The new school year brings about so much change. New staff. New Students. New Schedules. New procedures and goals.
This year I am in the midst of some radical changes to my 7th grade social studies course. I’m part of our district’s pilot of a new social studies curriculum. This curriculum is an inquiry based curriculum. In addition to the curriculum, how I report grades this year is also changing as my building is also piloting standards based reporting. These changes all come a year after we became a 1 to 1 device district.
Yesterday, I explained our course overview to my new students. I started with the name, no longer would our course be known as world geography. It has been rebranded if you will to global studies. I also detailed that the course would no longer be one in which I provided them with all the answers. The students now would be generating their own questions in regards to our 8 inquiry topics. They will be gathering information and evaluating that information in order to answer their questions. They would be synthesizing that information and then sharing their anwers. Finally, the goal is that they begin to take action in regards to the topics that they explored.
As I drove home that afternoon, I thought how much my instruction had already changed even before this. When I was initally offered the position of 7th grade geography teacher, I was originally disappointed. I wanted to teach U.S. history. I had the false assumption that geography would only be coloring and memorizing maps.
I was thrilled to see that the district curriculum was one that included the study of culture and global issues. My first few years I fell in love with the course and made it my own. I will say though that my instructional practices and assessments though left a lot to be desired. I lectured a ton. There would be weeks thats all I did. Students would fill up one spiral notebook after the next. Then came the assessments. These would be mostly multiple choice and matching tests with an essay at the end. Students copied, memorized, regurgitated and forgot. This cycle went on for both the students and I for several years, until the Common Core was launched.
The Common Core came in under a cloud of doom and gloom. Teachers wrestled as to how they would met these new standards. As our building’s department chair, I along with Chris Heffernan. (@cheffernan75) and I were approached by one of our district curriculum supervisors asking if we would pilot a course that integrated the Common Core HST reading and writing standards. With all the negativity surrounding the Common Core at the time, both Chris and I reluctantly agreed. This ended up being the BEST decision I have ever made both for me and my students.
Chris and I began collaborating weekly via Google Hang Out as we teach within different buildings in our district. As part of our pilot we also were told we would be working with our two building’s learning support coaches. This collaboration proved to be so powerful.
As we worked together I quickly realized that I had been assigning reading and writing for years. I hadn’t been teaching it. With the help of our two incredible coaches Kerry Winborne (@KerryWinborne) and Carol Speckmann we began designing lessons that taught reading and writing strategies and skills within the content of social studies. It was far from seamless. Often, both Chris and I would dream big and attempt to bite off more than our students were ready for such as teaching a big research paper as Kerry and Carol nervously explained that might prove to be problematic. When the results were less than ideal, Kerry and Carol explained how this process worked best if you target one skill at a time and scaffolding it in. Instead of trying to teach both researching and writing, in which if a student got the research wrong their paper was doomed before they started writing, we could use text sets and have them write from curated valid sources. We could then teach finding and evaluating sources which is in itself a challenging task through another unit. Students could then put the two skills together later on in the year for the bigger pieces that Chris and I had originally envisioned.
In order for Chris and I to address these standards the days of 41 minute lectures fell to the way side. We used many of the elements of readers and writers workshops. Lectures were kept to quick 10 minute mini-lessons in which we modeled the targeted skill for that period. Then students began the heavy lifting of reading, writing, and discussion.
Each day I became more excited about what my students were doing. I could see their growth. They were developing real world skills in regards to their reading, writing, and communication. They were no longer memorizing factoids and countries on a map. They were begin to read and write like historians/geographers. They were also far more engaged with the topics we covered and the class.
Not only did the students become better readers and writers. I think I too became a better teacher. With Chris’s nudging we began #worldgeochat. This has allowed me to collaborate and share ideas and resources with teachers across the country and the world. My students and I have routinely benefitted from this work. In addition, I learned the power of working with the building’s learning support coaches. Kerry and Carol showed me that content knowledge, while extremely important, can be even more powerful if it is coupled with infusing reading, writing, and communication strategies. Although Carol has retired. I have continued to work with our building’s phenomenal new LSCs Kimberly Lukawski (@KimberlyCuko1 ) and Jenny Okarma (@jenniferokarma). I have learned so much from both of them in regards to standards based reporting and inquiry based instruction.
I was definitely nervous when the calendar turned to August as I new I would be embarking on these new challenges soon. Yet, I know that the infusing of both standards based reporting and inquiry based instruction is best for students. I also know that change while often scary can be so good!
*If you are looking to learn more about inquiry based instruction I recommed checking out: