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Teacher Inquiry Gives Students a Voice Too

Teachers in Oakland, California, continue to shed light on what happens when you give them autonomy and support for deep, open-ended professional growth. I have written before about the work of the Mills Teacher Scholars, a program that has been in existence for a decade. With guidance from Mills College education professor Anna Richert, the program has expanded, and a few weeks ago I joined hundreds of people as we viewed research project displays, and heard from those engaged in teacher inquiry.

Often times it seems we are seeking "best practices" that will work with all students. In the case of teacher inquiry, however, the work begins in a state of uncertainty. Our starting point assumes that what worked before might not work this time, because in the complex relationship between teacher, student and subject matter, no two lessons are alike. This curiosity allows us all to be ourselves, and to start fresh with an open mind. It also means we are actively probing how our students are receiving and processing our instruction. This gives students a very active role. We are working with them to find the best ways for them to gain new skills and understanding.

One of the Mills Teacher Scholars is Channon Jackson, who teaches fourth grade at New Highland Academy elementary school in Oakland. This public school is in the most violent and economically deprived part of town. The students are a mix of mostly Latino English learners and African Americans. Here, in her own words, is the story of her recent classroom inquiry.

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Channon Jackson:

This year my focus was science vocabulary. I chose this because as a student I loved science. This year I focused on science conclusions. My goal is to make great scientists, to get my students engaged in science. My data source at first was to look at how the students use science vocabulary in their conclusions. In my class they do a science conclusion at the end of every investigation. It is a paragraph where they introduce the topic, give a definition of the key term, make a claim that goes with the focus question, give evidence and then give the scientific reasoning behind the claim. I looked at the data, and found out that a lot of students were not writing.

My questions were: are they not writing because they don't understand how to write a paragraph? Is that too much for them? Did they not understand the content they were learning? Do they not know how to use the vocabulary words? It was mandatory that they use vocabulary words in these conclusions.

So after thinking about that I decided to have this new structure, where they have these free writes. They don't have to use complete sentences. They just can write whatever they want to write about the topic we were learning about. So if we were learning about rocks, they could write whatever they learned about rocks. If we were learning about magnets, it's just whatever you learned about magnets, but they still had to use vocabulary words. They would get five minutes free write, then sit with their table groups and share out to their table about what they learned.

Still, I had some kids that weren't writing. And because they weren't writing therefore they couldn't talk in their groups. So I had to figure out -- why aren't these kids talking? I thought maybe they still don't understand the content. Maybe I'm not teaching it well enough. So after a while I thought of lifting the vocabulary, so it was not mandatory, and they could just write whatever they wanted to write. And all of a sudden, ALL my students had something to say. They clearly understood the content. They now were competing with each other to see who could have the most things to share out at their table group. They were really engaged in the conversation, and that started this inner debate within me about making them use these vocabulary words, or was it just good enough that they have all this content knowledge?

I realized that as I was teaching the vocabulary, I was hindering a lot of my students' voice. They couldn't speak in class, because they couldn't use these words. I continued to teach vocabulary like I was teaching it, very explicitly, and I continued to have these free-writes and these table talks, to get them comfortable with writing and having them share their ideas, and we had a lot of debates.

After one of the Mills Teacher Scholar meetings I talked to a teacher, and she made me think, "why did you stop having them use vocabulary?" And my reasoning was "Because it was hindering their voice." And she said "Is there a way you could still have them use the vocabulary without it getting in the way of their voice?

So the third thing I changed in my teaching was they would do the free-write, they would still do the table talk, we would have a class discussion, and then I would have them pull out their vocabulary words (we keep them on these cards.) I would tell them "Go back and look at the sentences you wrote, and see if there is any words that you could replace with one of your vocabulary words?" I found out that most of them could do that. Most of them could figure out "Oh, I used 'non-living' here, and I could say 'abiotic' instead."

At the end of this, out of my four focal students, I have one who is really good about using the vocabulary when he's speaking to me, but he still rarely uses it when he's writing. I have another who never uses it when he's speaking, but always uses it in his writing. My other two focal students never use it unless I tell them they have to use the vocabulary words, and I have to give them that space, to have the free-write, to jot down their ideas, and go back and plug in the vocabulary. But then they can do it correctly. Those are my big ahas.

I am still having this inner debate with myself on how far do I push for the vocabulary, because I really don't want to hinder their voice, and it started to open my eyes, to think in other subjects where I was pushing for vocabulary - was I doing the same thing? Social studies came to mind, because we talk about all these "key terms," and I want them to use them, but maybe someone had something brilliant to say, and they just couldn't say it because I wasn't allowing them to, or give them the space.

(Someone else) said Mills gives teachers a place to express their voice. I think this project gives students a place to express their voice because a lot of times when you're teaching, you're teaching to the mass of your class, and this gives you an opportunity to sit down and figure out what does each student need, and I think if I wasn't able to do that, I wouldn't know that the student who isn't speaking with the words likes to write them down, or the one that does write them down doesn't feel comfortable using them in his speech. Or even the opportunity to know that most of my students do understand what most of the vocabulary words mean, but they just, for some reason, aren't able or have no desire to use them in class - but still understand all this content.

We all try to take what we've learned the previous year into our room, but one of the things we have learned is that it might not work, because these are brand new kids, so it gives us a starting place, but we still have to sit and see. It's ok that this didn't work, whereas in teaching, they say "do this and it should work for everybody." With (teacher inquiry), its like, no, try it, see if it works, and if it doesn't you can tinker with it until it works for you.


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These teachers, by constantly tinkering together, have taken ownership of their classroom practice, and in so doing, given themselves and their students a real voice in what goes on. The "best practice" they have developed the most is not a reading comprehension strategy. It is the practice of starting from uncertainty, asking questions, actively listening to what their students are saying, being willing to experiment and change, and sharing that process with one another. This is the endlessly complex and rich work of being a teacher.

What do you think? Have you investigated student thinking? Has this shifted the dynamics in your classroom?

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter.

Photo by Anthony Cody, used with permission.

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