The question:

Anne Jespersen and Julie McManus tackled the question: What does diversity look like in Grade 3?

Our inspiration:

Having read the book,  It’s All About Thinking:  Collaborating to Support All Learners in English, Social Studies, and Humanities by Faye Brownlie and Leyton Schnellert as a book club selection, and attended the Leyton Schnellert professional development sessions, we were motivated to create a diversity project with Anne’s Grade 3 students.  We didn’t want to stand in front of the class giving the students all the information (Anne calls that ‘stuffing the turkey‘).  We wanted to create a solar system guided inquiry unit that could be adapted to different subject areas.

Our first task was to create a question for the learning intention.  We were initially challenged with that elusive overarching essential question.  We came up with:

  • What is a planet?
  • What is a solar system?
  • What are the characteristics of the inner vs. the outer planets?

We weren’t really comfortable with what we had come up with because they didn’t seem all-encompassing enough.

Front-end loading and responding to learning is the key

So, we put that on hold and decided to ‘front-end load’ and see what happened.  It started with a the solar system song and a few YouTube clips.  Students learned about the solar system through videos, read alouds, newspaper articles, guest speakers, and independent reflection.  Here are the links from the Solar System library webpage.  From the beginning, it was never about note-taking or filling in the blanks.  We recorded facts, made connections, and asked questions.  Solar chart   Turtle chart (can be adapted to any subject)  We had taken the Adrienne Gear Non-Fiction Reading Power  workshop where we found many strategies for deeper thinking.  This gave us tools to delve deeper into questioning.   Reading Power resources

Click here for Record Thinking blank sheets and here for examples where Students Record Thinking

Student-led learning

The deeper questioning led to a two column chart for questions and answers. Students wrote questions on sticky notes.  If an answer was found, the sticky was moved to the answer column.   Click on the image to see student questions.Sticky notes

Uh-oh, what if there are no answers?

Anne realized she had no idea how to answer most of their questions.  At first she felt inadequate, but it didn’t seem to bother the students.  They started searching for the answers together.  Sometimes the answers were found, sometimes they weren’t.

What are the by-products of engaged learners?

Students discovered that the most up to date information was needed when they were researching Pluto.  They started to check the copy write date of the books to determine relevance and perspective.  Information about the solar system is updated so quickly that much of the information students needed was found on the Internet.

Celebrate the learning!

All this time, Anne was the facilitator.  She was frustrated that students weren’t producing a beautiful project.  But with some reflection and constant encouragement from Julie, Anne was able to see that some amazing learning was occurring.  In fact, when Sid Sidhu and Laurie Roche from the Royal Astronomical Society came for their yearly visit, they mentioned the students were more interactive and questioning than years past.  Why?  All that deep questioning made learning about the Solar System authentic and relevant to the kids.  They bought into the student directed approach.

Reality check

While this started out as inquiry based unit, it quickly changed to guided inquiry, and then guided, guided inquiry.  Grade 3 students don’t have the maturity to discern a credible Internet site.  The challenge for teachers is to find accessible information for a range of learners at a reading level far below the average reading level on the internet.

So what is guided, guided inquiry?

For our culminating activity, the students came up with 50 questions about the solar system they would like answered.  Anne chose six questions from the 50 for students to research.  Julie found websites to answer the questions.  Anne and Julie got together and realized the need to edit each website to the single paragraph that would answer the question.  Why?  Because the Grade 3s are unable to read through information above their reading level and find the answers.  Anne and Julie guided, guided (scaffolded) inquiry and didn’t feel guilty.  Here are two examples of the final project – Student Product1  Student Product2

Final thoughts?

Anne and Julie don’t really agree with identifying the overarching question before the unit begins because those pesky students kept changing the direction of the unit based on the questions they were asking.  What was valuable was looking through the PLOs and matching them with video clips, Internet sites, printed materials to ‘front load’ information while allowing the students to reflect and ask deep questions.

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