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Dedicated to Teachers

Summer Read Aloud Series: The Curious Classroom with Harvey "Smokey" Daniels

Summer Read Aloud Series_CuriousClassThis summer on the podcast we’re going to be taking a break from our normal content. This past year has been draining for everyone, especially teachers, and we wanted to do what we could to help educators take a breather. For the next several weeks we’ll be sharing samples from some of our audiobooks, and we hope that you’re able sit back, relax, and enjoy these read alouds.

Today on the podcast, we have a sample from Harvey “Smokey” Daniel’s audiobook The Curious Classroom.

Download a sample chapter from The Curious Classroom 

Ever wonder how to get students genuinely engaged in your curriculum? Or wish you could let them explore the amazing questions they ask? If so, Smokey provides research-based suggestions that help cover the curriculum by connecting what kids wonder about to the wonders you have to teach them. In this preview, Smokey highlights some of the pillars of a learning space led by inquiry. 

If you’d like to hear more, you can head over to our new audiobooks feed where you can browse our full catalogue and listen to more samples. Just search for Heinemann Audiobooks wherever you listen to podcasts. 


Read along with Smokey...

When you regularly mention what you are reading, watching, following, or investigating, you show kids that you are an engaged learner in your “real life.”

We can introduce our own questions to kids by saying something like, “Let me show you something I have been wondering and reading and learning about. Here’s how I have been investigating my topic. Any questions or comments?” The amount of time this takes up in your classroom is up to you. 

When I was a kid in school, seeing your teacher out in public was a mind-blowing shock. Is that her? Right here in the grocery store, buying pickles? She eats pickles? She eats?

These blessedly rare encounters did not square well with my assumption that as soon as we students left the classroom, Mrs. Barnard folded up into a small, tidy box until we returned.

As inquiry teachers, we want to present a very different persona to our kids. Instead of impersonating a fold-up robot or a faceless functionary, we want to be real flesh-and-blood (and grown-up appropriate) people. I quoted Donald Graves earlier for famously advising: “You are not ready to teach a child until you know ten things about her life outside of school.” As in: Tara has a cat named Chester, she likes butterscotch cookies, her mom is a nurse, she has been to the ocean many times. . . .

And maybe kids are not ready to be taught by us until they know ten things about our real lives.

We have of course all been warned that as teachers we should not be “friends” with our students, and that some distance must be maintained to preserve our authority. We know not to play “truth or dare” with our students. But in our inquiry classrooms, we are less frequently playing the boss/expert role. Instead, we are acting more like a lead learner, a coach, a facilitator, or a willing research colleague. An impersonal, authoritarian stance is less useful in this kind of relationship; indeed, it calls for something like the opposite. Social psychology research has long shown that true authority comes not from your job title or your ability to reward or punish, but from friendship and perceived expertise (Schmuck and Schmuck 2000).

When I am doing demonstration lessons around the country, here’s one way I share my own curious life with students I’ve just met. Maybe it would work for you. I project a two-column chart of my wonderings—a format I learned from my colleague James Beane (2006). On one side, I list my current self questions—my personal, local concerns. (I sometimes call these my “me, me, me” wonders.) On the other side are my world questions, wider topics that many other people also wonder about. 

Don’t get me started on the asteroid thing. But I’ll just say, we have to get working on this right now, people.

Next, I’ll invite kids to make their own self/world question lists. This takes some time and patience; you quickly find that very few of us, kids or grown-ups, can instantly access all the questions we are carrying around in our heads. But they’re in there (see the upcoming “Try This” feature). When I did this lesson with kids at the Tesuque Owingeh Pueblo School, Jessica Gonzalez’ second and third graders spent a full ten minutes talking over and gradually jotting down some ideas. In the end, these students came up with dozens of great inquiry topics, many reflective of their life on a rural New Mexico reservation.

Having a hard time surfacing your own inquiry questions? Feeling short on curiosity? You’re not. Just take a few minutes and think through this list of prompts that I often show to kids or teachers. Jot down any questions that get triggered as you think. I guarantee you’ll recover at least three questions from the back burner of your brain.

  • An “idle” question A book or author you are reading
  • A place you have always wanted to visit
  • A topic you are wondering about
  • An item you saw in the news
  • A person who has puzzled you recently
  • The last thing you googled
  • If I had a bucket list, ______ would be on it
  • An issue you’re investigating to solve a problem
  • A purchase or investment you’re pondering
  • A student question that stuck in your mind
  • A topic from your childhood
  • Whatever happened to . . .
  • Something you have always wanted to explore

See, you are just brimming with inquiry topics. Pick one that might interest your students, open up your head (metaphorically), and show it to them.

We can share aspects of our own lives any old time, just to deepen our acquaintance with kids. But our own experiences can also enliven curricular units. As a fourth-grade teacher in Wisconsin, Daniel Argyres is required to teach a unit on immigration. One of the centers he creates for kids is about Ellis Island, and among the artifacts on display are the authentic immigration papers and photos of his grandfather, Emmanuel Leonidas Argyriades (shortened to Argyres) as he emigrated from Greece to America through Ellis Island on May 29, 1927. (Amazingly enough, Daniel also has the records for his great-grandfather, John Konstantakopoulos, shortened to John Kondos, who also emigrated to America through Ellis Island on January 8, 1904.) All these documents reveal powerful details of the journey through the strangeness and the bureaucracy of American immigration in the 1900s. Daniel is a scholar of his ancestors, his family, and the Greek culture. Kids who study immigration with him are getting it up close and personal, not from the watered-down textbook “coverage.”

Coming up, you’ll see how teachers from all corners of America let students in on their curious lives, sharing their reading habits, their personal challenges, their risk taking, and even how they learn along with fellow teachers.

Sharing your Out-of-School Life

Megan Dixon, second-grade teacher at Glenwood School

My Terrible Feet

To build positive relationships with students and promote classroom community, Megan Dixon tries to learn one new thing about each of her students every week (meaning she must discover something new about five or six kids a day). Like Aerianna loves everything about San Francisco. Lukas is fascinated with cars and engines. Isaac’s favorite band is the Decemberists. And Alana is absolutely terrified of chickens.

For her part, Megan tries to share something about herself from the first day of school to the very last. Just think: 180 pieces of Megan’s identity that she steadily offers up to connect more and more deeply with kids. Sometimes, this modeling just entails talking about a book she’s currently reading, a new strategy she learned from a teacher magazine, or the antics of her own rambunctious and stubborn six-year-old, who will put on a dress or skirt only when riding her scooter or bike, but definitely not on holidays or special occasions. While much of Megan’s personal sharing takes place during class meetings, at other times it comes up naturally in response to—or as part of—a lesson, investigation, or read-aloud.

At one particular class meeting, Megan shared a personal breakthrough. As she explains: “I have always been an athlete. I pounded the pavement in high school basketball and in high school and college tennis. I have always been very active, but my joints got so bad that I had to give up running, one of my favorite pastimes. My narrow, high-arched feet were causing numerous knee and hip problems, several months of physical therapy, new shoes and foot inserts, and finally a new exercise routine. This was a huge loss to me. So my news today, something I was eager to share with my class, was that I was finally feeling healthy enough to start running again after years.”

Now it made sense to the kids why Mrs. Dixon never wore fancy shoes, was sometimes spotted walking around barefoot, and often complained about her terrible feet. Megan told the kids how nervous and excited she was to begin running again, after two years. She showed kids a website she had used to find the best shoes for her troubled tootsies. Then she shared an article about setting up a running regimen.

As Megan described these resources she’d accessed, the students were genuinely interested, encouraging, and supportive of her efforts. Seizing the moment, Megan brought out a calendar and in front of the students set a goal to run at least three times a week and work up to a ten-minute pace for four miles. Then, she hung up the calendar in a spot where all students could see it and check up on her every day.

The chart held her accountable to herself—and the kids. It was common to hear students ask, “Hey, Mrs. Dixon, did you run this morning?” or “Are you on track to meet your goal?” and to gently chide her if she missed a day. Enrique, one of the first students to arrive each day, checked in on a daily basis. Frequently, he would look at the calendar to make sure that his teacher had updated the morning’s mileage. Knowing she had a difficult time running in the evening after being on her feet all day, he would say, “Mrs. Dixon, you know if you don’t run in the morning, you won’t do it!”

Every day she ran, Megan wrote the time and distance on the calendar, coming closer and closer to meeting her goal. One day in the middle of her running project, she labeled a place next to her calendar with the heading “What’s your goal?”

Without prompting, students began placing sticky notes with their own goals. Some were out-of-school activities, like Megan’s:

  • Help mom more with the baby
  • Play outside one hour each day
  • Get better at swimming by doing the length of the pool nonstop
  • Walk four miles with my mom

Others were academic; the kids’ excitement spread to any type of goal:

  • I will read 30 minutes at night.
  • I will finish the Magic Tree House series.
  • I won’t be a “log” during book club.

Not surprisingly, students asked if they could have their own blank calendars so that they could begin tracking their progress toward their goals.

These kid goals then became another topic at daily meetings and a venue to encourage and support each other. Megan concludes the story: “It was not un-common for students to write each other encouraging notes and leave them for each other in their mailboxes. The kids and I celebrated each and every goal met. When I finally hit my running target, a student wrote a note saying, ‘We are all proud of you for working so hard to reach your goal’ and had the whole class sign it. Noel gave us daily updates on her walking goal with her mom. We gave her a rousing round of applause when she reached ten thousand steps! What started as my own quick share turned into a model of living a curious life, goal setting, supporting each other to achieve goals, and problem solving. And I’m still running, carefully.”

When you are modeling a bit of your own curiosity, it doesn’t have to be a solo performance. You can always invite kids to come along on a parallel inquiry with you, as Megan does here.


Talking about your Reading

Tanny McGregor, teaching in a third-grade class in Withamsville-Tobasco School

Tanny McGregor, who has taught for twenty-eight years, now works as a class-room consultant and coach for her Ohio district. When I asked Tanny to tell how she shares her reading life with kids, she immediately thought of this lesson:

It is always a pleasure to have Rachel Ryba on my coaching schedule. She’s always up for new ideas, and her students mirror their teacher’s love for learning. One morning in May, I climbed the steps to Rachel’s classroom, typical lesson materials in hand: some photographs, a piece of text to explore, a few sheets of chart paper, colored markers. I had a plan. And the plan was to stick with the plan.

I had barely crossed the classroom threshold when a grinning boy greeted me, offering to help me carry my things over to the meeting area. A few other kids soon joined us on the rug. They were continuing the conversation that had been going on while they waited for me to arrive, talking about books they’d read lately and what they planned to read over the summer break.

As if not wanting me to feel left out, that same helpful boy looked up at me and asked, “So what are you reading, Mrs. McG?” That question always makes me smile. I answered quickly. After all, I had a lesson to teach. “I’m reading historical fiction, the story of a little girl who hunted fossils.” I set up my teaching area, easel to my right, markers at the ready. “Her name was Mary Anning.”

I called the other students over to the large group area, and proceeded with the minilesson. I honestly don’t remember what the skill or strategy focus was that day. What I do remember is that as soon as the lesson ended, the same small group of kids surrounded me as I packed up. “Did she find any fossils?” “How old was she?” “Where did she live?” I answered their questions, promising to bring my copy of Remarkable Creatures when I visited next.

Later that day I began thinking about what had happened. Not so much a reflection about the lesson, but about what happened before and after the les-son. These kids were curious. They were intensely interested in what I was reading. They were asking questions. They were talking about books. Wasn’t this exactly what we always say we want kids to be and do? These thoughts faded as I started planning for my next visit to Rachel’s class.

But, luckily, a copy of Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier was tucked into my backpack as I returned the next day. As soon as the lesson was over, I said, “Hey, if anyone is interested in hearing about the book I’m reading, stay on the carpet a little while longer.” Everyone stayed. I shared how Mary Anning, a ten-year old girl and budding paleontologist in Lyme Regis, England, collected “curiosities” (later known as fossils) to sell. She had to make money for her family since her father had died. Over time well-known scientists from London heard about Mary’s expertise uncovering and identifying these bones. When she was twelve she discovered the remains of an Ichthyosaur. “These things really happened!” I told the students. “I am so curious about Mary now, I’ve been doing my own research. So many facts are woven into this story.” I held the book in my hands, showing everyone how I still had quite a bit to read. Questions and connections came pouring forth. No surprise, since passion is contagious. “Was she the first girl paleontologist?” “She was just a little older than we are.” “Did she become famous?” “Is she ever mentioned in science books?” “Maybe it was hard for her to become a scientist back then since she was a girl.”

Finally I began to awaken from my lesson plan stupor. C’mon, Mc-Gregor! What are you waiting for?

These kids are genuinely interested in learning about a child from long ago who changed the scientific history. They are using strategic thinking, and they are primed and ready to investigate. Get out of the way and let it happen!

The next class was different. I brought in several picture books and articles about Mary Anning’s life and discoveries. We read about, talked through, and searched for answers to our questions. We even stumbled upon a song by the band Artichoke that detailed Mary’s story, reading the lyrics closely while the music pulled us in. Everyone so engaged. Everyone so curious.

I later learned that these students had recently been studying about fossils in science class. Did their curiosity stem from new content knowledge? Perhaps. I’d like to think so. But maybe the reason isn’t so important. What matters is that we were reading and talking together, collecting curiosities like Mary Anning did more than two hundred years ago.

A whole-class inquiry started with one student’s question: So what are you reading, Mrs. McG?

Even when we are teaching a required curricular lesson, we should always keep our ears open for great kids’ questions that we can capture and come back to later, when we have time.


Showing How You Can Take a Risk

Carolynn Klein Hageman, first-grade teacher at Duke School

First-grade teacher Carolynn Klein got up early one school day and noticed a one-quart Pyrex measuring cup left out on her kitchen counter. She reached up to put the glass vessel back where it belonged, on a high cabinet shelf. Later on, Carolynn reflected that she might not have been quite awake enough for such a risky operation. But in the moment, the measuring cup fell right back off the shelf and hit her smack on the forehead. The cup didn’t break, a testament to its sturdy design, but it did put a pretty nasty cut in Carolynn’s right eyebrow as it bounced off her face.

A certified tough cookie, Carolynn put the cup away securely, stanched the blood flow with paper towels, and then drove off to do her job at school. The first colleague to spot her in the teachers’ work room said, “Whoa, that’s quite a wound you’ve got there,” and insisted on getting her a butterfly bandage.

Right about then, a student’s dad, dressed for his workout at the local gym, walked through to drop his daughter off for school. Since Dr. Ryan Lamb was an emergency room physician at the local hospital, Carolynn asked him what he thought of her wound. “That definitely needs stitches,” he advised.

Carolynn shook her head, concluding, “OK, thanks for that info. I guess I’ll get someone to cover my class while I go and get this sewn up.”

“Don’t do that,” he said. “I’m off today—let me go grab my bag and I will come back and stitch you up.”

“You mean here?”

“Sure, just let me run back home and get my doctor bag and I’ll see you in ten minutes.”

“Wow, OK, great,” Carolynn thought as the doctor drove off. Now she won-dered where and how this procedure would take place, when it suddenly occurred to her: this was the mother of all teachable moments, especially since her class was in the middle of a health unit. Talk about sharing your curious life with kids! Carolynn could get her stitches right in front of her six-year-old students.

She considered the downsides: some kids might be frightened by this “too real” spectacle, so there had to be an easy way for the queasy to opt out. On the plus side, many kids had already bragged about their own accidents, cuts, and stitch-ups.

And a recent expert visitor had been a local surgeon who showed kids how to sew up a wound, and even had them practice with needles and thread on torn burlap. Carolynn, who always tells kids her personal motto is “go with the flow,” decided to go for it. Just to be on the safe side, she checked with the school’s curriculum director, who grabbed a camera by way of assent.

Dr. Lamb returned with his bag. As the father of a classmate in this small school community, he needed little introduction. Before Carolynn lay down on the rug (normally used for gentle read-alouds and class meetings), she and the doctor told the kids exactly what was going to happen. They explained that anyone who didn’t want to watch could sit in the very back of the room and continue their independent reading. Three boys immediately retired (they crept back when the action started). Most of the other kids pulled in close for a better view. 

Soon Carolynn was comfortably laid out on the rug in her classroom, swaddled with comfy blankets and pillows. The doctor knelt at her side, his black bag standing open. He pulled out the instruments he would need and showed each one to the class, explaining how he was going to use it.

One of the kids blurted out: “Carolynn, are you going to cry?” (Kids use teachers’ first names at Duke School.)“Well, I could,” she answered. “But I don’t think I will. I’ve had stitches before and I know it only feels like a tiny pinch. I also know that Dr. Lamb has lots of experience giving people stitches.”

  • The children began peppering him with questions too:
  • What’s the most stitches you have had to give someone?
  • What is the most common reason people get stitches?
  • How many people do you stitch in a day?
  • What part of the body gets the most stitches?
  • How much time do you have after an accident to get the stitches done?
  • How do you know a cut needs stitches and not just a bandage?
  • What is the worst reason someone has had to get stitches?

The doctor patiently answered all of their spontaneous questions as he got ready. He inserted his syringe into a bottle of lidocaine, explaining every step as he made several small injections. Next, he showed how he threads the curved needle. He proceeded with the stitches—one, two, three. He talked about how he ties the thread and how Carolyn should care for her stitches after he’s done. Carolynn assured the kids that she was feeling no pain, just a little pulling sensation.

In the literacy world, when an adult models and vocalizes her thinking during a complex activity, we call it a “think-aloud.” Usually, we practice this strategy while reading a book or writing a story, but the procedure turns out to work just as well for first aid. The world’s first “stitch-aloud.” Who knew?

You don’t need to share something this personal just to prove to your kids that you’re “real”! Always select a level of self-disclosure that’s comfortable for you and the children.


Demonstrating Inquiry as a Faculty Team

Amber Ankrom, Annie Gentithes, Becca Woolridge, Claudia Michelman, Elaine Cameron, Meghan Morris, Michelle Reich, K–8 Faculty at Duke School, Durham, North Carolina

We teachers don’t just have to model our individual curiosity for students. In this example, seven faculty members from Duke School conducted an inquiry and took their learning public with the whole school community.

In early December last year, many of our students and teachers were out of school with a miserable flu. Most of us, children and adults, had dutifully gotten our flu shots, but we were all getting sick anyway. Our attendance was decimated. As a faculty, we were concerned and wanted to know more about the problem we were noticing. Our (uber-fantastic) librarian Elaine rallied faculty members to use this as an opportunity to model our own curiosity and collaboration.

Driven by the initial question we had been pondering over the preceding weeks—why are so many of us getting sick?—we each investigated an aspect of the flu epidemic that was of personal interest to us. Teachers investigated a range of topics, such as treatments, symptoms, strains, and vaccines, learning from print and Internet resources as well as by interviewing experts within the community. 

Michelle called her pediatrician and asked her if this year’s flu shot would afford partial protection, even if the strain in the vaccine is incorrect. Becca studied the CDC website and found out the difference between the shot and the nasal spray. Elaine researched the different flu strains and how researchers pick which ones to include in the vaccine each year.

Each teacher not only investigated a different question, but also represented his or her findings in a unique way that made sense. We created a large display right in the campus library, so passing students from all grade levels could stop and have a look. There were graphs, drawings, statistics, and narrative representations. We reprinted some key articles we had read, highlighting in yellow the passages that helped us answer our big research questions. Annie drew a diagram to help her visualize the respiratory system. Elaine surveyed every class to compile statistics on absences and displayed the information in a graph.

We wanted our postings to be just as diverse as the inquiry work we aim to do with students all year long. Talk about going viral! Our display demonstrated the power of collective curiosity, the value of wondering, and the importance of bringing our community together. To top it off, it was fun!

These teachers are inventing something rarely seen in our schools—a teacher team inquiry with a product displayed for students. What a fantastic way to model the collaborative, small-group investigations that are the basic formation for so many student inquiries.

We teachers have been shy to reveal much about our personal lives to our students (and in some categories, we are probably wise to do so). And maybe we are not quite ready to lie down and receive medical treatment on the floor of our class-rooms. But the teachers at Duke, Glenwood, and Withamsville-Tobasco schools found it fun and satisfying to model their own thinking for kids. I think they felt the magnetic attraction of “getting real,” of occasionally dropping the teacher/expert persona, and of just being a learner on a team with others. Today’s kids, no matter what kind of community they come from, urgently need to see as many thoughtful, curious, resourceful, and critical adults as they can. Even if some of those people have terrible feet.


harveydanielsHarvey "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 Circles. His latest bestselling books on content-area literacy are The Curious ClassroomComprehension & Collaboration, Second Edition; UpstandersSubjects Matter, Second Edition; the Texts and Lessons series; and Content-Area Writing. He is also coauthor of Best Practice, Fourth Edition, and The Best Practice Video Companion as well as editor of Comprehension Going Forward.

Smokey 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, Audiobooks

Date Published: 07/22/21

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