Not The Easy Way Out: How Inquiry Helped Me Improve My Practice and Discover My Voice
Doing inquiry work has been no easy task for me. I did not know what to expect or what my expectations were in working with Mills Teacher Scholars, and I didn’t exactly figure it out until close to the end of my second year of inquiry-based work. As an individual and teacher, I pride myself on being a lifelong learner, but I find this to be contradictory to the way teaching is structured today. Teachers are handed curricula, most of which are scripted so that we do not have to do much thinking. These guides typically include the material being taught, how to teach it, the activities, and so on, all determined by someone who doesn’t know my students at all. How could this approach be applicable or equitable for all? The thought of having something easier is appealing as we try to reach new and sometimes unrealistic expectations set by districts, but we lose sight of how this structure can work against us and our students.
Each time my inquiry colleagues and I met with Mills Teacher Scholars we filled out a “Think Sheet” asking about our goals for our students, instructional changes we had made since the last meeting or were planning to make, and what we noticed was happening for individual learners. I didn’t always have substantial answers; I didn’t know or understand my true role in connecting my classroom work and Mills Teacher Scholars. I realized that I was so accustomed to being told the what’s and why’s of what we do that I didn’t have my own answers. I went through a period of frustration, vulnerability, and finally, of discovering my voice as an individual teacher.
My Inquiry Into Reader’s Response
The 2015-2016 school year was my second year working with Mills Teacher Scholars as a fifth-grade teacher at RISE Elementary in East Oakland. Both years I had a different inquiry focus due to changing from teaching math to English Language Arts. Since I was learning a new curriculum that year, I tried to use some of the strategies I had seen my grade-level partner use the year before, including incorporating routine opportunities for reader’s response (writing in response to reading a text). There was limited curricular support in this area at my site, so I used the same template format as my predecessor. I suppose I was taking the easy way out without much deep thinking around the process, but this is where we as new teachers in survival mode often end up.
The goals of my inquiry focus seemed simple from the outset: students would write a three-paragraph reader’s response weekly that conveyed their ability to state their thinking and connect to the book through their writing. As I engaged in the inquiry process and pushed myself to think more deeply about my own expectations and my students’ learning, I realized that the reader’s response routine was more complex than I’d thought, which also proved to be true about the inquiry process itself.
Expectations vs. Reality
I gave each student a template to use in order to successfully write a reader’s response. Reader’s responses were expected to be three paragraphs long: the first paragraph introduced and summarized the book, the second paragraph included six to seven sentences that connected to a specific part of the story, and the third paragraph gave an opinion and a prediction about what would happen next.
I can recall the very first reader’s response the class and I wrote together after I read aloud Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate. I demonstrated on the projector while students wrote in their notebooks. We discussed the book, summarized it, shared sentences that we felt connected to or that struck our curiosity, and then shared our opinions, which allowed students to write their own final paragraph. This seemed to go well and set the foundation for successful independent reader’s responses….or so I thought.
- Students would be able to take our short time together and blossom in their own writing.
- Students knew how to connect to reading; children cared about making connections to their independent reading books.
- I would respond to each student’s writing with positives and changes needed, as well as hold students accountable in completing their assignment, and they would make those changes.
- Students needed more scaffolding to structure their writing. Much of this had to start with writing conventions.
- Most students were reading because it was required of them. It seemed students weren’t sure how to read and consider their opinions and their connections to books that they read.
- I responded to each student’s weekly response until I got behind and found myself stressed playing catch up. Feedback included circling grammatical errors and always writing a brief note back to the student expressing things that I liked and things I wanted students to work on in upcoming writing, but students did not always incorporate the feedback when I did find time to respond.
Looking at Students Can be a Reflection of Ourselves
In order to figure out what changes I needed to make in my instruction to move closer to my expectations, I began, through my inquiry project, to look more closely at students. In my class in East Oakland, my students’ reading abilities ranged from first-grade to fifth-grade at the beginning of the year. My students were underprivileged due to limited access to resources and many were not achieving at grade level, but this does not mean that they were any less capable than their more affluent counterparts. I realized I had to reach each of my students at their level to get them to tap into their own thoughts on literature and transfer their thoughts into words. Accommodating and differentiating for a vast range of learners, as any educator can attest to, can be the peak of frustration and one of the greatest rewards.
I chose two focal students with different learning profiles. At the start of the year, Jasmine was at a mid-third grade independent reading level, while Gabby was reading at grade level.
I chose Jasmine because I noticed that she always chose to read fantasy books. Beyond that, her use of language in her reader’s responses was striking in that it seemed more sophisticated than her reading level. In her second paragraph on a response for the book Confetti Girl, for instance, she wrote, “I think they should change the title to ‘A Girl who Made a Difference to Herself.’ In the book when Lina changed all about herself she didn’t care what anyone else said.”
Gabby, on the other hand, was the opposite: she didn’t give me her best work. She wrote the number of sentences required, but this did not match her comprehension – she was simply trying to “get by.” In response to The Sisters Grimm by Michael Buckley, she wrote sentences such as, “I liked the part when they went to go stay with Ms. Grimm, because it was interesting. It is interesting because she cooks weird food.” I chose her as a focal student so I could make sure to target my support in a way that pushed her forward.
During one of our winter Mills Teacher Scholars sessions, I shared with colleagues that I was having difficulty supporting my struggling students to go into detail in their writing and elaborating on an idea. As we were collaboratively viewing and discussing student work, one of the facilitators noticed that instead of selecting one of the suggested sentence stems and elaborating on it in detail, the students were finishing six to seven individual sentence frames. Now that I had time and support to closely look at my students’ work, their lack of elaboration made complete sense.
Having that opportunity to think aloud and look at student work with colleagues gave me more direction and clarity. I took this new idea to my students and in January we restarted our reader’s responses. During this reteaching, my students and I were able to move toward focusing on a single thought and supporting that idea with details. After responding to their writing, I would hold brief conversations with students individually to see if they had read my feedback and had any questions about my notes, and then I asked them questions to deepen their thinking. Holding student conferences allowed me and my students to listen, to ask questions, and to be thinking partners. This strategy resulted in growth in their writing: students were more thoughtful and their voices came out more clearly as they wrote about the literature that they were reading.
The inquiry process helped me give my students a voice to express their ideas about their reading, but also about the learning process itself. Mid-year I asked Daniela, our MTS facilitator, to interview my focal student, Jasmine, the student whose level of reflective writing was impressive compared to her reading level. I wanted to know how she thought and wrote. When I reflected on the interview I noticed some things Jasmine said that gave me insight into how to better support students’ writing about reading. She mentioned, for example, that one of the things I told her and her classmates is that what they should do in their reader’s responses is to use their own words. When Daniela asked Jasmine what I could do to help her do a better job improving her writing about reading, she replied, “[She] can help me on how I should use my own words.” I had told students the what and the why, while they were seeking the HOW. I immediately took heed to these words and began modeling how to paraphrase and use expanded vocabulary.
Without this inquiry, I might have continued using available templates without thinking that deeply about whether they met the needs of my students. Reflecting back on my experience, I learned through conversation with colleagues that it is OKAY to not have the answers and expected outcomes at the end of a session, because I could create them, and I could change and tailor them as I saw fit and when the time was right for me and my students.
Sharolander Ellis is in her fourth year of classroom teaching. Originally from the Lone Star state, she moved to the Bay Area looking for a change and personal growth, in hopes of working with others who shared her passion for equity in teaching students of color. This year she is teaching 6th grade at Richmond College Prep and continues to absorb more knowledge through her classroom experiences. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with loved ones, exploring and engaging in things that keep her culturally attuned, and creating life memories – especially if it means living life on the edge!