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Teaching with the Big Ideas in Mind

19 Jan

I have been working with a grade 2/3 class at one of my schools on an inquiry around how plants, animals and humans are connected. They explored the diverse rainforest ecosystem and became quite concerned that rainforests are disappearing. They wanted to dig deeper and find out why the rainforest should be protected and share their message with the world.


Learning How to Learn

19 Jan

In this video, the Grade 3/4 students at Hugh Cairns school reflect on the inquiry process after grappling with the essential question “why are rocks, minerals, and soil important to us?”

The Power Of Immerse

3 Dec

“Our understanding is enriched when we have emotional connections.  We love to experience what we find beautiful, and we understand better when learning includes aesthetic journeys. In our own creative endeavours, we seek to craft something luminous and memorable, something that matters to others. Ultimately, our insights become potent and lasting-and we remember” (Keene, 2008, p.230).

When Johanna Stuart, the EAL teacher, and I embarked on a guided inquiry with her EAL students we were uncertain of what the final results would be.  We wondered if the students would “get” inquiry, and we questioned how we could immerse students in complex and abstract thinking, what would it look like, and how could we do this in the small amount of time she sees them each week?   Since Mrs.Stuart was focusing on reading strategies this term, in particular connecting, it seemed only natural for us to identify mentor texts that could help her EAL students build background knowledge around the concept of identity. We used the following books as mentor texts, as many of them dealt with aspects of identity that our students would be able to identify with.





At the end of each book the students were asked to think about what the big idea was in the book. It was through these conversations and their connections that they began to develop and explore the concept of identity.  After reading the book  Hooray For You, the students connected with the term “You-Ness” and we continued to explore what makes each of us unique, yet the same.   After coming up with criteria of what makes all of us the same, each student grappled with and explored a different concept such as: spirit, dreams, weaknesses, and culture, all aspects of “You-Ness.”  To collect their thinking each student wrote a paragraph identifying and explaining a “You-Ness” characteristic and represented it by drawing a picture. Lastly, they shared their new understandings with an authentic audience by creating a voicethread using the ipad. This allowed the students to practice reading fluently and with expression. Here is the voicethread they created.


We had planned for all of this, we knew the direction the guided inquiry was going to go, and we had an end in mind. But what we didn’t plan for was how the message of identity and “You-Ness” would resonate with the students.  Shortly after we finished the inquiry, I received an e-mail from Mrs.Stuart who shared with me that when she was introducing the visualizing reading strategy, one of her students commented that everyone had a different picture in their minds when they were visualizing because
“we have been learning about Youness and we all have different brain, body and heart so that’s why we are all different- we have different Younesses.”

I am reminded of our initial hesitations and questions of exploring and dabbling in an abstract inquiry with our EAL students. Seeing this unfold was yet another affirmation of the importance of immersing students in a topic.  The immerse phase is all about facilitating, or in this case,  providing meaningful ways for students to engage and connect with a topic.

Keene, E. O. (2008). To understand: new horizons in reading comprehension. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


Digging Deep

9 Nov

Digging Deep

This week the grade ¾ class began “digging deep” to find and select resources around their questions: what are the different types of rocks, minerals, and soil in Saskatchewan? The class was divided into three focus groups: rocks, minerals, and soil and each student used a graphic organizer to: write down why a book/website was worth investigating, record jot notes, and to site their sources.

A grade 3 student shares her search process below:

Preparing for Investigating

“The web is the go-to tool for answers, images and interactions. But even as online resources expand exponentially, making us info-seekers drool over the possibilities, the complications, the confusions, and uncertainties of Internet research also seem to be multiplying daily”( Harvey & Daniels, 2009).

To ensure that our students were prepared for this arduous task we modeled and pre-taught:

  • How to research a question by identifying key words and synonyms
  • How to know if a source is accurate and reliable
  • Differences between databases, reference materials, and search engines
  • Google Advanced search options such as reading level
  • Using pictures to understand
  • Reading and scanning online text-features

An “ah ha” Moment

Beyond some of the fundamental search skills that our students learned it was interesting to see how our students went beyond just finding the answer. It was during this phase that they realized inquiry isn’t about finding an “answer” but rather it requires them to think about what they have discovered, make connections to what they already know and to find out more about what they don’t know. As was illustrated in the clip above, the students found what some of the soil was in Saskatchewan but they didn’t know what it meant let alone pronounce it correctly.  They were able to identify that they would have to go back to check for understanding and repurpose their search process.  Lastly, they realized that they were not collecting facts in isolation. When they discovered the different types of minerals in Saskatchewan, they also found out information around where the minerals were located and some uses as well. The big picture is starting to come together.


Harvey, S., & Daniels, H. (2009). Comprehension & collaboration: Inquiry circles in action. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Essential Questions

28 Oct

As part of our inquiry learning each school was given a .5 planning day for the Teacher-Librarian and teacher to co-plan a unit together. Our first task, and one of our goals was to develop a robust inquiry question that was authentic, significant and relevant to students’ learning.  To help frame our planning we used the Understanding By Design planning template that allowed us to stay focused on the big ideas and to uncover the essential questions for the units.

What is an essential question?

We know that essential questions should reflect what is needed for learning core content, but what makes it essential? Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (Understanding By Design, 2005, p.110)  propose that a question is essential if it is meant to:

  • Cause genuine and relevant inquiry into the big ideas and core content
  • Provoke deep thought, lively discussion, sustained inquiry, and new understanding as well as more questions
  • Require students to consider alternatives, weigh evidence, support their ideas, and justify their answers
  • Stimulate vital, ongoing rethinking of big ideas, assumptions, prior lessons
  • Spark meaningful connections with prior learning and personal experiences
  • NatCC Attributed Imageurally recur, creating opportunities for transfer to other situations and subjects

We grappled with our essential questions, and mulled over the enduring understandings and here is what we came up with:

EAL Essential Question: Who am I?

Grade 3/4 Essential Question:  Why are rocks, minerals, and soil important to us?

How did we determine our essential questions? We delved into the curriculum, looked for cross-curricular connections and thought about what we wanted our students to know and to understand at the end of the unit.  This was challenging as EAL has their own outcomes and  we had a split grade 3/4 class to make curricular connections across the subject areas.

Even though this is an inquiry, both of my teachers have decided to structure the learning through the guided inquiry process. As a result, we also came up with sub-questions that would guide the student learning along the way.

As we continue on in the inquiry, I think it will be important to come back to the criteria of an essential question and reflect on whether or not our questions met that criteria.

Robust Inquiry

28 Oct

One of our school division initiatives this year is a partnership between the teacher-librarian and a teacher at every elementary school in the division. Each term, the learning partners will have an opportunity to attend a robust inquiry professional development session and will also be provided with a .5 day to plan. The goal of the robust inquiry project, as outlined by the Saskatoon Public School Division is to:

  •  Build a robust inquiry question that is authentic, significant, and relevant to students’ learning
  • Develop an outline that details the facilitation of rigorous worthy inquiry tasks
  • What are the milestones or benchmarks for classroom projects?
  •  What is my readiness for processes and skills needed for this project?
  • What is my role(s) and opportunities in growing project successes?
  •  Have I fostered transformational technology use as outlined in the H.E.A.T. Spectrum?
  • Foster the use of affinity groups (Learning Circles/PLN/Social Media) for furthering learning and celebrating student successes

Since I am at two elementary schools I have a few different inquiry projects on the go in grades two, three and four as well as an inquiry with some of our English as an Additional Language students.