Sparking Student Inquiry

By Eve Pranis

"I believe that inquiry-based learning gives students more ownership of what they learn and how they learn it," reports third/fourth grade teacher Cheryl Zelenka from Grants Pass, OR. "By finding out what students already know about a given topic and what they're curious about, then giving them an opportunity to dig deeper, I'm able to promote independent thinking and memorable learning experiences on a much deeper level," she adds.

Cheryl filled us in on how she became the tour guide on the class adventure, bringing to life her vision of inquiry-oriented learning. "I began my year with a broad theme of "discoveries," which served as an umbrella for all subjects, including my plant unit," says Cheryl. To launch the plant unit, she had students create a word web on plants, which branched off into trees, gardens, insects, and weather. This gave her a sense of what ideas, knowledge, and questions students brought to the unit.

Discovery Opportunities

Cheryl and her students next collected fiction and nonfiction books in each of the plant-related categories they brainstormed. The books resided in boxes at each of four discovery stations, and small student groups rotated to one center each day. Cheryl gave groups 15 to 30 minutes to browse through the books at their stations and use self-stick notes to mark information they found interesting. Students then used their Discovery Journals to record three new discoveries and three questions that the books prompted, and to draw a picture, diagram, or map of something that intrigued them. As students sat in a Discovery Circle, each chose a favorite find to share and add to a class list. Then they added new information to the word web to identify new insights inspired by the books. Finally, students categorized their discoveries and questions, and Cheryl used these as a guide for creating Activity Centers.

"At the Activity Centers, I can combine students' interests with my own need to cover certain curriculum areas," says Cheryl. "I weave the students' questions and interests into activities and challenges that also help me meet curriculum goals," she explains. Four student groups spend two to three days at a center before rotating to another. "It's critical to have adult assistants at the centers to help kids with skills they need to solve problems," notes Cheryl. At the plant station, students were invited to plant bulbs and bean seeds, explore plant parts, plan out and draw a vegetable garden, learn about vitamins in different vegetables and identify how they help the body, explore soils, and so on. At the weather center the students learned about and constructed simple weather instruments: barometer, rain gauge, and weather vane. The tree center featured leaf rubbings, tree branch identification, and cross-sections of trunks.

Interest Group Projects

Once the Activity Centers were completed, the class visited the word web again, using a different-colored marker to add new information and insights. Students shared what they would like to study further, and, with teacher guidance, created five interest groups. These groups were responsible for conducting independent projects that drew information from different sources, and then communicating their experiences to the class. "It's important to help groups find materials and structure their projects, then back off so students can have some independence to solve problems and learn from their mistakes," explains Cheryl.

"These kids had not been accustomed to doing independent projects, and most had little support at home, but they really wowed us," says Cheryl. "I'm sure that their enthusiasm was so high because they delved into areas that truly piqued their interest," she adds. Groups shared their projects, which ranged from fertilizer experiments to a play about trees, with their peers before adding them to a class science museum.

As a final activity, Cheryl had the students develop a rubric for evaluating the projects. It included simple questions such as, Did everyone participate equally? Was it creative and clearly communicated? If there was an experiment, was it clearly explained and "fair?" "When students determine and apply criteria for project success, they better understand what goes into good research and presentations," explains Cheryl. "This, in turn, helps them improve their own skills and products," she adds.

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