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Inquiring into the digital inquiry project

Inquiring into the digital inquiry project

Written by Steve Fulton
November 08, 2011

Driving home from a weekend Writing Project retreat with my colleagues, Cindy and Lacy, I didn’t have much to say. Even though for the first time all weekend the conversation had nothing to do with the intense professional work we were doing, I was too tired and too frustrated to talk.

The purpose of the retreat was to give us all time and a supportive environment to work on developing a collection of resources to be published on the National Writing Project’s Digital Is website.

Long before the retreat, I had an idea for what my resource would be. I would focus upon a project that I undertook with my students last year, which came to be known as the Digital Inquiry Project. The format of the project was simple: students would generate questions about a topic of personal interest to them, turn to the web to seek out answers, then integrate the knowledge they gained into writing pieces of any genre that they posted to their blog. We would take time to read and respond to one another’s ideas, self-assess our own growth as thinkers, learners, and writers, then begin the process again (a more in-depth explanation of the rational and structure of the project can be found here, in a blog post that I wrote last year).

The plan for my resource was to take a closer look at the work that had occurred through the Digital Inquiry Project. I would peel back its layers to show just how the project facilitated learning and explain the implications that my inquiry into this project would have on my future approach to teaching. It seemed like a project worthy of Digital Is, and it fit in perfectly with the Urban Sites work our local Writing Project was doing. And what made it even better was that I didn’t think it would be too hard for me to create. All I would need to do was talk about what I had already created and add a bit of reflection.

I figured at the very least, I would be able to create a draft by the end of the retreat. Instead, all I had were a bunch of failed ideas in my daybook: an essay on technology and learning that sounded to preachy, my narrative explaining my own development as a digital learner that felt too much about me, an explanation of how the Digital Inquiry project contrasted with the dominant narrative of school that I couldn’t seem to get organized. Nothing I did felt right. At one point, I even revisited the writing of a couple of my students and began writing the story of their involvement in the process. This didn’t turn out too bad, but I still didn’t feel like it tied in well to what I had hoped to do.

And sitting in the back of Lacy’s car on the way home from the retreat, I was frustrated at being nowhere close in my writing to where I had expected to be. Overwhelmed, I shut down and stopped thinking about it altogether. I turned my attention to Lacy and Cindy’s conversation in the front seat, listening to them talk about their families, their doctoral work, the stress they were feeling, and their tentative plans for the future.

I wasn’t part of the conversation, just a spectator, and as I listened I began thinking about how their lives intersected and crossed through the words they exchanged. I thought about how in these intersections existed something significant, something that would shift the perception each woman had on her own life. I was hardly through this idea when my thoughts began to shift back to my resource.

My thinking about Lacy and Cindy’s conversation took me back to the writing I did on Erin and Cristian, two students in my first period Language Arts class. I thought back to the writing that I did on these two students during the retreat, and as I did, I also began to realize that within their journeys was exactly where I needed to look in order to uncover the work of the Digital Inquiry project and create an important Digital Is resource.

Erin’s Story – Taking my lead

Erin was a 13 year-old girl in my first period class. While she generally kept to herself and did what was asked of her, she also wasn’t afraid of asserting her individuality and giving anyone her honest opinion. Her experience with the Digital Inquiry Project transpired much along the lines of how I initially envisioned it would.

She began her project curious about deep questions, stating in one of her initial posts that, “i really want to no why we are here , whats the reason of life , and how and why it all started. i mean every one asks questions, right? But I’m just no scared to ask them. With these questions in mind, she turned to web to listen in on the conversations already talking place about the existence of God, and wrote this first post reporting what she found.

Like just about every student I taught, Erin decided to write her first piece as a report. At first, this struck me as odd. Why, when students had the option to explore any genre they wanted, did they all chose to write pieces disconnected from their lives in a format that was as school-like as they could get? I knew the answer before I even finished composing the question in my mind: because they were in school, that’s why. Given this, I was hardly surprised to read the following comment that Erin posted as a disclaimer to the readers of her first post:

just so you no once this summer comes arond im deleting all of this and starting over on what i want to do. i get alot of people like this kind of stuff but to me its boring and just for school. So probble this summer if you think this blog is good you’ll think the other ones will be GREAT.”

I wanted nothing more than for Erin to feel like the space of this project would be one where she could be free to write great pieces. I wanted all of my students to be able to do this. So, after banning the report genre as an option for inquiry writing, I made a point to devote some time to working with Erin as she continued the process.

As I guided students through several reflective writing activities, Erin wrote in her daybook about how she concluded that a wide range of beliefs existed, and how she was most concerned about what her classmates believed with respect to the origins of life and what happens after death. To enable her to find this information, I showed her how to create a survey using a Google form, and embed this form in a blog post, then in each of my classes I told students about Erin’s form and allowed them some class time to respond to her questions.

I sat by Erin at her computer the next day, and suggested that she read through the 30 or so responses from her survey, taking notes in her daybook about her observations and reactions. She did as I asked, then turning back to her blog, she created a post where she summarized some of the recurring themes that she found and questioned her classmates’ assumptions, stating:

“Another answer I got the question was “why do you think we are here?” and they said “God sent us for a purpose” and that a good answer but I want to no why you think he sent us here. You no like whats the point. If he loves all of us why wouldn’t he just put us all in heaven to start with and why would he let people go to hell ? If he truly cared about them or if he was even real, I don’t think I would let people I love go to hell, Would you?”

When the day came for the class to read and leave comments, students lefts responses to Erin’s post ranging from answering her questions to explaining how her ideas are changing theirs. I thought surely that seeing these comments would inspire Erin to continue her learning and writing along this “higher power” vein, but the time she spent reading the posts of others got her thinking about new possibilities in a different direction.

Many of her classmates had begun their inquiries around the topic of relationships, and as Erin was in the process of working through such matters in her own life, she decided to turn back to the web to find information about love and teen dating.

For her next post she detailed her own experience having her heart broken, discussing the lessons she had learned and linking out to the websites that informed her perspective. She continued her inquiry along these lines, and for her next post, taking an idea from a popular post written by Cristian, Erin decided to try her hand at fiction. She wrote a short story where she based the main character upon herself and used her own experiences and research to inform her writing. This piece turned out to be a hit. From it the Alice Jacobs series was born, and much of the remainder of the time of our inquiry and writing workshop she spend developing it.

Many other students engaged in the process much like Erin had, their inquiries arising from experiences and taking shape from our conferences, peer responses, and ideas written by classmates. But there were also students who, from the start, resisted the process and me.

I won’t learn from you

10 years ago, after completing my freshman year of college, I was getting ready to pack up my dorm and return home for the summer. Before I left I decided to drop my my adviser’s office, Dr. Rosalie Romano, and ask her for advice on some summer education-related reading. I had never did any reading about teaching outside of assigned coursework, and my work with Dr. Romano over the course of the second semester that focused upon critical pedagogy and democratic education had piqued my interest. She recommended the book “I won’t learn from you”: and other thoughts on creative maladjustment by Herb Kohl (1995). I bought the book and read it over the summer, completely unaware of just how important it would be when I started my career as a teacher in an urban middle school.

Every year, plenty of students enter my class quite unlike Erin, students with identities that have developed over time in opposition to the institution of school. In his book, Kohl describes such students as willfully engaged in the process of “not-learning,” or “a conscious and chosen refusal to assent to learn” (27). Students who “not-learn” are often labeled as failures, but are perfectly capable. They choose to resist learning through such means as defiance or apathy because it is better than the alternative: conforming to an institution that challenges “personal and family loyalties, integrity, and identity” (6).

Ever since I started teaching, Kohl’s book has enabled me to recognize non-learning for what it is and not dismiss it as failure. I’ve always wanted to guide these not-learners in turning a critical eye towards the society and institutions within which they are marginalized and, as Kohl explains is the only way to break through not-learning, involve them in “direct intelligent engagement in the struggles that might lead to solutions” (32).

I’ve had some success with bringing in my not-learning students from the margins each year, but never to the extent that I hoped, not like the teachers in the movies. Still, every year I find myself planning instruction with these students in mind, hoping for a Stand and Deliver-type experience.

When I first envisioned the Digital Inquiry project, with its freedom to explore, emphasis on process over product, and potential to engage students in critical narrative-type work, I imagined that these students on the margins would be quick to embrace it. They would see that I respected them and their stories, and they would value my role in providing the tools, guidance, and space to learn and become empowered. Maybe this project would be the key to actualizing my own teacher-as-hero narrative. Maybe I would become famous.

I didn’t get half-way into thinking about which Hollywood star would play me before I realized I was getting ahead of myself. I thank Cristian for helping to keep me grounded.


Kohl, H. R. (1995). “I won’t learn from you”: and other thoughts on creative maladjustment. New York: New Press.

Cristian’s story – Learning in spite of me

Cristian was 15 during his time in my class and sat across the room from Erin. Like Erin, his journey is also one of growing as a learner and writer, but for Cristian, my relationship with him had little to do with it. From the start of the project, he spent much of his time sitting at his desk with a blank sheet of paper in front on him, claiming that he wasn’t interested in anything. Eventually, tired of my prodding him, he decided that he was interested in cars and resigned to begin his inquiry here, as he wrote in this first post. Yes, a report.

After a little web research, he wrote a brief post about the Bugatti, then decided that he had learned everything he wanted to know and was back to having nothing to write, which is exactly what he wrote about here.

I set time aside to talk with Cristian, asking him if there was anything he felt strongly about or had an opinion on. Smirking, he told me that he thought pot should be legal, and grateful for having something for him to go on, I agreed that this would be a great place for him to start. After some web research, he ended up writing a letter to the president, persuading him to legalize marijuana, and while this letter bared a resemblance to the five paragraph argumentative essay that was drilled into students the previous year in preparation for the writing assessment, his classmates posted comments on it in support of his ideas, and Cristian decided that he found a topic worth sticking with.

During class time from this point, Cristain wrote continuously, switching as he needed to from computer to daybook, and searched out information on the web about gangs and gang violence along the US/Mexico border. He didn’t care much to talk to me about his writing, and I left him to it. He eventually published a fictional piece titled gang life, which turned out to be incredibly popular among his classmates, eliciting and 22 comments posted in response and inspiring multiple writers in all of my classes to try their hands at fiction.

Over the course of the year, he drew from the work that other students were doing with poetry and relationships, creating powerful pieces of writing in the form of rap. He created this poem collaboratively with another student, bringing in both English and Spanish to convey his perspective on a relationship, while also including the words of the girlfriend (the other student) to speak back to him within the poem.

Gradually, he moved away from love poetry and created multiple pieces that criticized and questioned society. He wrote such pieces that responded to such areas as mainstream media and religion. Critical, powerful, and uniquely his own, Cristian’s writing grew in popularity across all of my classes.

Aware of the ownership and empowerment he was gaining through this experience, I decided again to approach Cristian during one of our work periods. I wanted to share with him the work of Youth Roots, which I had been introduced to the week before when they were keynote speakers at the UNCC Writing Project Spring Conference. I showed him their website, explaining how the amazing work he was doing mirrored the “Artivist” approach of Youth Roots. He clicked on one of their videos and only watched about 10 seconds of it before pressing stop, telling me, “these guys suck,” and turning back to his daybook. Of course, I was disappointed, but at this point I understood. His work wasn’t about me, and his learning was dependent upon keeping it that way.

From not – learning to knot-learning

Sitting alone in the back seat while Lacy and Cindy talked, I spent the majority of the car ride home looking out of the window and thinking about how the stories of Erin and Cristian unfolded and crossed through the Digital Inquiry Project. Eavesdropping in and out of Cindy and Lacy’s conversation, I thought about how words connected their lives. I thought about how the writing of my students connected theirs. I thought that somehow all of this was important, and I was getting closer to understanding why.

And then my thinking started to shift again, and I asked myself what brought me to the place where I am seeing conversations and writing as connections between lives that afford all involved a new perspective on their own. This was a new awareness for me, and it was also the first question I asked all weekend to which I knew the answer.

I realized that I my perspective had emerged from conversations I had with my colleagues during the retreat that centered around an article by Steven Fraiberg (2010). I was viewing Lacy and Cindy’s exchange, just as the work of Erin and Cristian, as Fraiberg’s image of learning as a series of interconnected knots that continually tie and retie in response to experiences, people, and places.

With this knotted image in mind, I then began considering other experiences that occurred in the context of this Digital Is resource creation project, which also made up the knotwork of my learning:

Knots of my learning on Prezi

Even though my own inquiry into the Digital Inquiry project had not led me to where I wanted, I had learned an incredible amount through the sum of experiences I had while attempting to understand it. This realization was an important piece of this puzzle, and once I had it in place, the other pieces floating around my mind began to come together.

All the ideas I was pondering for this Digital Is resource I had arrived at through a complex, non-linear journey that unfolded through reading, writing, talking, listening. The lives and perspectives of all those involved mattered, just as did our relationships and the dynamics of the groups we comprised. Others shaped my learning and my learning shaped theirs. Everything was interconnected across lives, time, and spaces, and the more my learning, our learning, tied, untied, and retied, the more significant this knotwork became to all of us.

This was exactly what I saw happening in my class, and like with my learning, everything mattered.

My knotwork of learning mattered; through it I came to frame the Digital Inquiry Project in such a way that allowed students to make visible the fine threads of their lives.

Technology mattered; it provided the spaces where students could compose their lives and tie into those of others.

Focusing on reflection and process mattered; it allowed students a secure place to fix their ropes as they explored the paths set by others and tried blazing new ones. It enabled them not to fear failure, encountering new travelers, or the possibility crossing back upon themselves.

I, as a teacher mattered; I continually cast out lines that affected my students in multiple ways. Some would hook eagerly onto my ideas, others would idly pass them and later return, and yet others, spooked by my presence, would dart off in the opposite direction to find freedom in new places.

And for me, in my journey as a teacher and learner, co-creating this new understanding mattered. Through it, I have gained a new perspective on learning.  One that I would describe less as a paradigm shift and more like a magnified and re-focused view of what had always been in front of me. It is a perspective that answers my questions but serves more like a milestone than a destination. It has opened up too many new questions to be an ending place.

Through these new questions I find myself rethinking what I value as a teacher. I’m thinking about how who I am and how I am perceived are both tightly connected to and more important than what I teach. I’m reflecting on my actions and decisions I make in my classroom with respect to how they create or inhibit space for students to work, explore, and connect with the ideas of others.

And in the same way, I am reconsidering my own learning, placing greater value on my colleagues and the spaces that enable me to connect with them, as it is through this knotworking that I (we) continue to grow and understand the significance of our learning and the work that we do.


Fraiberg, S. (2010). Composition 2.0: Toward a Multilingual and Multimodal Framework. College Composition and Communication, 62(1), 100-126.


Want to know more about the people and ideas behind this resource?  Click the image below to link to Digital Is (K)not, a resource to tie resources together, created by the UNC Charlotte Writing Project.

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