Saturday, May 17, 2014

ELA 30: The Book of Negroes & Authentic Learning Through Inquiry

"...when kids have authentic opportunities to read, think, and talk together, their curiosity explodes and their questions come fast and furiously" (Harvey & Daniels, 2009)

Danielle Sebastian, English Language Arts teacher at Campbell Collegiate, was studying Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes with her ELA 30 students.  She developed her unit of study allowing for a variety of tasks and learning styles.  Danielle planned so that throughout the novel study, students could read, reflect, respond to text, question, and discuss big ideas and content. Her smaller assessment tasks focused on allowing students to demonstrate their understanding of the novel and themes being studied, as well as providing her with the feedback needed to support the growth in their learning.

In considering her final project for the students, her goal was for her students to develop higher level inquiry questions.  She had done many presentation style activities in the past; however, had found it difficult to encourage students to develop questions worthy of further exploration, questions that demonstrated the critical thinking skills she wanted her students to achieve.  Danielle collaborated with instructional consultant Monique Bowes to plan an inquiry project for her course.

Danielle wanted to assess the following outcomes for her ELA 30 students: 

Outcome: CC A 30.3
Present and express a range of ideas and information in formal (including a panel presentation and a business or community meeting) and informal (including discussions and collaborative work) situations for differing audiences and purposes.

Outcome: CCA 30.4
Create a variety of informational (including an inquiry / research paper and an editorial) and literary (including a real or invented narrative and a literary criticism essay) texts that are appropriate to a variety of audiences and purposes including informing, persuading, and entertaining.

The students, upon reading the novel, were to develop an inquiry question related to the themes and big ideas found in the unit of study.  The final assessment tasks required them to complete an inquiry research paper and participate in a panel discussion with their peers.

In an attempt to guide the inquiry process, we began by using the RAN strategy with students.  The RAN strategy, unlike the KWL strategy, requires that students prove what they know and/or identify misconceptions that allow for further exploration.

1.  Students brainstormed in partners.  They came up with any ideas or beliefs that they had on the proposed topic, which was slavery.  We chose to keep the topic general in an effort to try to allow for a significant amount of background knowlege. They could use information from The Book of Negroes, and any previous information that they had to allow them to share what they thought they knew.  They wrote their ideas on sticky notes and placed them under the "prior knowledge" category (what I think I know).

2.  Once students had identified their prior knowledge, they could then research the ideas from that category.  They used a variety of sources (we created a livebinder with some appropriate links to help guide the students) in order to prove or disprove the ideas posted.  Upon confirming the information, students needed to cite the source of the reference on the back of the sticky note and move it to the "confirmed" column, or, could identify the information as either a misconception or something they were unable to prove.  Students were asked to use a variety of sources to determine the accuracy of ideas.

3. During the process, students kept track of the new information that they discovered during their research and created additional notes with their "new learning".  This might be information discovered throughout the process of researching the initial questions, or may be entirely new information.

4.  Finally, students were asked to reflect on the process and to consider an additional question.  There are natural questions that emerge from this process and the intent is to use these questions or "wonderings" to help develop an inquiry topic worthy of exploration.

From Danielle's perspective, "I will definitely utilize the RAN strategy again to lead students into deeper level thinking. The students surprised themselves by the amount of knowledge they already had on a subject with which they had previously felt unfamiliar. They were also able to come across new information that led them to think about the topic from different perspectives."

The following day, the focus was on guiding the student wonderings into inquiry topics.  We kept the "what I still want to know" questions from the previous day and had a discussion about what an open ended, higher level style question might look like.  We discussed, as a class, the difference between a topic (a subject pre-assigned where a person could easily discover the answer via google) and an inquiry project (multiple sources required to help support or provide insight into a possible response).  We used the vocabulary "googleable" and "ungoogleable" to help guide the students in their understanding.  Students then reflected on the "what I still want to know" questions from the previous day and determined whether those questions were topics or inquiry projects.

Danielle noted that even at the grade 12 level, students still needed the guidance to move from topic focused questions, to inquiry questions. This process allowed them to work together to test each other’s ideas for depth and insight.

Based on this discussion, students continued their research in order to develop their own inquiry project topics.  Through their research, they were able to develop inquiry topics such as:

Why does Liberia have a deep reverence for the United States, given the history of the slave trade?
How did having an oral tradition impact the evolution of African culture?
How have the various religions reshaped the identity of African Americans in North America?
How was the worth of an individual measured during the slave trade and today?
Without slavery in the Americas, could the Industrial Revolution have been as effective as it was in changing the economy in the United States?
How have current political boundaries in African been affected by the slave trade?
How has Islam influenced the development of cultures in Africa?

Students were then given time to research and develop their written paper.  Danielle used the website to allow students the opportunity to submit multiple drafts for feedback. (Campbell Collegiate is piloting this teacher grading / feedback system). This website is an excellent tool for students to recognize a variety of forms of plagiarism and allows them to work through their writing in order to create original thought, as well as include properly cited information.  It also provides multiple opportunities for a student to receive feedback on their work.

The final presentation was done in the format of a panel presentation.  Using this model, students are required to come together as a group, identify a common thread in their writing, and share ideas.  The intent is that the audience participates and helps to adopt an attitude of inquiry.  We grouped the students in such a way that they would be able to identify the common thread that connected their ideas.  In the period allotted in class, students were able to discuss their inquiry topics and share their information with the group.  From there, they needed to determine a role for each group member, create an introductory statement and conclusion, and a logical sequence to share their ideas.  

Grouping topics with similar themes

She was working with a large group and so chose to divide into two smaller groups to do the panel presentations. The audience members were assessed on the quality of questions posed to the panel members as well.

Topics listed above:
Group 1:
Without slavery in the Americas, could the Industrial Revolution have been as effective as it was in changing the economy in the United States?
Have current trade organizations modeled themselves after the triangle trade?
Did the middle passage of the triangular slave trade cause the creation of new cultures in that area of the world?
Group 2:
How did the continent of Africa become politically divided and what is the current relationship between its countries?
Why does Liberia have a deep reverence for the United States, considering the history of the slave trade?
How have current political boundaries in Africa been affected by the slave trade?

Students were assessed as a group on their content, including clarity of purpose (a common thread to guide discussion), organization of material, sequence, introduction and conclusion, support material and responses to prompts and questions, and accuracy of information.  Individually, they were assessed on vocal impact, language usage and level of question posed to the panel members.  In addition, they were assessed on the written portion of the assignment as well.

Danielle added that, "I was pleased with the way the students worked together to realize a common theme among their questions. Having some examples to view and critique in future classes will be extremely helpful in improving students’ understanding of expectations in a panel presentation.  The way the presentations were formatted allowed for students to focus solely on their understanding of their inquiry. Often, students become distracted or consumed by including multimedia; however, this form of presentation was an opportunity for students to share their appreciation for the inquiry process.  In the future, I would like students to be able to lead a discussion more independently with their panel members as well as their audience."

In discussion after the final assessment was complete, we discussed the strengths and struggles with the project and possible changes that could have strengthened the complexity and understanding of the inquiry.  First, an inquiry question to guide the entire process, prior to reading the novel and to help get students used to developing "big ideas" may have helped students to create their individual inquiry topics.  Additionally, students found it challenging to develop complex inquiry topics that allowed for more creative and critical discussion.  Speaking to students about the nature of the process and the important skill development that will support them as they move forward in their learning is important as well.  Finally, we had no sample panel presentations to share with the students and so they may have found it difficult to visualize what that should entail.

While there were some students who struggled to develop an inquiry question, overall we were pleased with the quality of questions and the connections made by the students during this process.  One student indicated that "When I had to make myself [develop] an inquiry question, it drove me to dig deeper and to open my mind".  The discussions that came out of the panel presentations amazed and impressed us and revealed exactly the level of thinking of which students are capable.

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