Inquiry By Design in the Classroom: A Teacher’s Perspective

Kathy Passmore
Middle School Teacher, The Academy of Alameda

This piece was originally submitted as a blog post in June 2012.

The Academy of Alameda LogoOne day in my 8th grade ELA class I heard, “Ms. Passmore, we need to circle up!” We were doing an informal shout-out of arguments in Annie Dillard’s essay “Living Like Weasels,” one of the selections in the “Faces of the Essay” unit.  Much to my surprise and delight, the class was getting a little heated about what the argument was when these words were shouted from the back of the room. Other students echoed, “Yeah,” and, “Come on!” With 20 minutes left in the period, I said, “Why not?” The students then spent the remainder of their class time debating the subtleties of the main argument while I sat outside the circle trying not to weep like a proud mama.

As educators, we know in our gut that the effective implementation of anything takes time. However, in my own experience, I have only rarely been fortunate enough to teach the same subject or grade level more than one year in a row, much less the same curriculum. Even more rare is the opportunity to teach the same curriculum to the same students over a period of time. Well, I am nearing the end of just such an experience.

My school in Alameda, California, began using Inquiry By Design materials two years ago, just as I was making the transition from teaching eighth grade to sixth grade. I was teaching a reading intervention class and co-teaching in my students’ regular English class. Although I was not formally trained in any of the Inquiry By Design curriculum that year, I was able to see how the units were rolled out and how the students responded to them. I was not at all sure how my struggling students would do with such challenging texts, but I was pleasantly surprised at how they were able to access the material through the process of close reading and a variety of small-group and whole-class discussions.

The following year I was teaching both seventh and eighth grade English Language Arts. I took part in Inquiry By Design training for the first time and eagerly plunged into the experience. The seventh graders had been introduced to many of the Inquiry By Design rituals and routines, so it was easy to capitalize on their prior knowledge. I could tell that after just one year, students were much more comfortable discussing their ideas as a group and using a common academic vocabulary including claim, evidence, and explanation, to make their points clear. Once again, I was pleased to see even struggling readers experience success; because each interpretive question can be considered from multiple vantage points, from surface level to deeper inference, all my students felt that they had something to say about the answer. For many, this was a major boost of confidence!

This year for the second time in my eleven-year career, I am teaching the same subject to the same grades using the same curriculum. What a luxury! In addition, I have students I have known since the sixth grade who understand how an Inquiry By Design classroom is structured and who are very comfortable with all of the habits involved in reading, examining, and interpreting the various texts we read. So comfortable, in fact, that they often want to direct the course of the class. For example, this week my eighth graders are discussing a novel through the lens of an interpretive question. In one of my classes, after discussing for a few minutes, a student said, “I think a better question is …” Sure enough, his question sparked a discussion that had many of them on the edges of their chairs waiting, not always patiently, to voice their opinions. In another class, the discussion was catalyzed by two of my special education students, both of whom used language such as, “These events helped the main character develop because . . . ” and, “The significance of his friend dying was . . . .”  I would have never predicted these students would reach this level of analysis when they were in sixth grade; in fact, the level of discussion has often gone deeper than I ever thought possible for middle school students. They challenge each others’ ideas and use evidence to bolster their arguments with evidence, often letting the circle go quiet except for the fluttering of pages as they search for evidence.

One of the best outcomes of the Inquiry By Design work is the quality of writing that my students now produce. They understand quickly that they need to use textual evidence to support their claims, but the ability to effectively use quotes can provide a significant challenge for them. Students tend to start out by summarizing an idea in a text and using the quote they summarized to back it up, often with no explanation of how the evidence supports their claim. However, at the end of this third year with the eighth graders, many are mastering the art of academic, text-based writing. In one of my reading classes, students are reading independently and taking weekly writing quizzes that have three interpretive-style questions. Incredibly, what I thought would be 20- to 30-minute quizzes have been taking 40 to 50 minutes where students are heads down, thumbing back through the text and writing impressively thoughtful answers. It has actually been a joy to grade them (and believe me, that is not something I say often!).

Next year, I am going to have yet another shot at the seventh- and eighth-grade Inquiry By Design experience, and I’m looking forward to more of these “circle up moments,” as we continue to hone our interpretive skills. It has been amazing to see how students have been able to grow over the three years, and I feel that they are well prepared for high school.