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Inquiry Book Study: Week Two

Welcome to week two of our inquiry book study!

This week we're looking at Chapter Two from "Making Learning Whole" by David Perkins. A huge thanks to Yvonne Denomy for being the guest blogger for this week! She's written an amazing post...

Chapter Two: Make the Game Worth Playing
My Bio: I am a literacy teacher in Saskatoon. Currently, I am on an educational leave while completing my final term in the Master of Education in Teacher-librarianship program through the University of Alberta. I am in the process of writing my capstone paper on the topic of designing authentic, inquiry-based experiences for 21st century learning. One of my big questions is determining what it means to “understand” in today’s rapidly changing information landscape in hopes of clarifying my vision of 21st century classrooms and schools. As you can well imagine, Making Learning Whole has been a perfect fit for my learning!

I have to begin by telling a story. Last year, I was invited to do some co-teaching in one of the Middle Years classrooms at my urban community school. Our primary goal was to improve student writing, so upon examining our student writing samples, the teacher and I established that one of our objectives would be to help students organize their writing by gaining a deeper understanding of text structures, particularly transitions.

Whenever I teach writing, I always try to show positive exemplars using pieces of writing that I love; on this particular day, I had framed the lesson using a passage from the text, Through My Eyes, the autobiography of Ruby Bridges.

In this passage, Ruby Bridges retells the events from her birth leading up to and including that historical first day at William Frantz Elementary School; written with wonderful transitions to sequence the events through time. I opened the lesson by asking the students to tell me what they knew about the Civil Rights movement and/or Ruby Bridges. The students had very little background, but one student offered that this “might have happened in the U.S, perhaps something to do with Martin Luther King Jr.” Immediately, another of our students responded, "Who cares about that? That has nothing to do with us, why are you making us learn about something that happened in the U.S anyways?" At first I was taken aback, but I just smiled and replied, "Great question. Why should we care?"

Yes, “beginnings are important,” says Perkins. So, I began by showing an image of the Norman Rockwell painting, The Problem We All Live With, (original image can be found here) and we inferred what might be happening in the picture. The students were highly engaged as we inquired into the painting, identifying the details we could be certain of, and those which must be inferred from our experiences and clues in the image.

Once the students had formed some hypotheses, I showed a short two minute video clip from the Disney movie, The Story of Ruby Bridges, depicting those few minutes as Ruby gets into the car and walks to the front doors of the school. We discussed how Ruby must have felt, and we imagined walking in Ruby’s shoes that morning. I then read aloud the passage from the text leading up to this moment, in Ruby's own words.

I think we had one of the best conversations ever as a class that day as we discussed how difficult it can be to face racism and the courage it takes to stand up for our rights and for what we believe (after all, our students know about racism, courage and human rights). We talked about big questions such as: What is worth fighting for? What allows some people the strength and courage to make sacrifices for what they believe (Ruby’s parents, for example, in allowing Ruby to go to school; her father losing his job; sacrificing personal safety...)?

When it came time to write, I reread the passage, continuing on into Ruby’s first day of school. We examined the words, phrases and structures that Ruby Bridges had used which helped us to sequence the events of that day. I then asked the students to retell an event from their own history using some of the transitions Ruby used in the passage (or their own). I think it was the best writing these students had ever generated for me.

As recess neared, this normally reluctant room of students asked if they could read their life stories aloud. It was moving, listening to students tell their personal stories, sharing (and showing) their courage while facing some of the hardships of their lives, openly and respectfully... using transitions to sequence the events. The student who had challenged me at the start of the lesson was perhaps the most engaged of all. On the way out the door that morning, I stopped that student and thanked her for her engagement in both the discussion and in her writing. Her reply, "Yeah, well for once, we did something that I actually cared about!"

Although I had only one scheduled block with this classroom per week, the students asked their teacher if they could continue the learning without me. Of course! As well, we came back to the text several times in our writing; modeling transitions to describe, show cause and effect, and so forth.

Perkins’ Chapter 2: Make the Game Worth Playing, naturally brought me back to this story. I think about how our goal that day was primarily to teach writing transitions. The fact that we achieved this goal and went beyond into something that really matters reflects, for me, the power of the choices we make as teachers. I think that is why this chapter is called “Make” the Game Worth Playing, not “Find” a Game Worth Playing. It’s truly what we make it. We certainly could have given the students a worksheet of transition words and phrases and had them practice these hard parts of writing in elements (elementitis).

Alternatively, our students could have learned about text structures, the Civil Rights movement or Ruby Bridges without big questions guiding our thinking (aboutitis). Instead, I think we were able to achieve something much deeper and far more worthwhile, simply by framing the learning, and establishing a good beginning. What strikes me is that this shifts the “hard parts” from the students to us; it’s not always easy framing the learning in ways that matter to the students.

Like so many things, I think it just takes practice. Although I readily admit that I am still figuring it out, I did have some practice beforehand, as well as the support of both colleagues and experts who helped me figure it out along the way, too. One of these experts was Jeff Wilhelm, author of Engaging Readers & Writers with Inquiry: Promoting Deep Understandings in Language Arts and the Content Areas with Guiding Questions (2007), a book that really helped me along my journey.

If you haven’t already had a chance, listen to this clip of Jeff Wilhelm as he shares some of his thoughts on this topic. (Scholastic Professional series) I love how Wilhelm says, “You can’t just DO Romeo and Juliet, or Roll of Thunder, Hear Me Cry, or Number the Stars. You have to say, “Why is this in the curriculum? Why does this matter?”

What are your thoughts about this chapter or Wilhelm’s clip? Can you share some of the choices you have made in reframing topics so they matter (generative topics, as Perkins would say). Or perhaps can you share a favourite beginning, a story about the power of choice, expectations or challenge?


Larraine Ryan said...

Yvonne, you made the game worth playing for everyone involved!! With the primary goal of teaching writing transitions, you skillfully avoided elementitis by not providing students with a worksheet of transition words and phrases and practicing the hard parts of writing; secondly, you avoided aboutitis concerning text structures by doing what doing what we all need to do more, namely trusting students to ask compelling, critical questions that initiated an authentic inquiry: Perkins’ “junior version” of the game.

Your learners created their own big questions about why your choice of text is embedded across the curriculum in many ways, and why it matters. This is poignant for me as an instructional coach with the Calgary Board of Education because it was just today that I presented my partner teachers with a “habits of mind” model that is designed to achieve what you achieved in your Language Arts lessons, without a model.

The connection I made from your message is to Social Studies rather than to Language Arts, but it engages students with similar questions. The critical thinking and ethical consideration that your students made is supported by Six Historical Thinking Concepts from the Benchmarks of Historical Thinking Framework Document developed, in large part, by Dr. Peter Seixas (2010, 2006), Chair of the Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness at the University of British Columbia. I hope that you will see through these resources how your pedagogical approach led students to a rich, accessible “junior version” of the enterprise. By engaging in the “habits of mind” of a writer, your students deconstructed a primary source text, questioned its historical significance, and examined the notions of continuity and change over time in the racial issues it exposes. Finally, the students took an historical perspective regarding the causes and consequences of the issues through their ethical lens of today. The game was worth playing. Although the experience may make no significant difference in their grades in the short term, this kind of learning is more likely to transfer than it would from a traditional approach. Your students are unlikely to forget the experience any time soon. I anticipate that it will have an impact on how they make sense of and meaning from their learning.

Yvonne Denomy said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments and for bringing the work of Dr. Seixas to my attention. I was able to find Dr. Seixas' Framework document. What a great resource! Yes, I think we did travel that journey and certainly hope (believe) that the students will remember that day. I know that I will.

Barbara Brydges said...

Wait a wonderful example of really engaging students in important thinking Yvonne. And, also a wonderful example of what good teacher-librarians can bring to the classroom through their knowledge of resources, knowledge of curriculum and knowledge about what makes for powerful learning. Thanks very much.

Unknown said...

I want to answer one of Yvonne's questions, but first I want to say how much I enjoyed her post.

In the past I've used projects a great deal, but I made many mistakes trying to get the whole game right. I knew how important intrinsic motivation was to learning, but that didn't mean that I could choose a good project or focus on the most compelling aspects of it. It's hard.

Jeff Wilhelm cites difficulty as one of reasons more teachers don't use inquiry with text. We deal with this problem every day where I work (Great Books Foundation) because we know that most of the teachers we train to use Shared Inquiry will not succeed in their classroom. Most of the failed teachers never try. For those that succeed, there are great rewards for them and their students--Wilhelm points to some of these rewards.

If one does try to figure this out, should one spend more time thinking about good threshold experiences or to generative topics? How does one self-evaluate a good game for one's students so they really become engaged?

Yvonne Denomy said...

Thanks, Mark, and good questions. You really made me ponder.

As you know, I am writing my capstone paper on 'experiences' and understanding. Your questions made me think back to another article by Perkins where he states, "What's most worth students' efforts to understand?" Making the game worth playing isn't always easy though... that is for sure.

Anyone else?


Neil Stephenson said...


I really enjoyed your post for many reasons.

I really appreciated the comment that we must 'make' not just 'find' the right game. In my (continually developing) understanding of what makes good teaching/inquiry - I think it lies in a fine balance between the space required for student interest/discovery and a well-designed or structured task or question. I think inquiry often gets an extreme, student-centered reputation, and I believe this does a dis-service the the potential depth and impact that a thoughtfully structured inquiry can have.

This becomes really clear in your example - you (as the teacher) knew some really important resources (the book, the painting, etc) that would engage and interest student. It wasn't left up to their interests alone (pick something you want and research it) but rather you carefully and critically chose a handful of resources that would take them into the space that you wanted to. It was successfully in large part because of deliberate choices you made - a piece which is often missing from discussions of inquiry or progressive forms of pedagogy.

I heard a great keynote last year from Lane Clarke ( who talked about the importance of carefully planning what she called the 'immersion phase' of inquiry. She talked about deeply thinking through where we want students to go - and then backwards designing to chose the right 'hooks' or resources that will start the study. She also talked about the dangers of cognitively overloading students with novel ideas (since the brain can only handle so much new info) in an inquiry space. Even when students appear engaged and deep interested in the topic - there's the danger that there's too much new info - or that the learning won't transfer - because we haven't though about this particular lesson/project/inquiry fits into a larger picture.

What I learned from Lane was we need to think carefully about the design (like you have) and consider why we are engaging students into a particular task (the right game). Moving the task from entertainment to deep learning is such a challenge - and required deliberate choices about what to use and sometimes more importantly, what not to use.

Thanks for sharing such a great example - it's really got me thinking.

Yvonne Denomy said...

Thanks Neil. I appreciate your comments. My experiences have been similar-there is the view that inquiry must be completely student-centered and hence becomes an either/or of curriculum and learning. It has taken time for me to figure out that it can successfully be both, and I know I still have much to learn.

It was my pleasure to be a guest blogger for the book club. I look forward to the rest of the learning!

I will have to watch for another opportunity to hear Lane Clark. Her workshops/presentations sound like my kind of learning! Do you know of any upcoming engagements in Canada (her website shows only one in N.America in summer!)


Neil Stephenson said...


Not sure what's happening with Lane - I hadn't heard about her until a recent conference I was - but she had some very thoughtful things to say about narrowing inquiry. Really got me thinking.

Hyacinth Schaeffer said...

Yvonne, I read and re-read your post because your story was so compelling and you choose a compelling story (Ruby Bridges). Thank you for that.

I wonder if it is the story, in the end, that makes any game worth playing. As people, the way we connect to one another is through the story - the struggles, the joy, the challenge, the achievements, the Eureka moments! We want to see ourselves and have a window on how others see themselves.

I am currently involved in an action research project in which two groups of high school science teachers are examining primary source literature (research) and looking at ways to adapt the technical papers into student accessible material, while remaining true to the research. The goal is uncovering the process of reasoning from evidence, critical to the scientific endeavour.

As part of our work we agreed from the onset that we would be developing what Perkins considers to be a junior version of the game ("peer review" of research) and in order to make the game worth playing we will need to develop the storyline - not just aboutitis or elementitis - a real story/scenario that will be compelling to students. The result we hope will be a hybrid adapted primary literature project - whew! It promises to be challenging work for the teachers and the researchers involved, and we're all anxious to get moving! Scientists spend 23% of their work time reading, and when scientists read they are involved in inquiry just as much as when they are doing lab or field work. This project is inquiry for us and it is the whole game in our profession. We are working as hard as our students ... and as Neil has said, careful and deliberate choices are key.

"Never work harder than your students" is a common mantra ... I beg to differ. We need to model our hard work for students to appreciate the value of playing the whole game.

Yvonne Denomy said...

Thank you for the thoughtful reply. Having recently completed my integrated professional and research literature review, I admire you for undertaking such a challenging, but very useful and authentic, junior game. I think it's a great idea. I'd love to read your primary literature review when it's complete.

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