Our goal as educators in the 21
century is to empower students to become critical thinkers. True, committed efforts are being made to enhance pedagogic practices through the use of Common Core standards. Doing so, however, is a work in progress. Despite ongoing efforts to achieve this end, in accordance with school district and administrative mandates, teachers continue to find themselves having to teach to the test, placing primary emphasis on building up reading ability, reading stamina, and reading comprehension skills across genre. In this regards, achieving high test scores based on scripted curricula and teacher-directed instruction in many instances remains the focus of the hour. Because of the thrust to have instructors rigorously align mandated curriculum with District achievement goals, educators—beginning as early as Grade 2—today find themselves caught in the crossfire of prepping students for state-and-district-mandated exams, leaving limited room for creative, engaging classroom instruction across disciplines. As a result, many students lose out on being inspired to use their metacognitive know-how to its fullest capacity.
Such holds true regarding my experience as an elementary instructor at the Davis Street Arts & Academics Interdistrict Magnet School in New Haven, Connecticut. My third grade class—comprised of a culturally diverse group young learners with much academic potential—primarily hail from low-to-moderate income, single-parent households; a few come from two-parent, middle income homes. But for one or two exceptions, the majority enters third grade reading below grade level. During the initial weeks of the school year, I make it a point to carefully observe and evaluate their ability to socially interact, verbally communicate, and engagingly collaborate with one another. By doing so, I get a sense for where I need to take my young learners both academically and socio-developmentally. I find that during those first few weeks, when called upon to participate in Q&A and/or general small and whole-group discussions, most opt to withdraw from sharing their understanding of subject matter (or lack thereof) among classroom peers. Based on my 20-years of teaching across grade levels, I find that this trend often intensifies during middle through high school years.) How then can educators help students overcome this challenge? How do we assist them in fearlessly sharing their interests, understanding, and questions across subject areas before their peers? How do we motivate them to work together, to question and effectively argue viewpoints to spark discovery? How do we inspire blossoming thinkers to convey their understanding in written form across genre? I contend that we begin by providing opportunities that enable their voices be heard, to foster an engaging classroom community where students feel safe to express themselves and query is the focal point of instruction. This, in part, serves as the rationale for my curriculum unit, "Fiction, Non-Fiction & Query to Engage Young Learners."
Targeted at students in Grade 3, but modifiable for students across abilities levels in Grades 2-5, "Fiction, Non-Fiction & Query" takes an up-close look at predacious insects and more using collaborative inquiry. Students will work in whole and small collaborative groups. They will brainstorm and create a K-W-L chart, perpetually revisiting "what you know-what you want to know, and what you've learned" regarding select arthropods. Through hands-on investigation, field trips, and related reading and research activities, they will conduct student-initiated research and make amazing discoveries. These "inquisitive explorers" will learn to identify and classify insects based on insect characteristics. They too will fine tune their area(s) of interest, zeroing in on a select predatory insect for in-depth study using a self-directed, inquiry, hands-on approach.
The Essential Question
An overarching question will be provided to keep students focused on our target subject: "What is entomology, and why should we learn about it?" Using this combined essential question as a query springboard, students will delve into underlying questions to learn more about the subject at hand. Observing the growth and development of select insects in the classroom setting, coupled with film presentations, nature hikes, and a culminating field trip to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History will help to bring query and exploratory study to life. Children's literature in informational, fiction, and poetic form will be used to complement and support hands-on learning experiences and to build and reinforce reading and reading comprehension skills.
Student inquiry will be enhanced through interactive, project-based learning experiences. These experiences include whole and small group brain storming sessions, a research study based on individual student interest, and a team informational research project (I-Search Project) regarding predacious insects and their ability to survive. The latter will serve as a major focus re: query and collaboration aligned with our children's book selection "Crickwing" by Janell Cannon. Through the implementation of this unit in its entirety, students' curiosity will be roused. Ultimately, through interactive engagement, they will build confidence in forming hypotheses, making careful and conscientious observations, uninhibitedly recording and sharing their findings—working together to problem solve. Equally important, students will embrace that formulating questions, speculating ideas, sharing viewpoints—regardless of exactitude or inaccuracy—collectively help us develop into critical thinkers and valued members in a productive learning community.
The Need Is Clear
According to a five-year study conducted by Louise Jennings and Heidi Mills, inquiry based instruction effectively and engagingly supports academic learning and proves effective in building supportive, collaborative learning communities.
Through its implementation, students embrace themselves as 'contributing learners' within the classroom community. They are actively involved in the decision making process, providing them with a vested interest in the classroom learning experience. Via asking questions, students are given the opportunity to help create the learning experience. Curiosity is roused; students begin to make text-to-world-to-self connections, once again sparking curiosity. Students become actively engaged and become more observant in the process. I concur, for I have embraced inquiry-based learning approaches in my classroom setting. I find that via its implementation, students become empowered because (1) their input is valued and (2) because they play an integral role in setting the tone for investigation and discovery. It is an empowering foundation proposed in my curriculum unit.
I too have chosen to develop this unit because in Grade 2, our young learners are introduced to the butterfly life cycle. They get a first-hand look at the metamorphic stages in the growth and development of Painted Lady butterflies. Unfortunately, the children do not always have an opportunity to observe that metamorphosis without mishap, e.g., larvae may be delivered to the school in a damaged state such that these specimens expire prematurely or emerge from the chrysalis in a malformed condition. Additionally, the second grade curriculum is somewhat limited in that students do not go beyond learning about Painted Lady butterflies. My unit goes a bit deeper, taking an extensive look at insect anatomy and physiology across different species, the overall importance of studying and knowing about insects, and how they fit in to the realm of biodiversity.