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Dedicated to Teachers

Smokey Daniels on Student Inquiry

E08990_Daniels_Bookcover_9732Today on the Heinemann podcast, how do we make time for inquiry? Author Smokey Daniels says that is his most asked question about inquiry. Smokey is the author of The Curious Classroom: 10 Structures for Teaching with Student-Directed Inquiry.

Making space for individual choice when a curriculum has already been planned can be a challenge. Smokey says you have to “inquiryize” your classroom. Here’s our conversation with Smokey on making time…

See below for a full transcript of our conversation.

Brett: What is the number one question you get about inquiry?

Smokey: That's an easy question to answer. The number one question is pretty much always the same, it's, "How do I find time for this stuff? How do I make room for inquiry in my day?" Teachers say, "I have a full curriculum to teach, it's not like I have a half an hour spare every afternoon that I don't happen to be using now, and I could cram something in there." So it's, "How do I fit it in to all the obligations I have to do, all the things I have to teach the kids?"

So one of the ways we say, "There's only three ways to get time for Inquiry," and one of the ways, and most importantly the bread and butter way is you've got to inquiry-ize your curriculum so the things you have to teach, if you have to teach African animals, if you have to teach photosynthesis, whatever the topic is you have to teach, try to find a way to do that in an inquiry way, and the signature approach to that is we start not by telling the kids, "Read chapter seven about Manifest Destiny for tomorrow, and we'll start there." The way we begin is, "What have you ever heard about Manifest Destiny, or Westward Expansion, what do you know about it, what do you think you might know, what do you wonder about it, what's on your mind, and what we do in the ideal situation?" We make a list of the questions that kids have about the topic that we're gonna study.

Now kids will come up with maybe two-thirds... They often come up with a lot of the stuff that's in the curriculum anyways, so that's cool, and if they forget stuff, if they forget items, elements of it that we think are important, we put it on the list 'cause we're part of the community too and we can pose our own questions and that's fine.

But one of the really funny things about this is when you begin a unit by asking the kids what they wanna know what their questions are, they'll also give you crazy, nutty, usually way above grade level questions. There's ... Well I did this once with third graders, they were gonna study the Sun and the Moon. If you looked in the curriculum guide it said, "Explain who runs or rolls around who, who rotates, who revolves all the different stuff," and the teacher is supposed to show it, tell it, demonstrate it.

But if you asked the kids, they come up with all those questions too like, "Why does the Moon have phases and all that?" But they have these crazy questions like, "Why did Columbus think the world was flat, and how come we get a tan in the summer?" And a great one that came from those third graders was, "Why do we have season?" It's really hard. That's not in the third grade curriculum, that's in the sixth grader curriculum in the state that I was in.

So they give you questions that already cover the curriculum, and they give you these wonderful extensions and things they want to find out about, so they usually reach above their grade level, then it's fun for us to support that.

The important thing is the contract we're making, the compact between ourselves, I'm gonna ask you your questions first, I'm gonna put my questions up there with you, and then we're gonna explore this together, so it's the agreement in that, and kids feel like, 'Wow, this is awesome.' You haven't really changed that much, you haven't given up that much.

I remember when I was first teaching, I was in a situation where I was gonna ... We had to teach two books, there were two chapter books we were gonna read, and I went to the kids, this is in Chicago, and I said, "We're gonna read this book and this book in the next couple months. Which one would you like to read first?" They went, "Oh goodie, we get to choose." It's a terrible sad commentary on how little choice kids have in school. It's just pitiful, but it gives you an idea how important is to them that we ask them first what do you wanna know.

Brett: In Curious Classroom, one of the great inquiry ideas that you present is bringing an expert into the classroom as a great way to just pick on that expert's thinking. What's the best way to go about that? What's the best way to bring the expert into the classroom?

Smokey: It's interesting too, I think this is something that we more recently recognized, and I think in school, we've been kinda of book oriented. So when we have kids doing any kind of research, we tend to think that the first thing to do is we have to line up a bunch of magazines for them, and we have to get books, and we have to go see the librarian, and have her bring down a cart and all this sort of stuff. But yeah, experts ... This is one of the main places that good researchers and inquirers turn to, they call 'em up or they read their articles, they find a way to connect themselves with experts.

So in school, we can do that very same thing and it's something in a lot of the inquiry projects in schools that I work with, the teachers make this one of their required pieces, like you have to read at least an article or two, you have to do varies things and you have to talk to an expert. Then it becomes our responsibility to help connect kids with an expert.

I'm reminded of my own sixth grade class back in Santa Fe, and there was a girl in there called Christie, and she wanted to be a fashion designer, and nobody else in the room was interested and nobody knew anything, but my daughter who's also interested, tracked down a fashion designer-

Brett: Wow.

Smokey: And I have this great picture of Christie sitting in the classroom and I just gave her my phone, which when I was growing up as a teacher, you couldn't do, and you never would do, now it's totally routine, they have their own phones. So she's interviewing this fashion designer on the phone-

Brett: Wow.

Smokey: And that was how she was doing a big piece of her project.

Just a funny story, she designed... Ended up designing a Halloween costume for an adult in the community who went to the ball, the Halloween Ball, and won the prize for best costume, and then Christie got several commissions from women around town to make these celebratory dresses for them.

Brett: That's great.

Smokey: Yeah, so that's one way when bringing an expert in the room just by handing the phone to a kid.

One of the schools I worked with for a long time called the Duke School in North Carolina, they have very, very systematic approach to this, and they have the world's biggest Rolodex basically. It's a K-8 school, and all the teachers over a period of years have simply kept track of all the adult partners in the community that they've been able to literally physically bring to the school, or bring the kids out to see them.

One of the ones I'm thinking of is an organic baker, and they go to the shop, the bakery where these goods are made, and it's absolutely fascinating, and the guys really are articulate about it and they bring the kids there, the second graders and third graders in this case, and they do it every year. He becomes a permanent -he doesn't know it when they asked him the first time- but he becomes a permanent part of their curriculum. But the only difference is they keep track and they're relentless about reusing.

One of the things we've learned from them that's really cool is you have to teach somebody how to come and visit kids in school. You can't just call someone and ask them and hope for the best. It doesn't always work that way. You have to orient them to the kids and help make sure they understand what age the kids are, you have to make sure they understand what the goals like why they're there in their expert capacity, talk to them a little bit about the sorts of questions you think kids are most likely to want to know about, and then you can make that work. So one of the big thing they really discovered is just be systematic and planful and orderly, keep track of all these people and use 'em as many times as you can.

Brett: What about on the flip side of that with the students? Is there a good way to get the students prepared for the expert coming in, or even just getting ready for the day itself?

Smokey: One of the things we do is we have kids ... When we know we have an expert we're really interested in, I'm thinking of one that was used by a school, they brought in an expert and he was brought in via Skype, so this one wasn't physically there, but he was theater director and they were in the middle of a project to start a theater company and put on one performance, and it was actually... It's a project about running a business.

Brett: Wow.

Smokey: It was an arts project, but the background of it, the goal, curricular goal of it was to help kids understand all the ingredients that went together in starting a business. So they found this guy who was somebody's nephew, who lived in Miami and they said, "Will you come on Skype and tell us," 'cause he's running this ... He's producing plays, he's running a theater, he's doing a business end of an arts business, so before they had him come on, the kids had to make an interview protocol. They had to ask a list, what would be the most important questions for us to ask of this guy Michael, this wonderful volunteer Michael, and different kids were already in different committees, so there was a tickets' committee, there was a refreshments' committee, there was an artistic committee, there was a AV committee.

Brett: Wow.

Smokey: So each of the kids got in their groups for that particular role they had in the production and they made up questions, and then they had 'em written down in front of them when Michael came on Skype and they went in orderly way around-

Brett: Good.

Smokey: The room saying, "The ticket committee has a couple questions for you Michael, how do you do that? How do you price your tickets? How do you distribute?" And so forth. There's so many examples, it's one of those things I think it's coming more and more into schools now 'cause we're realizing how easy it really is, and we can do it not only with physical bodies ... One last story, have to tell you this.

So in the same school, Caroline Kline, who's a first grade teacher, gets up in the morning and her husband hasn't finished uploading the dishwasher, and on the counter among other things is a great big quart Pyrex measuring cup, and she reaches to put it up on the shelf and it falls right back down and cuts her eyebrow right through horizontally through her eyebrow, and she's really tough. If you know Caroline, she's tough, it's not like she's gonna stay home 'cause she's got a cut. So she gets a bunch of paper towels, wads them up on her forehead, drives to school, gets out of her car in school, and the first person who see her goes, "Oh honey, you cut your ..." "I know, I know."

So who turns up in the parent drop off line the next car in line is an ER doctor from down the road at the hospital in Durham, North Carolina, and she says, "How does this look Dr. Lamb?" He look, and he goes and looks at her and he says, "Not good. You're gonna have a scar, you're not gonna like, you really gotta get stitches in that." She goes, "Well can I come down to the hospital and see ya?" He says, "Well actually I'm off today, I'm on my way to the gym," and he said, "But I'll do it here."

The next thing that happens, they're doing it in the classroom in front of the kids, and the principal's behind him. The principal's taking pictures. Now everybody's horrified by this story, understand me, you don't have to get medical treatment in front of your kids, that's not the way you need to use an expert. But she let the kids who didn't want to do it, run away, they had huge classroom then, but everybody who ran away came right back when the action started. Anyway, using experts in your classroom ...

Brett: Well and I think it's fair to say that one of the little secrets about experts is they like to talk about what they're an expert in.

Smokey: You're so right. We ... You can ask and we've had this happen a million times, you can ask some business executive, some woman or man, CEO, big wheel in town, even if it's a big town, and if somebody calls said, "Can you take a meeting Tuesday at 3:00?" It's, "No way, I'm too busy, are you kidding me?" Maybe three months from now, you call 'em and say, "Will you come and teach our first graders for a half an hour?" They go, "Oh, what time do I show up?" They really do.

Brett: Yeah they really do.

Smokey: People have such a hard for this. We can be bold as ... We'd be amazed at what people just delighted to come down and do with the kids.

Brett: In the last chapter of Curious Classrooms, Smokey, you write about learning with partners, what do you mean by that?

Smokey: This profession has been called a cellular profession, which is when we go to work and we go into our own cell, our own classroom, and they're all pretty much alike, and we go in there for six hours and we have our way with whatever children are trapped there with us. We all have the same job, but we've had this endless problem about we never see each other at work. We never get in each other's classrooms, it's not part of the culture, and people sometimes use the term de-privatizing our practice. There's so much to gain when we work with each other.

In the Curious Classroom book, one of the things that I show examples of and talk about a lot is I think for one thing, grade level partners like fourth grader teachers who get together, eighth grade language arts teachers or science teachers who get together, it's like the secret sauce of change in a school. Everybody wonders should it be top down, should it be bottom up, what's the best was to do this?

What I find where change really happens fast is when two or three teachers get together 'cause they want to, and they come up with a project they wanna work on together with their kids and then they start getting into each other's classrooms, and they have times when they wanna gather everybody and they pack everybody, all 60 kids into one room, and then they split up in different ways, and that accelerates growth in schools more than any other thing that I've seen. I think that's really important, but beyond that, of course, what we want people to do is get into the other schools in the district. You can set up cross visiting programs where you send one teacher from each grade level over to Maple Grove, and then Maple Grove teachers come to Glen Wood and they swap back and forth a couple times during the year.

A lot of the schools in our book participated in wider kinds of teacher exchanges and sometimes when you get something going really well in your building, something you wanna show off, like maybe how you offer support to kids with special learning needs, then other schools wanna come and see what you're doing, and then you wanna go see something special that they're doing. So it's a great source of spark and energy, and to just show each other we can do this. A lot of time when you're locked alone in your room, you're not aware of what's happening around you, other people are doing, they face the same problems when people have different solutions, so that thing about sounds academic, but that thing about de-privatizing our classrooms, gotta open the doors and lock 'em in the open position and let ideas come in and out.


To learn more about student inquiry, visit heinemann.com, or click below to download a sample chapter of The Curious Classroom

Download the Sample Chapter

harveydaniels-5Harvey "Smokey" Daniels has been a city and suburban classroom teacher and a college professor, and now works as a national consultant and author on literacy education. In language arts, Smokey is known for his pioneering work on student book clubs, as recounted in Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups, and Minilessons for Literature CirclesSmokey works with elementary and secondary teachers throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe, offering demonstration lessons, workshops, and consulting, with a special focus on creating, sustaining, and renewing student-centered inquiries and discussions of all kinds. Smokey shows colleagues how to simultaneously build students' reading strategies, balance their reading diets, and strengthen the social skills they need to become genuine lifelong readers. Connect with Smokey @smokeylit.

Topics: Podcast, The Curious Classroom, Harvey "Smokey" Daniels, Heinemann Podcast, Student-Directed Inquiry

Date Published: 04/19/18

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