Baby steps: A learner and teacher journey into the world of student created inquiry.

It was a routine Friday Book Buddies period with our Sixth Grade buddies. Emma, an intrepid and courageous connection maker, sat looking at Epic Books with her buddy. She and her First Grade peers were asked to investigate our overarching question “What do I/we need to do to grow and be healthy?

Emma rushed up to me, iPad in hand. “Ms. Friesen, look, I made a connection with one of our goals. The book The Most Magnificent Thing (A. Spires), connects to our goal of learning from our mistakes.” “Wonderful Emma!” I said, chuffed that she had made a connection. To be honest, I  thought nothing of it after that initial burst of enthusiasm, however she came back again. “Ms. Friesen, Rosie Revere Engineer (A. Beaty), also connects! Rosie and her aunt fix her mistake together.”

“Ms. Friesen, we could do a some text-“skill” work with these stories.”

“How do you mean Emma?”

“We could look at stories and make connections like we did when we talked about being courageous.” Emma suggested.

“Great idea Emma! Since it was your idea, it’s your mini-unit. I am happy to advise you and help with research, but your connection, your lessons. What do you think?” In my head I was jumping up and down with excitement. After Singapore IBO global conference, all the talk of agency, here was a real chance to put it into action. Yeah! Emma, nodded and walked away to begin her research with her book buddy.

The following week, Emma and I spent time during our class library time collecting books she knew and thought would fit with her mini-unit. Some she wanted were not in our library, so Emma courageously went to the librarian to order books from our other campus. “Emma, what key words could we research to find books? I can look on my phone?” She stopped, making this face where her eyes go up and side to side. You would think Emma was about to get upset, feeling deflated, but on the contrary, this was her quiet contemplation face. This face is the face that makes me want to crawl into a learners head and see the cogs turning, and watch question/exclamation marks fly. “Mistakes or failure,” Emma said. So we carried on, even drawing the librarian into our search. We eventually left with both our arms full.

I must admit, at this point my own enthusiasm was in high gear. The hard part, not taking over or dictating task ideas. Emma wanted a collaborator, an assistant, not a teacher.

We agreed to meet after lunch, during recess, to plan out a two day mini-unit based on the ATL Social Skills: I can make mistakes and use them to help my learning.

As you can see from her mind map, Emma was very clear about how she wanted her peers to share their thinking. She didn’t want it to be called text-to-self, but rather text-to-skill, making a clear connection to the goal she had initially made her own link to. I suggested to Emma, that we email a person I had talked with when we did a mini-unit on courage, Kath Murdoch. Emma spoke and I typed her thinking. Kath’s email exchange and ideas were a real boost Emma, encouraging her. It was by coincidence that the book that speared Emma’s unit was also a suggestion by Kath.

We worked together to find video clips that would show how failures are opportunities. Stepping in, I showed her scenes from “Meet the Robinsons” and “Piper”, a PIXAR short. Emma liked the idea of videos to start, and agreed to them both. She wanted her peers to do a journal job that showed a snapshot from the text that related to a time in their own learning, a failure or mistake. I shared that we needed a way to get this thinking going and having them do a T-chart in their book of a mistake and how they turned it around would help to start their thinking.

The hardest part of agency is when you’ve been teaching for 20 years, and giving up control. Not over suggesting or influencing your knowledge and ideas to the student, who wants to be in the “pilot” seat. I wanted to be the resource, but found myself taking the reigns when it came to introducing Emma’s idea to the class.

IMG_3960On day 1, Emma sat in my chair while I showed videos. Her nervousness was still evident in her quiet voice as she began to introduce how she got to her idea. Emma nodded to me to start the videos. After which, I (yes me), created a Venn diagram on the board. Emma asked her friends “What connects these two clips? What makes them different?” Very quickly, other learners began to make similar connections to Emma. She turned their thinking to our small whiteboard easel where we created our T-chart. Emma asked her peers to create the chart in their books, on the left write or draw a mistake or failure, while on the right share how they turned it around to a positive. Students were welcome to share their thinking in pairs or during whole group reflection, but only if they felt confident enough. The overlapping ideas that were shared were powerful. Emma concluded the first day of the mini-unit by reading to her friends the book that springboarded her own connections, The Most Magnificent Thing.IMG_3964 2.png

Day 2 – Emma and our Educational Assistant (EA), spread out the pile of books that we had gathered from the library. Emma stood in front of the class, “expert” vest on, and explained that we would use the books to make “text-to-skill” connections. She asked her peers to look at the variety of books and choose one that they could relate to. They would then use their journal to record their connections by using a framework created by Emma and I, based on her original idea. If they had questions or were finished, learners would visit Emma to ask for help or share their connections. Emma also wanted her peers to use concept arrows as a means of extending the activity and their thinking.  IMG_3965.JPG


So that was our initial agency experience with a student created mini-unit. We had used workshopping and choice in summative activities in the past, but this was totally new. The big reflections in the end:

  • Emma, a shy and clever learner, used all her courage to stand in front of her peers and address their needs as a leader. She commanded respect and received it.
  • I, as a learner of agency, needs to “back off” more. The temptation to jump in a take control like an “old school” teacher was like an itch I needed to scratch. This is a point I will continue to develop as I grow in my teaching, even at the young age of 46.
  • Agency is messy. You need to let the learner and yourself fail to grow, pivot or persevere as things develop throughout the creative process.
  • Just like in any other unit, adding or taking away as learners work collaboratively or independently, is also key in the collaboration process between teacher and learner.

Change is refreshing. The idea of giving the keys to planning and teaching to our learners is a profound turn around from how many of us were educated. As I end this academic year, I am encouraged by the actions of Emma. She has given me the courage to let go of the reigns and pass the “pointer” to my students more. My goal for 2018/19 academic year, be less “tight”, loosen up, shake the learning tree and get rid of the pilot seat so that more Emma’s can do the planning and teaching in their own way.