Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Cheater's guide to Creating an Inquiry-Based Lesson

One of my running goals as a teacher is to generate more inquiry-based lessons in my classroom. In part I feel that the students can handle it; in part because I am frustrated with students who are used to being spoon fed information without getting their hands dirty. I think that in some cases it is the grinding of the grades and in other cases it is an culture of efficiency and expediency.

Be all that as it may, I desire to evolve into the teachers and professors I admire and ask more questions of my students in the place of minutes spent listening to the sound of my own voice. I have gotten better at the ask-pause-gather-reflect style of questioning and continue to strive for better rhythm and timing. The real trick I have found is turning my questions and their answers into actual notes the students can record.

Enter the lesson-formally-known-as-PowerPoint. Over the past two years of reviving the Of Mice and Men unit, I have been growing and mutating a PowerPoint presentation from the very first year I tried to teach this lesson in 2005(?). It is pretty ugly and I will just show a part of its final mutation here.

I gave it my "What I would I do if this were presented to me as a student" test. Result: I would have tuned out. This is the kind of presentation that I hate having to endure at conferences and I can only imagine how my students must feel, deep down, when they see it in class. So I trashed it in favor of a more open format.

Let me break it down:
7:00am - Arrive at school; turn on computer; go to dining hall for cereal whilst said computer gets warmed up.
7:05am - open the above PowerPoint and my teacher notes for the lesson; review the notes; distill it down to one essential question with guiding questions and the main point. to wit:
  • Where do authors get their ideas from?
  • What is "Foreshadowing."
7:10am - Delete the PowerPoint; zip over to Creative Commons/Wikipedia Commons for open license images that refer to:
  • King Arthur
  • Cain and Abel
  • Of Mice and Men
7:15am - Open and Prezi template; drop the images in the right locations; paste the essential and guiding questions in matching areas; create a space to record class responses; paste my notes in an inconspicuous corner.
7:20am - I now have the following presentation and note-capturing platform ready to go and still have time to nip down to the Admin Assistant's office for coffee.

The classes went swimmingly. I asked the questions and let the students tell me the stories of King Arthur and Cain & Abel. There were obvious gaps in their knowledge, and I still had the pleasure of filling in the missing pieces. The key set of directions were "Copy the questions, write your responses, note others ideas." As the stories unfolded, they would record their knowledge and add the rest of the details as they unfolded. My notes became a checklist rather than lecture and they developed new and novel observations on their own.

The real magic happened with the second to last question about how all three stories were connected. The students discovered for themselves the themes of brotherly love, jealousy, death, envy, moral/ethical behavior, and allegory. When directed the final question of how might all this foreshadow the ending of the book, the students were excited to speculate. Many even left the class still discussing what might happen and at least one student asked if it would be permissible to read ahead.

It may not be a true inquiry-based, Socratic lesson, but for ten minutes of cutting and pasting, it was a better lesson than it was going to be. And you know what?  I still got to hear the sound of my own voice from time to time saying something brilliant, yet it was nice to share that stage with my students.