I Want More Than The “Check Box!”

I’ve done it before: I’ve taken out the curriculum document, looked at the specific expectations, and started checking off what I’ve taught and what I haven’t. It was kind of like a race to get everything taught before the end of the year, and when I managed to make it happen, I was beyond thrilled. If not, I was disappointed, but I reflected, and promised myself I would try to do better the next time.

What’s wrong with this approach? Never once did I stop to think about the quality of my teaching or the amount of student learning. Instead, I judged my success by checking off expectations. I covered the curriculum … but did I teach it?

This year, my approach changed. This year, I discovered the benefits of inquiry. I learned that it was no longer about just “covering” specific expectations, but about embracing overall expectations. The learning is richer. The thinking is richer. The discussions are richer. The questions are richer. And students are really starting to take control over their own learning. They are not afraid to stand up, make suggestions, and extend the learning to make it more meaningful for them.

I saw that this week. We just started a new Social Studies inquiry unit on The Role of Government and Responsible Citizenship. Last weekend, I developed a plan, and I was so happy about the prospects. This week though, a student helped change this plan (and I think for the better). As the students were working in groups to learn more about their preferred level of government, one child said to me, “Miss Dunsiger, can we have an election? If we’re turning our classroom into the Federal, Provincial, and Municipal levels of government, then I think that we need to elect our heads.” She then spent the nutrition break typing up an election plan and surveying the class to create a list of interested candidates. She even had me sign an agreement.

Students were buzzing with excitement about the possibilities. At first, the class was reluctant to believe that the government could be an exciting inquiry unit, but now the students wanted to learn more. They were discussing issues with each other in class, and looking at our schedule to see when we will be reading, researching, and discussing Social Studies again. I have to have this election.

This wasn’t in the plan though, and the electoral process is not a part of our current expectations. But the students do need to learn about issues dealt with at each level of government. They need to learn about each level of government’s responsibilities and shared responsibilities. They need to engage in the Social Studies inquiry process. An election would provide a meaningful way for students to meet all of these Social Studies expectations, as well as expectations from other subject areas.

It was as I was thinking more about this that I received these tweets from Nathan Tidridge: an incredible Civics teacher at Waterdown High School. Here’s what Nathan said to me (read from the bottom, up):


I was convinced now, but I needed to develop a plan. As I sat at my computer today working out the logistics, I thought: Oh no! Do we have enough time for this? And it’s a good question. Maybe we do and maybe we don’t. But here’s what I decided:

  • We’re going to do this because it will help students learn more about key government issues.
  • We’re going to do this because it will help increase reading and writing skills, but in a meaningful context. I think that even my reluctant readers and writers will be inspired to do more because of the “election.”
  • We’re going to do this because it provides a great opportunity for developing critical literacy skills. I know that I’ll have to provide many mini-lessons throughout the process, but it’s worth it: the thinking and learning will be huge!
  • We’re going to do this because I know that the students need to work on finding more evidence to support their ideas, and this activity gives them many opportunities to do so.
  • We’re going to do this because it provides multiple options for integration across the subject areas: allowing for Language, Math, and The Arts learning (in addition to Social Studies) – The Election Plan.
  • We’re going to do this because what the students learn through this activity will support them with our next inquiry activity: A Bunch Of Bills.
  • We’re going to do this because student voice matters (and does often lead to increased engagement). The students have spoken, and their plan is one worth pursuing. 

I want students to gain a deep understanding of the key ideas for this Social Studies Unit, and not create the “100% success” that disappears after the test or assignment is handed in. So I won’t be “checking off specific expectations,” but I will be addressing all of the overall ones, while hopefully helping to create some deep thinking about our government and important current issues. What do you think about this plan? How do you help make learning about more than just “checking boxes?” I’d love to hear your thoughts!



7 thoughts on “I Want More Than The “Check Box!”

  1. No more checklists! Hurray! I hope more teachers realize that we evaluate student competency of overall expectations. That is our destination. Specific expectations provide us with some different routes to get there, but we need to plan the journey based on the needs (and voices) of our students. The result, I think, is richer learning experiences that go that mile deep and inch wide instead of a surface understanding of a checklist of points. This is a shift in thinking more teachers will have to make when shifting to an inquiry model because they will quickly realize they will run out of time if they try to engage in inquiry based learning AND check off every specific expectation. I’m looking forward to seeing what your students do with this one!

    • Thanks for the comment, Kristi! This was a HUGE shift for me, and I think that I got hung up on the specific expectations (and checklist mentality) in the first Social Studies inquiry unit. I’ve made many changes since then, and focusing in on those overall expectations is one of the key ones. I’m really excited to see where this new inquiry goes! I think that it will require many mini-lessons throughout the process (but most will be tied to Language and will help support the students in other subject areas). I can’t wait for this next inquiry adventure! 🙂


  2. Hello Aviva, I think that the approach that we are taking is more about “learning” than it is about “teaching”. Rather than covering content we are uncovering content and understanding and the focus is on the big idea. As teachers we have to consider what the students will take with them when they leave the classroom. In most cases low level content information will be lost but the big ideas can endure.

    • Thanks for your comment, Byron! I completely agree with you. I had an experience earlier this week when I realized just how much content can be lost, but like you, I do believe that these big ideas will endure.


  3. Okay, here’s my answer. Stop checking off the expectations. Look at the big ideas cross curricular and ‘cluster’ expectations. As far as making it relevant the student election works.
    Our gr 5 team, made up of 3 classes, makes it relevant. The winning electoral team gets to meet with the principal with their proposals. Amazing ideas came out of this, every year. Environmental issues were tackled from the bottom up as well as student voice in a number of school life areas.
    Never stop listening to your kids…please:)

    • Thanks for the comment, Nancy! I’m very excited to try an election of our own, and I love the ideas that you share about what the winning electoral team can do. I may tweet you for some more information. 🙂 Listening to students is so important, and I’m so glad that this student shared her voice (and her wonderful idea)!


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