Inquiring with a novel: Kensuke’s Kingdom

No school year should go by without a class spending quality time with a novel. It could be in the form of a read aloud, literature circles, or independent reading and reflection. I like to use a blend of several approaches.
The first challenge is to select a great book. As an inquiry-based classroom, I thought it’s critical that the novel we read together be directly related to our current theme and preferably to our central idea. We had been inquiring into children’s opportunities and challenges. After discussions with colleagues, I thought Kensuke’s Kingdom would be a perfect fit.

Copies for Everyone – Part of reading a novel, for me, is actually holding it, carrying it around. I ordered a copy for each student which will now happily live as a class set in the school library.

Organizing the Chapters – To blend different approaches to the novel, I preread the book to determine which chapters would be best suited to particular approaches. Here’s the schedule we used:
1 – Teacher read aloud p1-16
2 – Popcorn whole group (students take turns) p17-24
3 – Begin w/teacher read aloud; complete indep as HW p25-44
4 – Popcorn in small groups; complete indep as HW p45-68
5 – Independent p69-84
6 – Teacher read aloud p85-98
7 – Popcorn whole group p99-116
8 – Independent p117-130
9 – Popcorn small groups p131-144
10 – Independent p145-162
In general, it progresses from teacher-led to independent reading. Also, longer chapters are begun in class and completed for homework. The shortest chapters and those with less bearing on the story work best for whole group popcorn reading. The final chapter should be read independently and ideally over a weekend. Revisiting, reviewing, rereading, and predicting are the skills I like to work out with this activity.
After each chapter, we collaborated to write an ongoing summary. This was a great way to keep a record of our understanding of the story, refresh memories, and see the development of our ability to recall and explain what we had read.
The best discussions were about the themes of the story (war, loss, loneliness, needs, etc) and how they related to our central idea. I hadn’t expected the connections to be so apparent to the students! In one case, a student compared the main character’s circumstances to child farm workers we had learned about from our collaborative partners in India.
Finally, they enjoyed co-creating a comic-style poster to visually summarize each chapter of the novel. The highlight of this activity was a twenty minute debate on a style guide to ensure that the characters looked similar from one frame to the next!
Style Guide for collaborative poster
Finished Poster
We will present the poster and report about our learning during the School Assembly at the end of this week.

For me, it has been a reminder of the power of literature to illuminate understanding.

Global Collaboration – Friends in Distant Lands

Our current Unit of Inquiry, on the theme of “Sharing the Planet”, focuses on children’s rights, risks, opportunities, and challenges. To make the unit action-oriented, we are taking a project-based approach with the goal of helping children.
To broaden our perspective and practice effective digital communication, we are collaborating with other classes in India, Canada, and Hong Kong. Because we are following our own inquiries, the key to collaboration thus far has been sharing reflections and student work.

Posters about the importance of not wasting food.

I think it’s important for the collaboration to be uncontrived. Each class should be at liberty to pursue their inquiries independently, utilizing each others’ ideas, artifacts, and resources to achieve the service goals determined by the students.

Sharing photos or scans of student work is easy enough, but becoming messy in our email inboxes! I’m sure it would be better to post to class blogs and provide opportunities for everyone to view and comment on each other’s posts. Once the connection is made, it can become a normal part of our inquiry to check on each others’ progress and interact as we go.
For the purpose of teacher sharing, documentation, and reflection, I set up a Friends in Distant Lands wiki. So far, it’s just a skeleton, but I’m hoping that other teachers will utilize the resources and leave their own planning and student artifacts. Each class has their own page which they can use in any way they like. They key is to bring the collaborative spirit to the students and provide them the greatest opportunities possible to become inspired.
If the goal of the project is to help children, the driving learning objective for the inquiry is to empower children with the skills and belief that they can make a difference. There are many ways to motivate, but I’ve never found one more effective than cultivating the understanding that they can help others.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. -Margaret Mead

Is my classroom mastery-oriented?

Having spent the past year trying to understand and utilize the International Baccalaureate Organization Primary-Years-Program for the first time, I’ve applied a great deal of planning and instructional time to inquiry. I strongly believe in the model and its apparent intention to emphasize much more than academic performance in the education of children. It compliments my previous experiences perfectly and my students and I have enjoyed our journey thus far.

Last week, however, I received my class’ results from the International Schools Assessment. Results in Mathematics were impressive, Reading were acceptable, but the Writing results were disappointing, especially non-fiction.

What happened?

This guy is clearly master-oriented.

I have already identified one problem: When our Language Arts curriculum was correlated with the PYP sample Program-of-Inquiry, the units on persuasive and informational writing were pushed to the end of the school year, after the testing in February, although we did practice essay writing as part of every History unit and the entire class made documented progress in every domain on our own formal summative assessments.

There were also several school events in the same month as the tests, which may have contributed to fatigue or a lack of focus, and certainly interfered with opportunities for explicit test-preparation.

Certainly this will be an area of focus for me in the near future. Perhaps it’s time to pull up on the inquiry reins just enough to allow for more formal writing development and mastery of grammar techniques which seem to be the focus of that assessment, but have not been our focus this year.

Should they have been?

Being mastery-oriented means a great deal more than simply meeting learning objectives. At least that’s my new understanding after beginning to read Carol Dweck’s Self-Theories.

It’s a state-of-mind, intellectual and emotional. The PYP is clearly oriented toward developing mastery-oriented people willing to pursue goals and take risks. While I believe that is much more important than marching through a mastery-oriented curriculum, perhaps my emphasis has been askew.

I would like to explore the possibility of a writing program which not only motivates and inspires children to write, but also ensures that they master the grammar and vocabulary they need to be truly confident and fluent communicators.

Los Perros Magicos de los Volcanes

Back in the Fall, we read one of my favorite books.
Our PYP Unit of Inquiry was entitled “We are what we believe”. We surveyed folk stories from around the world to draw inferences about various cultures’ beliefs and values from their literature. We read Aladdin from Syria, Momotaro from Japan, and Magic Dogs of the Volcanoes from El Salvador. It was a great chance to practice using Venn diagrams to compare and contrast.
The artwork is beautiful and the story is charming and unique. It also has English and Spanish on every page, which everyone always seems to enjoy. I highly recommend the book as well as the International Children’s Digital Library.

Focus on Imagery

Draw and color a picture based on the poem.

Many students make a comic strip for this imagery activity.
It’s very simple, but I think it’s a good warm up to focus on descriptive language. One thing I would change is the directions. It should read “draw and color a picture to show what is described in the poem”, or something similar to reinforce the ‘showing with words’ concept of imagery.

Blogging with elementary students – a formative reflection

What’s working:
+Child-specific platform
+Specific assignments to learn and explore features of blogging, all documented within the blog.
+Utilizing blog for a variety of tasks, assessments, inquiry organization, interest-based explorations.
+Dedicated class time for blogging.
+Students writing with purpose.
+Seamless integration of technology, skills, and fun.

This year, I started my fourth grade class using Kidblog. What I liked about it when compared with the other very excellent platforms was the simplicity and control, which became an essential aspect of using it to teach and learn. As the students become familiar with the concepts and functionality, I slowly released the reins so that everyone was aware of, comfortable with, and hopefully confident about the experience as it expanded.

We began with a private blog and provided a password for parents to view and comment. The students each made an alias in order to reinforce the importance of privacy online. They created their own passwords which I organized in a simple spreadsheet for easy retrieval. Naturally, I had to approve all content before it was published. Every few weeks, I sent the parents a detailed email of changes and future plans. We had a small amount of parent participation in the form of comments!

Step by step, we explored the features of the blog. We started with posts, then comments. At each step, I made an effort to link our blog activities to content from our lessons and inquiries. I posted a chart in the classroom with each student’s name and tasks to complete on the blog such as read a post to click a link to an interesting website and then leaving a comment about it. I think they liked being able to leave comments like ‘it was boring’ and ‘yay’. Eloquence was not the objective of those lessons.

Soon, I encouraged them to start posting whatever they wanted. They posted videos. Countless videos. Silly videos. I endured because this was their opportunity to experience the intrinsic value of the blog and also get the initial novelty out of their systems. Their writing also started to expand as they saw the need to express themselves clearly, if not briefly.

Early on and very often, they had technical problems. Those problems became perfect teachable moments. Rather than following a unit plan like Blogging is Elementary from Kim Cofino, our inquiry into blogging developed organically. For example, when a youtube video wouldn’t embed into a post, we learned that some youtubers don’t allow it, and we must respect their right to control their content. By treating digital citizenship as an inquiry and using a child-oriented platform with absolute teacher control, I think we’re achieving a balance between skills-development and interest-based motivation.

Once we had established basic skills and our code of ethics, as it were, we started reaching out to other blogs. This was one element of Kidblog I enjoyed. I could contact other classes and share our posts and allow them to leave comments without making the blog public. At that point, we had talked enough about privacy and Digital Citizenship to start using our first names.

Admittedly, my students are still very shy about interacting with other classes, but they are opening up slowly. I assume that other classes are the same. I thought that if our blog received attention in the form of visits and comments from other classes or (gasp) strangers, they would be encouraged. For this to happen, we have to go public, although I still maintain totalitarian control.

At this time, anyone can view our posts and try to leave comments. I am the gatekeeper, and have to approve all content before it is published. This is still an experiment, of course, and one that I am genuinely enjoying. Click here to pay us a visit!