. By the end of the first day, grins and smiles, "I'm so excited. This is great. We get to do it again tomorrow, right?" Yes, we do.

So day two, she worked harder. She worked with her team. She made new friends, friends from China, friends from Kenya, from all over the world because this conference is attended by people from all over the globe. And she came back after the conference session and told us that she had been selected to speak.

Now this is a big deal because when they do the closing ceremonies, they actually get to go to the United Nations building and stand where world leaders have stood and share what they learned. And she got to stand up at that podium and we were all incredibly proud. And those are wonderful moments. What you don't expect is what happens after that, because what happened after that was she rushed up to us, she gave huge hugs to everyone, and she's like, "Now what do we do?"

As an educator, I thought, "Well, it's kind of our culminating activity. We're coming to the end." But no, Terri had started something. And it's grown because now she is also in high school and moved into a different building. And because she was so inspired by this and because she was so moved, she started her own UN club with a couple other students who were very interested. They are still working towards these issues and attending high school level events, which really prior to this group being inspired by their own inquiry and their own learning didn't really exist where we are.

So now I have no doubt in my mind that Terri, along with a couple others, will definitely be eventually finding their way into some level of politics or government because their eyes are opened and they know there are issues that our world faces, and now they all want to know what's next. And that's where we want them to really spread their wings because they're what's next. What they do is what's next for all of us.

Pablo: I love that question of, what do we do next? And I think that's a perfect place for us to end our series. Let's all leave asking ourselves that same beautiful question, what do we do next? What steps can we take to better prepare our students to become the sorts of citizens that our country and our world needs? Hillary, thank you so much for joining us.

Hillary: Thank you for having me and letting me share about my students and my experiences. This has been wonderful.

pablowolfePablo Wolfe is a Washington DC-based educator who promotes civic education as a means to improve student engagement, celebrate student identity, and embolden the next generation of citizens. He's been a public school administrator, a staff developer with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, a teacher, and a parent, and in all of these roles has sought to make school a training ground for civic life. He is the co-author of The Civically Engaged Classroom: Reading, Writing, and Speaking for Change and the Unit of Study: Historical Fiction Book Clubs. His work has also been featured in School Library Journal and Middleweb Blog. 

Pablo is the Founder and Executive Director of the Coalition of Civically Engaged Educators, a national K-12 community of practice for civic-minded educators who seek to improve student outcomes and transform schools. Pablo is also a Visiting Fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

You can connect with Pablo on Twitter @pablowolfe and apply to join CCEE, at www.civically-engaged.org

Hillary Usher has been teaching for over fifteen years after receiving her degree in education from Eastern Michigan University in 2007. She gained her Montessori certification and began working in the Montessori environment in 2009. Currently, Hillary is an Upper Elementary Lead Teacher working with students aged 9-12 in South Carolina. Hillary is an active member of the Coalition of Civically Engaged Educators. She is dedicated to teaching her students how to think critically, explore the world around them, and follow their wonderings.

Topics: Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Pablo Wolfe, Civics Education

Date Published: 06/01/23

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