An Inquiry Surprise: Student Designed Units

Even though I’ve been doing this inquiry thing for a bit, there are still moments that take me by complete surprise.  Something crazy is happening in my classroom.

We’re currently finishing up a unit, and beginning to look at what’s next.  Several weeks ago one of my current students was talking to a former student.  He was telling her about a Dr. Seuss unit we did in English five, or so, years ago.

The next day she came to school and said, “Hey, why don’t we get to do Dr. Seuss?  Something a bit lighter would be nice.  We’ve studied the Holocaust, human rights issues, and now slavery.  Could we do something that’s not so heavy?”

Sure.  So today the idea of the Seuss unit was mentioned.  Many liked that idea, a few wondered about other options. Well, we’ve looked at Christmas literature in the past too.  A few others liked that idea.  But one student wasn’t sold on either.

“Could we do something entirely different? Something that you haven’t done before?”

Sure.  What are you thinking?

She thought and then said, “What about a movie unit? Could we study movies of different genres and then analyze them for themes and other different features?  Is that possible?”

I explained with the English curriculum we have more flexibility than with chemistry or biology.  In those subjects, I’m specifically told what content I need to teach.  However, with English it’s mostly skill based, although it does stipulate how many novels, short stories, poems, etc. we need to include.

I further explained the five “strands” that we use in English: reading, writing, listening, viewing & representing, and speaking, and that there are multiple objectives for each strand.

So it is possible.  I asked them to talk a little bit more about what it might look like.  My students brainstormed various possibilities. Maybe dividing into groups to show clips from various genres.  Each group would be responsible to facilitate the discussion around the analysis.  Maybe creating a digital space to post movie critiques, and other classrooms could join us.  And of course, there would be writing involved too.

After hearing a number of ideas, and seeing a plan beginning to formulate one of my students looked at me and said, ” Can you help us create a unit plan for this?” Wow. Never in a million years did I think my students would ever say those words.  Another student remarked, “Yeah, I only know how to teach swimming lessons.”

I looked at him and said, “Well, it’s not that much different.”  When he gets in the pool he doesn’t just splash around for 30 minutes.  He knows exactly what he’s going in there to accomplish.  Not only that, he knows what it looks like when someone has mastered the skill and when someone isn’t even close. He agreed.  Curriculum & teaching is pretty much that.

So that’s where we’re starting tomorrow.  I plan to bring our curricular objectives, with the objectives we’ve already met highlighted, and we’ll decide which objectives this unit will cover. We’ll also decide what it looks like when they’ve been met, and how they’ll show their learning.  And, together, my students & I will create our next unit.

How crazy is that?  This inquiry stuff is amazing.  I’ve noticed this semester that my students have taken responsibility for their learning in ways I never dreamed possible, to the point where they’re willing to do the hard work of figuring out the details — stuff I normally do.  They’re invested, and they have every right to be.

About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. Furthermore, I am Buck Institute for Education National Faculty member
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13 Responses to An Inquiry Surprise: Student Designed Units

  1. I’ve been interviewing some teachers at my old school who are using inquiry in their classrooms, and one of the things they said that struck me is that they spend a decent chunk of time discussing standards and goals and objectives and how to know if they’ve been met. Most kids never have a sense of what that stuff means in a teacher directed world. The other piece is that the plans are always in flux. It’s not like we move lock step through the curriculum to get to the end of it. The steps change. The “end” changes. But what drives it is the alignment to the objective. it’s definitely a pretty big head shift for most people to understand.

    • I completely agree, especially when most of us graduated from a school system so unlike inquiry. It’s hard to imagine something completely different. Even though I I use inquiry in every class I have, there are still times when I struggle wtih how to implement it. The thing that surprised me most was how much we talk about learning and outcomes. My students were shocked to see what curriclum actually looks like.

    • I completely agree with what you said about the plans always being “in flux.” I think it’s that lack of control that frightens many teachers. We’re shifting from the idea of the knowledgeable teacher dispensing information (a full pitcher pouring into nearly empty cups) to the idea that students can – and will – create dynamic and engaging curriculum that is aligned with established standards. It’s tough to unlearn how we were taught and learned to teach, and to accept the idea that we won’t always be able to plan out the next day, week, or unit because the class hasn’t moved in the direction that you thought (wanted?) it to. But as long as the learning objectives are met, the route doesn’t matter…

  2. I really like this post! Your students have definitely changed their focus in learning where they seem to be taking charge of what they get out of their education. I like how you are helping them, not telling them, and also how you are bringing the curriculum to the table and allowing your students to develop their own unit around those things we must have. Exciting times Shelley! Congrats!

  3. Stephanie Painchaud says:

    Wow! What a great day and semester when the students truly become involved in their learning:) I can’t wait to hear more about how the unit evolves. Congrats! Enjoy the collaborative learning!!

  4. Helen Gress says:

    I’ve been snooping into your blog every so often and have really enjoyed reading about the work you are doing with your students. I also teach ELA and plan to use documentary viewing on the web as part of a “Speak for yourself; Speak for the World” unit in B30. I will be looking forward to hearing more of how your student’s unit planning goes. How exciting!

  5. Pingback: I love when the universe answers my pleas for help « Teacher, Teach Her…

  6. daguenther says:

    I am a pre-service teacher at the U of R. I really appreciate your post and getting students on board with teaching material!

  7. Pingback: An Inquiry Surprise | Wright'sRoom | Links for Units of Inquiry in PYP |

  8. Leslie Forsyth-Eno says:

    You have inspired me to try something like this with my grade 7s. I asked my self-managers if they would be interested in doing some on-line teaching in Edmodo for Social Studies and some said that they would. So, I am going to set them up as teachers on the site and have them research the next unit coming up in Social Studies, after giving them the learning outcomes, and see what they can come up with for posting child usable content. Have you any tips that you can give, as you are ahead of me on this, and your students are older?

  9. Inquiry-based instruction has a way of releasing students’ imagination and creativity. The cycle of inquiry is a fabulous way for the teacher to become more of a facilitator and less of a manager or sage-on-the-stage. I hope you keep us posted as you begin to use it more and more.

    Thanks for sharing!


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