Engaged, curious, active kids expand their understanding, build their knowledge, and embrace a desire to learn more in classrooms that celebrate inquiry. In these classrooms, teachers support kids to:
- Explore topics, ideas, and issues that are central to their interests and concerns, linking them to the wider world.
- Tackle big ideas, essential questions, and enduring understandings as they read, write, and research.
- Use comprehension strategies flexibly to turn information into knowledge and actively use it.
- Interact with text, media, resources, artifacts, teachers, and one another.
- Think creatively to express and share new learning.
- Engage in collaborative inquiry and action.
Researcher’s workshop, which includes explicit instruction in research strategies and the inquiry process, is the ideal way to address the topics, skills, and content that stem from district and state curriculum and standards, as well as from kids’ passions and curiosities.
In this blog, we share a few class inquiries from across the curriculum. Student agency and independent thinking thrive when kids are passionate about a topic, and the kids in these classrooms were bursting with enthusiasm and energy for learning and wondering.
Inquiries Across the Curriculum: Science and Literacy Inquiry into Animal Adaptations
Like scientists, young children are naturally curious. We merge science and literacy in researcher’s workshop and teach kids to think, read, write, observe, draw, and create like scientists. Through interactive read-alouds, viewing, observing, experimenting, and independently reading, kids explore and build knowledge about important concepts, such as the examples here on animal adaptations, habitats, and survival suggest. Research bears this out: P. David Pearson and colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, found that combining science exploration and experiences with comprehension instruction is a powerful way to increase students’ acquisition of science content knowledge (Pearson, Moje and Greenleaf, 2010).
Essential questions, created by the teacher and based in district science standards, launch kids into research. These frame and shape kids’ own questions and emerge from the kinds of questions scientists ask, such as “How do animals adapt to and survive in their habitats?” The goal is for kids to acquire and transfer new knowledge of foundational concepts and ideas to create enduring understandings across habitats and species. As kids internalize and think about these essential questions, they build on this foundation for their own investigations. So when they next read about any animal or habitat, they think about how that animal adapts to its environment, which replicates how scientists keep big ideas and questions in mind as they think and research. With this foundation, kids tackle problems and issues in the real world and create ways to share their learning through posters, blogs, presentations, videos, letters to the editor, and so on.
For example, as part of a unit on animal adaptations and habitats, second-grade kids inquired into what was happening to polar bears and their Arctic habitat. One day, several came into the classroom waving the local newspaper, containing an article on how the loss of arctic sea ice was endangering the bears’ survival. Teacher Brad Buhrow decided this was the perfect opportunity to teach kids to determine importance, so he posted the article on chart paper, gathered the group together and modeled how he sorted and sifted the many facts in the article to get to the most important ideas and information (see chart below).
As the class discussed what was important, they also added their thinking—their questions, connections, and thoughts—in a second column. When kids were ready, Brad sent them off to take their own notes in their science notebooks. Connecting real-world issues like these to their ongoing animal research motivates kids to find out more.
A Mini-Inquiry in Language Arts
Researcher’s workshop offers many opportunities for serendipitous inquiries—often in response to kids’ interests and inclinations. As we read the picture book Maybe Something Beautiful, (Campoy and Howell) the focus of our interactive read aloud was on inferring the big ideas and themes in the text. Interactive read-alouds with compelling picture books often begin with us thinking aloud, sharing reactions, inferences and insights to initially model our responses as we demonstrate how we infer to understand the big ideas. But we teachers find it’s never very long before kids chime in with their own thoughts, inferences, and questions. At that point, we become the “guide on the side” with kids’ ideas leading the way. After reading, kids respond with their inferences and thoughts about the story.
In the story, a young girl named Mira loves to create and draw her own pictures. She can’t help but notice that her neighborhood in the city is gray and drab, unlike her creations. As she begins giving away her pictures to neighbors and people on the street, she hatches an idea: what if she could make the city more colorful and welcoming? She meets a fellow artist who helps her inspire the whole neighborhood to take action. Mira’s neighbors paint buildings vivid colors, create murals, and build a vibrant community along the way. Kids are impressed when we read that this is a true story, along with photographs that document what happened.
After reading, kids respond with ideas that center on the book’s themes: “When Mira draws, the colors make her happy.” “She’s giving out her paintings, I think she wants to make friends.” “She’s spreading joy!”
It doesn’t take long for Gerardo to come up with an idea: “Hey, why don’t we make pictures to hand out? That could make the school more beautiful!” So they do—to the delight of teachers, lunch room chefs, administrators, and others. But that’s not the end of it. “Maybe Something Beautiful” becomes an ongoing project for these second graders. They explored different books such as Miss Rumphius (Cooney) and The Curious Garden (Brown) to explore ways to make their world more beautiful. In the spring they are inspired to plant a small garden outside their classroom window.
Steph Harvey and Anne Goudvis are the coauthors of Strategies That Work, Inquiry Illuminated, The Comprehension Toolkit Series and Short Nonfiction for American History. Teachers first and foremost, they work in classrooms side by side with kids supporting teachers in progressive literacy practices.
Listen to them on the Heinemann podcast discuss a structure for inquiry that's predictable, proven, and—most importantly—authentic.