Monday, February 27, 2017

Inquiry Ain't Easy - Especially for ELL

I wish I spoke Mandarin and Cantonese.

This would be helpful, not because I want to travel to China in the future, but because I want more ways to help my English Language Learners.

Even when we share the same language, sometimes it isn't easy to teach and learn.

Take my recent group of Grade 4 students. I like partnering with their teacher because she is excellent at inter-teacher communication. She has a Grade 3-4 combined class this year and we agreed to separate the Grade 3s and the Grade 4s for partnering time for science, so that we could spend more time on content-specific tasks and concepts. We planned together, taught apart, and reflected on the process together. At first, I had the Grade 3s and she had the 4s. After six weeks, we decided that it would be healthy to switch groups. She admitted to me that she did not feel particularly adept at inquiry based learning and asked if I could focus my time with the Grade 4s on inquiry. I readily agreed. As the teacher-librarian, I thought I was decently qualified to work with students on developing their own inquiry questions. I believed that it would be less difficult because our inquiry questions would stem from topics they just finished studying with their classroom teacher. These students had been exposed to inquiry-based learning before, so it should just be a matter of reigniting their prior learning. I was looking forward to open inquiry, where the student questions would guide our investigations.

Silly me!

The students generated their own questions about light and sound but when I dug a bit deeper, through conversations with them and with their classroom teacher, I discovered that many of these questions were ones that they already knew the answers to or were already answered earlier in-class. Some of the questions weren't even "big, thick, meaty, juicy chicken wing" questions; they were "small, thin, bony chicken wing" questions with yes-no or one-word answers.

Then there were my ESL students. Despite having read and internalized these guidelines for supporting and including ELL in inquiry - see - I had trouble reaching them. They were extremely hesitant and reluctant to speak and ask questions, never mind generate their own questions.

I used my board's fabulous Virtual Library site to try and inspire some new questions, but my ELL Grade 4s found the material too advanced and my English speaking Grade 4s were distracted and unfocused. (It didn't help that the wi-fi was malfunctioning that day and we couldn't maintain a stable connection.)
This was not going as well as I had hoped.  I had followed the TDSB Implementing Student Inquiry guidelines. I used the Wiggins and McTighe Backwards Design model (page 11). I sought student voice and choice, as well as positive interactions and a comfortable learning environment (page 13). My solution lay back in the types of inquiry possibilities. I needed to abandon the idea of open inquiry in favor of a blended inquiry model.

We were playing with my buzzers - a method of participation that many students seem to enjoy, even those who don't like to talk - when my own sound-related inquiry question hit me out of the blue: "How might we be able to reduce or eliminate sound?" I got really excited about this idea, and I guess it showed, because the students started to become enthusiastic about it too. It also became very concrete and I was able to explain it to my ELLs in a practical way: stop Mrs. Mali from hearing the buzzer. I had four buzzers and so we divided into four groups to investigate. I rearranged the groups so that my ESL students would work with other students; they are inclined to wait until the end of the group selection process and just collaborate with other ELLs or with whomever is "left over". Thankfully separating the ESL students from each other is not as much of a problem as it might appear, because many of the other students are bilingual and can converse in Mandarin / Cantonese and English quite well. I spied on the groups as they worked and I could hear them actually applying the things that they had learned earlier with their classroom teacher. The neat thing was that each group used different techniques to try and mute the sound. (The rules were that the buzzer still had to make the original sound [no removing batteries] and that I had to be able to see them pushing the buzzer.) I could see where they understood ideas and where their notions were a bit incomplete.

Group 1 - Modifying headphones to make them more sound-proof

Group 2 - Covering buzzer with Styrofoam on bottom and top

Group 3 - Using fabric and tape to seal in / mute sound

Group 4 - Using cardboard and tape to silence the buzzer
While they worked on their inventions, I had some time to try and locate supporting resources at a variety of reading levels. I was relieved to find print books in my own library collection that covered the same material but with varying levels of vocabulary. (The classroom teacher informed me that the Grade 4s were jealous of the Grade 3s when they had a science "clicker test" in the library and she recommended that I try to give the Grade 4s a chance to use this method of evaluation. See for an explanation of these "clickers" that the students are so fond of using.) I think I will need to create two different tests on the SMART board because my Grade 3 ELLs did not perform as well on the "regular" clicker test, even though I thought I had modified it enough.

This week, we will test the prototypes to see if I can hear their buzzers. The students will write (or draw, or write in Chinese) about why they think their design will work. We will review the reading material presented to ensure everyone understands the content and hopefully have our "clicker test" at the end of this week as well. (This, combined with my observation notes, will be my triangulated assessment pieces.) Does this "solve" my ELL engagement issues? No. Adequately reaching my ESL students is perpetually on my Annual Learning Plan, because it is a constant tinkering to see what modifications work with which students, and how much modification is needed for understanding to occur. However, it does remind me that inquiry isn't a walk in the park, even for an "experienced" teacher-librarian. It's okay to use guided or blended inquiry. Inquiry is messy. Inquiry is uncertain. Inquiry is engaging.

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