By Laurie Thurston
“No fake work” is the cornerstone of Inquiry by Design. And it’s within this mindset that I approach all learning with my students. The work needs to be authentic, relevant, and meaningful. There needs to be an end product: something the students can create that is evidence of the effort and commitment they made to learning. Not all of this needs to come from the texts and lessons crafted by Inquiry By Design, however. Teachers can take projects they love and deepen the work by using the best practices of the inquiry approach.
Take my freshman English class, for example. Midyear, we typically study Elie Wiesel’s Night, his heart-stopping memoir about surviving the Holocaust. We discuss the theme of resilience in this work: how Elie was able to not only survive, but break free from his self-imposed ten-year silence to share this story with the world. And it’s through this lens—that of story—that I encourage my students to explore. But not their story. I challenge them to tell the story of someone they admire, someone who has influenced who they’ve become (much like Elie’s father for him) and tell their story of resilience.
Like Inquiry By Design, I begin with essential questions:
- What makes a person resilient?
- How can a person develop resilience within him or herself?
Following some thinking and conversation connecting these questions to Night and student’s own lives, I present them with a challenging article by Maria Konnikova titled “How People Learn to Become Resilient. I then give students guided Cornell Notes to frame the focus of the work we will do.
I begin by reading the entire text out loud, instructing students to identify difficult moments and list questions. Then I break the text into “chunks”: assigning sections to groups of students. From there, these small groups do a search and study for the stuck points in their section, do a second read, annotate for understanding, and prepare to share their learning. Once each group is ready, student representatives read their group’s section out loud to the class, leading the conversation around difficult moments, modeling how they overcame confusion and sharing what they discovered. Once all the groups have shared, students have the opportunity to work in groups to answer the rest of the questions on the Cornell Notes. I always give them an opportunity to send “ambassadors” to other tables to get more ideas to bring “home.” Once all that sharing has taken place, we debrief individually and as a class about the main points of the article.
It is with this new understanding that students will now interview someone in their own life that they see as resilient. Students read articles to learn interview techniques and study models of articles to determine how best to organize the information in order to write like a journalist.
Students always tell me this is their favorite unit. They are invested in “getting it right” because the pieces they are constructing are about people they love. During the final reflections, I get comments like this:
“I don’t know if I have ever written something this good before”;
and“I can definitely tell that I have grown a LOT in writing and creativity.
The place I believe I grew the most is my confidence. I know how to create
pictures in readers’ minds, and smack emotion into them”;
and“…before, I was not able to write a piece of writing without
getting a bad grade on it because I didn’t care [of] what I got on it.”
Probably, the best indicator of “no fake work” was this email I received from one of my students while we were working on this project:
Ms. Thurston, I just really wanted to thank you for having us do these interview projects. My interview was about the relationship between my mother and her grandmother and I learned amazing things. Before I had always only heard stories and bits and pieces of information about her and them together, and always wondered what the entire story was, but was too afraid to ask. I really think this interview has helped me become closer with, not only my mom, but also my great grandmother even though she has passed and I have never even met her. That really tells someone how great this project is and how great of a teacher you are. Thank you so much.
When you offer rigorous texts, the opportunity to ask real questions, and present authentic tasks, your students will be engaged in ways you may never have seen before. Trust that they can do the heavy lifting. If it’s meaningful to them, they will grow before your eyes.
If you are interested in seeing the entire scope of the unit, check out my slides—which include hyperlinks to the resources I use to scaffold the project for students— and the rubric I use to assess the interviews. I have plenty of student models as well. Just drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org .