Inquiry Based Learning – A Classroom Story

I know that you were expecting Part 2 of the Classroom Environment series. Apologies. That will post on July 5, but today I want to tell a story.

For many years, I, like most teachers, conducted my instruction based on what was modeled for me. Based on my experience, my understanding of my role as a teacher of literature was to teach and interpret texts for my students, to unpack literary devices, to explain authors’ techniques, and to generally give the expert endorsed “right” answers concerning authors’ meanings and messages. And then I encountered Inquiry By Design. My understanding of my role, and my pedagogy, shifted—completely.

Of Mice and Men has always been one of my favorite novels to teach. After my inquiry-based enlightenment I completely reworked my approach to that novel. I stopped lecturing entirely. Whew. I used my Inquiry By Design curriculum as a template to design collaborative activities that allowed students to make their own observations and discoveries and to form their own interpretations.

One day we read the Robert Burns poem “Ode to a Mouse,” upon which Steinbeck based his title. Students compared the ideas and themes in the poem to the ideas and themes in the novel and formed theories about why Steinbeck based his title on Burn’s poem. Then they examined the recurrent use of small, soft, seemingly helpless animals in the two texts and pondered the intended symbolism. The room was crackling with energy as students began to form and test out their ideas in discussion.

A girl who had barely uttered six words in my class all year spoke up with a question.

“Mrs. Hemingway, did Steinbeck actually mean to put all these things in the book? Did he do all this on purpose, because it’s so cool! It’s like a puzzle, or a map to his message. It makes it so fun to read it. It’s like it’s not just the story. It’s a story with all this stuff hidden in it.”

Did Steinbeck do it on purpose: foreshadowing and metaphor and symbolism? We assume so, but her question led to a lively discussion about inspiration and muses and literary devices—all spontaneous.

Toward the end of the class, another student spoke up—a reluctant reader who rarely handed in assignments.

“I’ve always wondered why we have to read the books we read in class. Like, I mean, who decides that something is a classic or worth studying? Why is a certain book a classic and another one isn’t? This is the first time I’ve understood how a writer uses, like tricks and details, and fits it all together, and that words are like tools to make you feel and think things. And then when someone like Steinbeck is wicked good at it then his book is a classic. Right?”

I had participated very little in the discussion that day. I didn’t “teach” or lecture or even express any of my own ideas or so-called expertise about Of Mice and Men, and yet in all my years of “teaching” the book I had never had a student make these kinds of observations or ask these types of questions. It is not an overstatement to say that I felt like a mid-wife that day, attending as a love-of-literature was birthed in these few students.

It took my breath away. With inquiry-based learning I’ve realized that I can never instill the love of a great story by deconstructing the text and pulling out my interpretation like a magician with a hat, while my students whisper behind their hands,

“How does she know that?”

“Where did she get that from?”

And worst of all,

“Why does this matter?”

Inquiry-based learning says “This book is considered a masterpiece. Let’s dive in, swim around together, and see if we can find out why. Let’s discover what John Steinbeck has to say to us.”

Being an explorer is so much more fun than being an expert.