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Erin's Story--Taking my lead

Written by Steve Fulton
November 08, 2011

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.