Inquiry Book Study: Week Two

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Welcome to week two of our inquiry book study!

This week we’re looking at Chapter Two from “Making Learning Whole” by David Perkins. A huge thanks to Yvonne Denomy for being the guest blogger for this week! She’s written an amazing post…

Chapter Two: Make the Game Worth Playing
My Bio: I am a literacy teacher in Saskatoon. Currently, I am on an educational leave while completing my final term in the Master of Education in Teacher-librarianship program through the University of Alberta. I am in the process of writing my capstone paper on the topic of designing authentic, inquiry-based experiences for 21st century learning. One of my big questions is determining what it means to “understand” in today’s rapidly changing information landscape in hopes of clarifying my vision of 21st century classrooms and schools. As you can well imagine, Making Learning Whole has been a perfect fit for my learning!

I have to begin by telling a story. Last year, I was invited to do some co-teaching in one of the Middle Years classrooms at my urban community school. Our primary goal was to improve student writing, so upon examining our student writing samples, the teacher and I established that one of our objectives would be to help students organize their writing by gaining a deeper understanding of text structures, particularly transitions.
Whenever I teach writing, I always try to show positive exemplars using pieces of writing that I love; on this particular day, I had framed the lesson using a passage from the text, Through My Eyes, the autobiography of Ruby Bridges.
In this passage, Ruby Bridges retells the events from her birth leading up to and including that historical first day at William Frantz Elementary School; written with wonderful transitions to sequence the events through time. I opened the lesson by asking the students to tell me what they knew about the Civil Rights movement and/or Ruby Bridges. The students had very little background, but one student offered that this “might have happened in the U.S, perhaps something to do with Martin Luther King Jr.” Immediately, another of our students responded, “Who cares about that? That has nothing to do with us, why are you making us learn about something that happened in the U.S anyways?” At first I was taken aback, but I just smiled and replied, “Great question. Why should we care?”
Yes, “beginnings are important,” says Perkins. So, I began by showing an image of the Norman Rockwell painting, The Problem We All Live With, (original image can be found here) and we inferred what might be happening in the picture. The students were highly engaged as we inquired into the painting, identifying the details we could be certain of, and those which must be inferred from our experiences and clues in the image.
Once the students had formed some hypotheses, I showed a short two minute video clip from the Disney movie, The Story of Ruby Bridges, depicting those few minutes as Ruby gets into the car and walks to the front doors of the school. We discussed how Ruby must have felt, and we imagined walking in Ruby’s shoes that morning. I then read aloud the passage from the text leading up to this moment, in Ruby’s own words.
I think we had one of the best conversations ever as a class that day as we discussed how difficult it can be to face racism and the courage it takes to stand up for our rights and for what we believe (after all, our students know about racism, courage and human rights). We talked about big questions such as: What is worth fighting for? What allows some people the strength and courage to make sacrifices for what they believe (Ruby’s parents, for example, in allowing Ruby to go to school; her father losing his job; sacrificing personal safety…)?
When it came time to write, I reread the passage, continuing on into Ruby’s first day of school. We examined the words, phrases and structures that Ruby Bridges had used which helped us to sequence the events of that day. I then asked the students to retell an event from their own history using some of the transitions Ruby used in the passage (or their own). I think it was the best writing these students had ever generated for me.
As recess neared, this normally reluctant room of students asked if they could read their life stories aloud. It was moving, listening to students tell their personal stories, sharing (and showing) their courage while facing some of the hardships of their lives, openly and respectfully… using transitions to sequence the events. The student who had challenged me at the start of the lesson was perhaps the most engaged of all. On the way out the door that morning, I stopped that student and thanked her for her engagement in both the discussion and in her writing. Her reply, “Yeah, well for once, we did something that I actually cared about!”

Although I had only one scheduled block with this classroom per week, the students asked their teacher if they could continue the learning without me. Of course! As well, we came back to the text several times in our writing; modeling transitions to describe, show cause and effect, and so forth.
Perkins’ Chapter 2: Make the Game Worth Playing, naturally brought me back to this story. I think about how our goal that day was primarily to teach writing transitions. The fact that we achieved this goal and went beyond into something that really matters reflects, for me, the power of the choices we make as teachers. I think that is why this chapter is called “Make” the Game Worth Playing, not “Find” a Game Worth Playing. It’s truly what we make it. We certainly could have given the students a worksheet of transition words and phrases and had them practice these hard parts of writing in elements (elementitis).
Alternatively, our students could have learned about text structures, the Civil Rights movement or Ruby Bridges without big questions guiding our thinking (aboutitis). Instead, I think we were able to achieve something much deeper and far more worthwhile, simply by framing the learning, and establishing a good beginning. What strikes me is that this shifts the “hard parts” from the students to us; it’s not always easy framing the learning in ways that matter to the students.
Like so many things, I think it just takes practice. Although I readily admit that I am still figuring it out, I did have some practice beforehand, as well as the support of both colleagues and experts who helped me figure it
out along the way, too. One of these experts was Jeff Wilhelm, author of Engaging Readers & Writers with Inquiry: Promoting Deep Understandings in Language Arts and the Content Areas with Guiding Questions (2007), a book that really helped me along my journey.
If you haven’t already had a chance, listen to this clip of Jeff Wilhelm as he shares some of his thoughts on this topic. (Scholastic Professional series) I love how Wilhelm says, “You can’t just DO Romeo and Juliet, or Roll of Thunder, Hear Me Cry, or Number the Stars. You have to say, “Why is this in the curriculum? Why does this matter?”
What are your thoughts about this chapter or Wilhelm’s clip? Can you share some of the choices you have made in reframing topics so they matter (generative topics, as Perkins would say). Or perhaps can you share a favourite beginning, a story about the power of choice, expectations or challenge?