Comprehension, Collaboration, Inquiry: So Many Answers And Questions

I have a confession to make: I don’t usually read professional resources. Peruse them? Yes! Really read them? No! But this year, I know that our Social Studies Curriculum Document changed, and I know that there’s a big push through this document for inquiry. I’m excited by this change, but I also realize that I need to know more about what inquiry really is and how I can make this approach work in the classroom.

With all of this in mind, I was especially excited on August 4th, when I caught a tweet from Louise Robitaille during #1stchat. As part of this chat, teachers were sharing inquiry practices and “wonder activities,” and Louise posted information about this professional resource called, Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles In ActionTeachers in the chat shared that there are great examples in this book of inquiry in action from Kindergarten to Grade 12. I knew that this was one book that I needed to read!

Since I had difficulty finding a hardcopy of the book that could be delivered before school starts, I decided to buy the Kindle version. For three days, I spent every free minute I had really reading this book. Usually I don’t take notes when I read — I just read the text, and if I need to, I use the Table of Contents to later go back and find information that I want. This time though, I took hundreds of notes! As you can see in the screenshots below, my notes did not just mention interesting ideas, but also made me ask questions, reflect on my own teaching practices, make connections, and wonder on my own.



So now that I’m done reading the book and have had some time to reflect, here is what I learned:

  • Inquiry is a fantastic way of having students apply their reading comprehension skills across subject areas. Explicitly teaching these reading comprehension skills is so important too, and it’s really something that I need to devote time to even in the upper grades.
  • Inquiry provides lots of opportunities for practising writing skills. Students can write in many different ways, and apply what they’ve learning in language across other subject areas. Maybe more reluctant writers will be more eager to write because of the subject matter.
  • Student choice is so important. Give students a chance to take ownership over their learning and decide how they’re going to share their learning with others. Having these choices also benefits students with Special Needs, for now all students can find ways to be successful.
  • Inquiry gives students a great opportunity to practice using their own ideas and evidence from the text to support their answers, which will benefit them during standardized tests. As a Grade 6 teacher, I can’t help but think about preparing students for EQAO, and inquiry is a great way to do so. In fact, there’s much data presented in the book that supports increased test scores with the use of inquiry.
  • Inquiry can work well in split grade classrooms, as I’m not teaching the content; students are uncovering it. As a teacher, I actually spend more time modelling the specific reading comprehension strategies, writing skills, thinking skills, and collaboration skills that I want students to use during the inquiry process. These skills are applicable for all students. If groups of students do not choose specific topics that I still need to teach, I can either help link these topics to other ones when meeting with the small groups, or I can model the inquiry process using these topics (and even just bring the students from that grade together in a small group to do so).  
  • Teaching of skills can happen during the inquiry process. When I started the book and realized how much students needed to learn about thoughtful inquiry projects, I wasn’t sure how I was going to teach all of the skills and give students a chance to inquire as well. I love though that comprehension, collaboration, and inquiry skills can be taught and supported throughout the process.
  • All students can benefit from this instructional approach. This year, as I have in many previous years, I’m teaching a student with autism. As I plan ahead for September, I was thinking about this child’s needs, and I doubted if inquiry would work well for her. Now I’m reconsidering my opinion. Using the inquiry approach outlined in this book, means that we begin with building prior knowledge. This means the opportunity to look at lots of photographs, read lots of books at various reading levels, explore different magazine and newspaper articles, and watch numerous videos and/or listen to numerous audio recordings. Providing this background information with a heavy reliance on visuals, I think will benefit a student with autism. There are also many charts in the book that look at the teacher and student roles. These charts could be easily turned into simple social stories that outline expectations. The varying ways of sharing thinking throughout the project will also allow this student to capitalize on her strengths, helping to eliminate undo stress. Best of all, the inquiry process follows a predictable routine, which will also benefit a student with autism. I’m excited now about the possibilities!
  • Learning Goals and Success Criteria will be perfect when it comes to assessment of inquiry projects. This book really focuses on the importance of Big Ideas, and Learning Goals and Success Criteria align with these Big Ideas. Students can self-assess based on Success Criteria, and I can give them feedback based on this Success Criteria as well. This helps provide a focus for inquiry projects.
  • Planning time is important. I used to give students a deadline for projects, and I constantly reminded them to keep this deadline in mind, but I didn’t help them plan to meet it. This was a mistake. I love the suggestions in the book for how students can work together to divide up their work, make a plan that spans a period of time, and reflect on and change their plan accordingly. Now I’m not just expecting students to be responsible, but helping them be responsible.
  • I can see a meaningful way to focus on cursive writing. I’ve nicknamed this summer, the “Summer of Cursive,” which may make people chuckle if they used to watch Seinfeld and know about the “Summer of George.” 🙂 At the end of the school year, I wrote this blog post for the We Inspire Futures blog in response to an article in the paper about the detriment of schools no longer teaching cursive writing. This blog post and numerous articles that appeared in newspapers after it, started a huge discussion on Twitter about teaching or not teaching cursive writing. Even from the parent surveys that I sent out at the end of last year, I know that I have parents that want their children to practice their cursive writing skills. I want to be able to reinforce these skills, but in a meaningful context. This book made me think about how I could encourage students to use cursive writing even just for their notetaking throughout the research component of their inquiry project. Then if some students need more cursive writing instruction (and I think that this is valuable), I can model this for them as they write. Perfect! 🙂
  • The ideas in this book align with the literacy structure that I want for this year after reading 100 MinutesThe truth is that I rarely read professional resources because every time that I do read them, I want that kind of classroom, and the ideas never seem to align. Then I end up re-thinking everything that I re-thought after the last book that I read, and I never end up making all of the changes that I want. This time though, the ideas did align. Now I see how I can continue with the AWARD (Applied Writing And Reading Daily) from Lisa Donohue’s book, while also supporting students through inquiry projects in Language, Science, Social Studies, and maybe even Math. Students may even choose to read content area books during independent reading time (through their AWARD Time), and this is great as well. What wonderful opportunities for integration!
  • Allow for group and individual assessment. I’ve had students working in groups for years, but often, all group members received the same mark on work. While I would constantly work with individual groups and look for involvement of all members, I’m sure that I’ve missed things in the past. With the help of this book, I see how students can work together and work alone at the same time. Through conferences and written reflections, individual contributions to group projects become clear. This is so important!

I still have questions though:

  • I love the description of the learning environment in this book, but how do I create this physical space with limited physical space? While I have moved classrooms for this year, and my new classroom is slightly larger than my old one, I’m guessing that my 28 desks will take up the majority of the room. I have decided to not have a teacher desk, and use that room for a small sofa, some chairs, and a beanbag chair, as an alternate space for students to work and learn. I want to arrange the desks in groups of four for optimum group work options, but I’d love to have a meeting area as well. I don’t think that there’s room. Can chairs be moved into a group for full class inquiry circle meetings? What have others done when space is limited?
  • I really enjoyed the chapter on Assessment and Evaluation, and I agree that evaluation needs to happen multiple times throughout the inquiry project. I wonder about how to design a rubric though that meets with the project expectations and the achievement chart (i.e., Knowledge and Understanding, Thinking, Communication, and Application). You see, this book is a little different when it comes to evaluation, as it’s American, so the process is slightly different. Last year, I had students look at curriculum expectations with me. When we co-created Success Criteria and rubrics, we looked closely at the achievement chart, and we made sure that we had at least one specific expectation for each level of the chart. Is this a realistic expectation though when looking at each component of the inquiry project that I’m going to evaluate?
  • I love the multitude of anchor charts suggested in this book, and they all seem like student friendly ones, but where would they all go? As I’ve mentioned in blog posts before, I’m always cognizant of various student needs, and I’m concerned about too many anchor charts becoming visually overwhelming for some students. Maybe some anchor charts could go in duotangs around the classroom, where students can access them when needed. Possibly they could also go on the class blog for easy access from a device. How do others address this problem?
  • I love the Inquiry Notebooks, but I’m thinking about my students that exclusively use laptops because of their IEPs. Could they have a version of these Inquiry Notebooks on the computer? I initially thought that they could just have a Word Document that they email me, but maybe a GoogleDoc that they share with me is a better option. Then they could have a separate folder for any articles that they collect and annotate. What have other people used for digital Inquiry Notebooks?
  • I love the idea of written discussions, but I know that I have some reluctant writers that take a while to write. What options would allow them to contribute all of their thinking to these written discussions? I’m thinking about iPad apps or assistive technology that could allow for digital written discussions (with even some speech-to-text options), but I’d love to know what others have tried. I want to encourage writing, but I don’t want decreased written output to impact on group contributions.
  • I really liked the idea of working with the librarian for these inquiry projects, but we don’t have a full-time librarian. How have others worked around this? My first thought was to explore the library for resources on my own and then talk to the librarian about some of her ideas. Maybe students can go down during Open Library for some time with the librarian. Any other suggestions?
  • I love the idea of project-based assessment versus testing — especially in the content areas — but what if my grade team partners want to give a test? I want to align my evaluation methods with them as well. I think that this book helps explain the benefits of doing these inquiry projects, but I’m curious how others respond to those that are still more in favour of testing. I know that with EQAO students need to become accustomed to taking tests, and I do some in Math for this reason, but I think that these inquiry projects show much deeper understanding of content. What do you think?
  • This book outlines numerous amazing resources for classroom use, but how do you access all of these resources? I can imagine that the cost to purchase all of the books, magazines, and newspapers are huge. I get three newspapers delivered daily, so I plan on bringing these in, and I’m also going to look through the library and bookroom for more resources to use with my students. What else would you suggest? What resources do you see as “must-haves?”
  • In addition to teaching a 5/6 class, I also do prep coverage. One of my prep coverages is a Grade 3/4 Health Class, and I’m contemplating using inquiry with these students. I see lots of potential, but I only see the students once a week. Is it possible to use the inquiry process given such long periods of time between each class? How could I make this work? I think that this would lead to a greater understanding of the health topics, but I want to ensure that it’s beneficial for students as well. Thoughts?
  • While I definitely see the benefit of this inquiry method, I know that the results of my parent survey did not align with this approach. I think that parents and students need to learn more about inquiry. I was going to write parents about what I’m doing and why. I was also going to discuss this approach with them through face-to-face conversations and phone calls. How do you share the benefits of inquiry with parents and students?

And then there’s this last thought that is not really an answer or a question, but more of a wish:

  • Imagine if each student had his/her own Livescribe Pen for an Inquiry Notebook. The large Livescribe Pen notebooks each have pockets for additional handouts or articles. With Livescribe, students could not just record their written notes and pictures, but also their thinking behind each one. What a wonderful paper and digital portfolio of student work! I know that the cost would be huge, but what an intriguing idea! Has anybody ever tried this before? What are the benefits or drawbacks of this “wish” option?

It’s amazing how a great book can give you as many questions as answers. I would love to hear your thoughts on inquiry, and if and/or how you plan on making it work.


17 thoughts on “Comprehension, Collaboration, Inquiry: So Many Answers And Questions

  1. Aviva,
    Like you, I love the idea of inquiry and definitely see it as a benefit for my students in their learning. So many ways to integrate Science and Social Studies with Language.
    What I struggle with, is seeing it used effectively in my class so it’s not just a “big project” or “busy work”. It needs to be planned and purposeful, yet open to their interests with connection to the success criteria so you can assess it. The assessment piece is what I’m really trying to work through right now.
    When it comes to Assessment, we need to focus on what we really want our students to know. They are going to be doing A LOT of great things throughout the whole inquiry process – but I don’t think it’s realistic for us to formally assess it all. Formative? of course. Giving feedback throughout? Absolutely. But creating a rubric for everything? That seems completely overwhelming. So, if we focus on what we really want our students to know (the big idea) and create a rubric for just that part, it might work? I’m really still wrapping my head around this part.
    Putting this in writing may have just opened myself to a lot more questions! Inquiry is such a journey. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the book. Looking forward to learning with you!


    • Thanks for your comment, Jenni! I think that we’re on the same page here. Evaluation is certainly the area that has me thinking the most right now. Your comment may have helped clarify a few things for me though. I’ve always been told that rubrics should be based on expectations, and really the expectations that we’re using in our Success Criteria. It’s clear to me that once we decide on a Big Idea for an inquiry project, we could easily pick a cluster of Language expectations that would apply for any topic. We could then look at the specific curriculum area, and choose overall expectations that would also apply. These could become the basis of our rubric (for formal evaluation) as well as the basis of our Success Criteria (for ongoing feedback).

      Now just becomes the question of how many rubrics we create, which then answers the question of how often we choose to formally evaluate any one project. If the expectations we choose for the Success Criteria are from all four levels of the Achievement Chart, then the expectations in the various rubrics should be too, but the expectations for many of the rubrics may be the same (as it makes sense to think that some of the same skills may be needed for numerous parts of any one project, especially when considering the Language expectations). Does it make sense to continue evaluating these same skills again? Numerous opportunities for practice and improvement make sense to me, but how many times should we be evaluating any one skill? I’m not sure. And will some of these skills make their way into all of the different inquiry projects we do throughout the year? Should we continue just evaluating them, knowing how many other expectations there are in the various curriculum documents? Maybe this is why we need to decide on different Big Ideas that continue to lead us to the assessment and evaluation of different expectations. Yes, I definitely still have more questions than answers. 🙂


  2. Good morning, Aviva!

    I’m on my way out to a course this morning but I have time for a very quick reply to your comment/question about the learning environment you create to support student inquiry and space. And, in the spirit of inquiry, I’ll pose it as a question —

    Does a class of 28 students need 28 student desks?

    • Mary-Kay, thanks for your comment and for getting my head spinning this morning. My funny response to your question would be that I actually need 28 desks for 27 students … 🙂 Now though I have a ton of questions in follow-up to yours:

      1) If I don’t have access to tables, can one desk really be shared by more than one person?
      2) What about if students need independent work space in different subjects? Where could they do this?
      3) If I grouped desks like tables, how much space would one desk be equivalent to when compared to tables? (This sounds like a math inquiry to me.:))
      4) If every student doesn’t have his/her own desk, would each student still have a chair? Does each student need one?
      5) Can room at the guided reading table act as a desk for some students (as students will be moving around the classroom anyway)?
      6) Can room on a sofa or chair act as a desk for some students (for the same reason in #5 above)?
      7) What about the times during the year when I really do need a personal seating space for every student (e.g., if writing a test or even writing EQAO)?
      8) Are there other areas that I could put the desks in the room that may take up less space, but would still provide various work areas for students?

      Now I know what inquiry really feels like — thank you! And do any experts out there have some answers to these questions of mine?


  3. I have not yet taught with inquiry, but last year in my capacity as a lit coach, I did support teachers in student inquiry and facilitated the work of a small group of teachers for the Leaders of Literacy Collaborative Inquiry initiative run by LNS. You can see a snapshot of our work here:

    Assessment was and is an ongoing conversation amongst all of us. My work in the grade six class focused on not what the students knew at the end, but what they learned. (Inquiry was cross-disciplinary Language Arts and Social Studies: How do the stories of other people impact my life?) This is an important distinction because we were interested in the process more than the content. At the outset of the inquiry, the teacher ran a series of pre-inquiry assessments that focused on students’ ability to construct questions, make connections, support their thinking with evidence, communicate how they learned, and reflect (be metacognitive) on their learning processes. The same set of assessment tools were used at the end of the inquiry, which allowed the teacher to see how the students’ thinking had changed over the inquiry, how their reading skills had changed, and how they now viewed their learning process.

    Assessment tools included a student questionnaire on learning, an open response written question on the big idea “How do the stories of other people impact my life?”, a CASI-like reading and questions (thinking and making connections), a question test (ie students choose a reading and then constructed four questions based on the reading), and a self-reflection rubric.

    What did we learn? 1) Students responded well to the inquiry process, once they understood what was expected of them and learned the routines of inquiry. 2) Students worked independently and collectively, supporting each other in book conversations and in researching ideas. 3) The teacher needs to have deep knowledge of the curriculum to ensure that individual student choices align. 4) We need to focus our work on thinking: critical thinking, integrative thinking, reflective thinking, metacognitive thinking. Students are travelling on the surface of their ideas.

    If you would like to see the assessment tools, let me know. They are Word documents, so sharing via email might be best?

    And I, too, think that all students should have a Livescribe pen. I need to work on getting one for me first!

    Thoughtful and thought provoking post Aviva. Much more here to think and write about. Let’s continue this conversation on student inquiry as we move through the year. I will be running student inquiry in two of my courses. I am confident that we will have much to share.


    • Thanks for your comment, Julie! I’d love to see those Word documents, and I’ll definitely send you my email address.

      I think that you make a really important point about thinking. I know that Heidi Siwak (@heidisiwak) has done some great work in this area. Would you teach these thinking skills throughout the inquiry process, or would you teach them first? Maybe they need to be introduced first and then supported throughout the process. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!

      We definitely should continue to talk “inquiry” throughout the year!

      P.S. I hope that you do get a Livescribe Pen. I think that this would be a perfect tool to use for Inquiry Notebooks. Maybe one day … 🙂

  4. In our experience, our test scores have gone up! Last year our grade 6 scores were 87% reading, and 83% writing….Our principal was supportive but worried about the prep for the EQAO year….needless to say she was thrilled!

    • Thanks for the comment, Louise! This is fantastic news to hear. The book shared many similar statistics. I know that it’s not all about standardized test scores, but knowing the value of data, I think that this is something worth celebrating.

      Out of interest, how did your math scores compare? Did teachers use inquiry in math? Math was our focus for last year, and I’m very interested in the impact of inquiry in math.

      I can’t wait to really create that inquiry environment in class this year!

  5. Thanks so much for this, Aviva. I really appreciated you sharing your thinking in detail, as you started to work through the ideas the book got your started with. I’m off to send an e-mail to my principal, asking if she’ll pick it up for the staff. I particularly liked the idea of chunking the work, dividing tasks, monitoring where groups are at…I am the parent of a somewhat disorganized child (and I’m a somewhat disorganized parent) going into Grade 7, and I’m really worried about this for him.

    Stuff to work on…. are you going to Heidi’s inquiry workshop in August?

    • Thanks for the comment, Lisa! These are some of the things I liked best about the book. The organizational factor was one I was struggling with a bit. Now I see how inquiry can really work in the classroom. I hope that you’re able to get the book. It has amazing, practical ideas for use in the K-12 classroom.

      As for Heidi’s workshop, I wish that I could go, but with moving classrooms this year, I really need to be in my class that whole week for set-up. Are you going? I’m sure it’s going to be fantastic!


  6. Just a thought until you can get livescribe pens, what about using One Note for your electronic journals – it can be organized in sections like a binder with tabs, (research, wondering, etc. Students can email their various pages – it might be something to look at – I think it would be more organized than just a word or google doc.

    • Thanks for the comment, Tammy! I haven’t used One Note a lot, but I know it’s available on some of the school computers. I’ll check it out for sure. I would love a more organized look, and this sounds like it has potential.


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  8. Hi Aviva,

    I’m a teacher-librarian in Peel. It is my first year in the role and I am working with gr2,4 &5 classes with inquiry and the new SS curriculum. I love your ideas on your blog. Who was it that had died in your murder mystery with the aboriginals and early settlers? I have to find that post again.

    Would it possible for myself and my resource teacher to observe how you teach/run inquiry in your classroom? We are just getting into inquiry at our school.


    • Thanks Melissa! It’s definitely possible! Do you want to email me and we can set something up ( As for the Murder Mystery, now I’m trying to remember myself. 🙂 While my clues pointed in one way, it was actually more how students used the clues and could support their answer than the correct answer itself. That’s what I love so much about inquiry: it’s much more about the process than the product!


  9. Hi Aviva,
    Thanks for sending me the link to this blog post. I have found my copy of this book and have put it near the top of my to-read pile.

    What I wanted to comment about was your statement that you do not do much professional reading. At first I was surprised, but then you explained why you don’t. I was nodding my head vigorously at this part. I too want my classroom to look like the ones I read about in professional books and try out different things to that end. However, when I do this without reflecting on my current students, there isn’t any coherence in what I end up doing. Sometimes things don’t work out the way I envisioned them, and so I just give up. Other times, I am much more reflective, in much the same way you have been here, and things work because I am responding to my students rather than expecting them to respond to me. I feel like there’s so much more I could write about this…maybe you have inadvertently led me to a blog post about reading professional books.

    • Thanks for the comment, Elisa! I would love to read a post like this if you do write one. I think that the key to success of professional reading is the “thinking about your students” piece. Just jumping in without the thinking seems to not be as beneficial. Since reading this book last summer, I’ve been trying to think more about what I read and how the ideas might work (for my students), and I’ve met with much more success with this approach.


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