Monday, November 28, 2016

Inquiry Update: Refining the Questions and Keywords

In my last post I wrote about our preparation for using the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) designed by the Right Question Institute to inspire and focus high school juniors for writing their research papers. They are writing this paper at the conclusion of reading The Great Gatsby; the unit essential question is: how does socioeconomic status affect opportunity in modern America? When I wrote my last post, we were collecting and reviewing possible artifacts to serve as a Q-focus for the classes. Ultimately, we chose to provide several and allow the students to choose which focus to use and with which students to work. Their Q-focus options were:

  • the strategic school profile for a nearby high school that is very different than our school
  • an expired green card
  • a birth certificate in both English and Spanish issued in Mexico
  • a photograph of five members of the St. Louis Rams entering the stadium with their hands up
  • a data visualization of household income gap by race
  • another data table about education levels among married black women
  • data about health care access by race adjusted for income

We used these slides to explain the QFT protocol. They were projected around the room while students worked so they could refer to the directions as their groups collaborated on each task. As students sorted and rewrote their closed and open questions, they collected their questions on a pair of slides dedicated to their group's Q-focus. Here is an example from one of the four classes that used this process. All of this was completed just before the Thanksgiving long weekend. Today we returned to school and the students in all four classes working with us on this research paper submitted the current draft of their research question for us to review. Their questions address a vast array of current sociopolitical issues. Certainly they still need refinement, but students are beginning to narrow their focus to a topic of interest that is potent in the U.S. today. Here is a selection of the (unedited) questions the students are asking:

  • How does affirmative action impact minorities? 
  • Does gender affect a persons income? Why do blacks have a lower income than whites/ does race affect a persons income?
  • How does race and wealth impact the type and level of education you can receive 
  • How does geographical setting affect health care accessibility for adults?
  • How might a persons socioeconomic status directly affect their access to quality healthcare?
  • How can racial bias in the judicial system affect the way a case is treated?
  • How does poverty impact the learning and culture of a school body as a whole in terms of absences, disciplinary actions, and Free or Reduced Lunch (FRL)?
  • How has the Affordable Care Act impacted people with lower socioeconomical [sic] status?
  • How does the justice system affect imprisonment of the lowest social classes?
  • What causes the tremendous inequality in educational oppurtunity [sic] in America?
  • Why are crime rates higher amongst the lower class?
  • How does ones socioeconomic status affect the severity of their mental health?
  • How does income inequality affect rates of incarceration for different social classes?
  • How heavily does education influence the likelyhood [sic] of achieving a stable, lucrative career?
  • How does race effect the odds of immigrants achieving well paying stable careers?
  • "How do the living conditions and locations of adolescents contribute to their level of education?"
  • How has the war on drugs affected people's ability to rise from poverty?
  • How does the constant factor of social class diversity affect the quality of education in a child's lifetime?
  • Why is the education gap in America growing? and how can we close the gap and have an equal education standard across the US?
  • Why are there a lot of college drop outs
  • How do the economic circumstances of ones birth dictate their potential, as opposed their talent and hard work?
  • How does social class affect parenting?
  • Does race affect the amount of college dropouts?
  • How do financial issues lead to high dropout rates in college?

Clearly these questions still need refinement. We are pleased that students have started to branch their thinking into aspects of American society and historical issues that they were not able to consider before we introduced the QFT to them. Our next step is to help students begin generating keywords for searching our databases and print collection for information about their topic. We believe that once they start listing terms relevant to their question, they will begin to see the possibilities for refining and focusing their questions to better fit the constraints of a five page paper.

That is tomorrow's plan. We are going to ask them to examine the entire list of collected questions from the four participating classes and copy into a document any of the questions that they think explores the topic they are trying to research. Then the students will begin compiling a list of key terms that are related to their topic and their questions. We will provide them instruction on the value of key terms including how to use them in searches:

  • Boolean Logic (and, or, not)
  • Truncation and Wildcards (*, ?)

Then we will ask the students to resume compiling their lists and then revising their questions, ultimately choosing one question to sustain their research. Stay tuned to see how this unfolds.

For those of you interested in updates on the research project using Google My Maps, we are getting ready to introduce it so more on that will be coming soon, too!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Inquiry: Framing Research Questions & the QFT

Two new teachers approached us and began the conversation by saying: "We remembered how you
said that you are willing to help with anything we are doing in class."

"YES!" we said in response. "That is what we do! How can we help?"

So we are preparing to work with four classes of juniors who are embarking on a research paper. This paper is a common assessment for the junior English classes so this is a pilot for an approach we could replicate in other classes. We were asked to help with narrowing topics, developing research questions, locating and annotating sources, accurate citations,... this is what we do!

The course Essential Question that will guide the focus of the students' research is: How does social class impact opportunity in modern American society? The students have already been asked to identify subtopics that can be explored in the context of this question. They have identified: Education, Immigration, Marriage, Health Care, and Ethnicity

We decided that the QFT (Question Formulation Technique) outlined in Make Just One Change by the Right Question Institute was the perfect avenue for both topic focusing and question refinement. During our Professional Learning day at the beginning of the month one of the workshops faculty members could attend was about inquiry and how to use the QFT so this is a perfect application of that learning!

We will remind the students that research requires lots of questions, all different types of questions. Essentially, all research (regardless of the form of the final product) is the process of asking questions, finding answers, asking new questions, finding new answers, and so on until you reach a satisfying, defensible, unique understanding.

Here are the steps they will take:

1. Start by exploring your Q-Focus (more on this in a bit)

  • Ask as many questions as you can
  • Don’t stop to discuss or judge or answer
  • Write each question as it was stated
  • Change any statements into questions

2. Now improve your questions

  • Sort your Q’s into two categories:
  • Rewrite a closed question to be open-ended. 
  • Then rewrite an open question to be closed.

3. Prioritize

  • Select your top THREE questions that your group thinks best explore the topic of your research.
  • Share these questions with the class

The key to the whole process is a well-selected Qfocus. For each of the sub-topics identified by the classes, we are brainstorming and discussing the most appropriate Qfocus. We need things that the students can understand, that will challenge their thinking and assumptions, that will inspire divergent thinking. Here is what we are considering:

  • Education: PSAT scores from an anonymous student
  • Immigration: a foreign birth certificate, a green card
  • Marriage: we are still discussing this one (please share ideas if you have any!)
  • Health Care: data on health care access disparity
  • Ethnicity: this cartoon about white privilege or Peggy McIntosh's checklist

By working through the QFT protocol, students will be able to narrow the focus of their research, determine their guiding research question, and identify the sub-questions it will be necessary for them to answer in order to develop a thesis about their main question.

Next steps: working with the students to find, vet, and annotate sources! Stay tuned! 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Research, Collaboration and Mapmaking -- by Students

I am getting very excited about a new project I am co-planning with one of my science colleagues. We are collaborating to re-vision the unit on global warming. My colleague presented me with an idea about having the students work in small groups or pairs to examine indicators of global warming in different regions of the world. I immediately started thinking about MAPS! In particular, about how perfectly this project lends itself to the documentation of student research and insight in Google My Maps.

And so a project was born!

We've been working this week to develop the project and when working realized that all of these ninth grade students have done a project in their social studies class earlier in the year where they examined a nation in terms of HDI and the nutritional wellness of the people. The title of the project is "R U What U Eat?" It totally makes sense, then, to group the students by the countries they examined in this earlier mini-research project and have them continue to expand their insight about that region of the world.

Originally we were going to assign students to countries and provide them a short (2-4 paragraph) regional climate summary and then guide them in developing research terms so they could learn more about that country or region. Now, they have already provided that information for themselves in the research they did earlier this year in social studies. So, we are going to give them a brief reading about the indicators of climate change and they will be ready to begin researching. Ultimately, they are being asked to make a prediction about the climate health of their assigned region. This is a difficult task for ninth graders so we are providing them with this organizer for their research and guide for developing predictions:

Food & Crops:

Mobility & Travel:
Density & Distribution:

Major Cities:



Major Industries:


Longitude & Latitude:

Land Forms & Sea Level:


Precipitation & Storms:

Seasonal Variation:

Now, consider these combinations:

  • Population Density + Major Industry + Storms = ?

When you combine the different factors from the table, what trends appear?

  • Look for CAUSE & EFFECT… if _______ happens, then _________ will happen next.

Review your research and then develop your prediction for your region.

Ultimately, each group will be given a layer in a Google My Map in which they will present their research and predictions. They will be able to outline and color code regions, drop pushpins in important locations, display images and video, as well as write text (including their citations). When all of the student research and insight is compiled, the map will serve as an interactive way for students to examine the globe and compare regions by turning layers on and off. We are providing them with these questions to guide their reflection:

  1. Was it difficult to make predictions, even with the information and knowledge you had? Why or why not? What additional information or tools would be helpful in making more accurate climate change predictions?
  2. How important do you think it is to make accurate projections about climate change in order to take steps to reverse, mitigate, or prevent climate change? Explain your thinking.
  3. What kinds of connections did you discover between climate change impacts in your country and other countries? How might humans in your environment be impacted by climate change in other environments?
  4. Are any environments impacted more (i.e., more sensitive or vulnerable to climate change) than others? What characteristics of these environments make them especially sensitive to climate change?
  5. What are some variables that are likely to affect the rate of future climate change? (E.g., population growth, economic development, global equity, type, and efficiency of energy use.)
  6. What actions do we take that contribute to the impacts of climate change on other environments? What can we do to mitigate the impacts of climate change on other environments?

What more could we ask for in this project? We are eager for it to begin!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Professionals Can't Develop Without a Growth Mindset

Many teachers seek opportunities to intellectually enrich themselves and to expand their pedagogy. Being a life-long learner is a integral component to being a good teacher. We invest our time, talent, energy, and money in our personal and professional growth. We are intrinsically rewarded for these investments, our colleagues are enriched by the atmosphere created when the learning is shared, and our students' learning is enhanced by our risk-taking and forward-thinking pedagogy.

In order to compel teachers to continue their learning, they are mandated to attend professional development or professional learning sessions. Yesterday was election day which means that in many places it was also a day designated as a teacher professional development day. The electoral and school calendars have another thing in common: election day and the end of the first marking period very closely coincide. Which means when teachers are under pressure to wrap up the marking period with whatever grading obligations that poses for them, they are also being told to stop what they are doing and spend a day learning.

So my question is: do teachers bring to these mandated sessions the same growth mindset they bring to the voluntary ones? And for those who do not invest voluntarily in their ongoing learning, how can the mandated sessions be valuable to them? How do we grow a school culture that values professional learning in all its forms?

This is not a rhetorical question. I would love to hear people's insights. There are easy answers like the PD has to be relevant to them. It has to be differentiated. It has to be authentic with opportunities for teachers to apply the learning to their curricula. So, consider a PD day that involves choice -- several workshops based on a survey of faculty needs and the teachers can choose which to attend. Add to that sessions that include time to work with colleagues to apply learning to current student work and upcoming units and a space dedicated to practicing new technology and collaborating with colleagues practicing and applying the same new tools. Lastly, a follow-up hour of professional learning time the same week is set aside for them to work in their curricular teams to continue applying the new learning to upcoming instruction and assessment. Do you get a relevant, differentiated, authentic professional learning experience? I think so.

If some of the teachers' feedback tells you otherwise, what would you do differently? And, how would you continue to encourage your colleagues who had a positive, productive learning experience (despite the distraction of the end of the marking period and their grading concerns) to keep learning and not be discouraged by the day's detractors and distractions?