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Reflections on Integrating Inquiry with Technology in Middle School

Written by Jennifer Estabrook
March 26, 2011

Whenever I’m asked what I like about teaching, I often comment on the pace and variation of the school day. I like that I see a different group of students every 45 minutes; it suits my restless temperament. A beloved colleague, whose energy level makes me look sluggish, is often heard appealing to her students to, “Let’s just bang this out.” My sentiments exactly. Who doesn’t like to get things done? But like many other educators, I am becoming more and more concerned about my students’ lack of stamina for learning, the kind of stamina required for deep reading, writing, and thinking. In this age of information overload, bits and pieces of knowledge are presented to us so quickly in tweets and headlines, we must ask ourselves if our students are truly understanding the big picture.

Guiding students through the process of inquiry is not for the faint of heart. It’s messy and time-consuming and unpredictable. Nevertheless, I fully understand that today’s students will face limited opportunities if we do not prepare them for the digital world they are growing up in and embrace 21st century learning. The Holocaust Inquiry provided both my students and me many learning opportunities, as well as rich casual discussions that took place as we worked. Those moments are impossible to quantify.

This is what I learned:

  • Using a wiki became my best management tool. For this Holocaust Inquiry, using a wiki to house and manage resources and information was a natural fit. Since everything is tracked in real time, I could check progress daily and comment on their individual pages. I could evaluate the strength of their sources, check for citations, and monitor the note-taking process. Each day I would flag individual students I needed to work with.
  • Our students may be digital natives, but they are not digital experts. In general, the two areas I realize my students need much more instruction and practice are in locating and using information. Despite many opportunities afforded them in middle school to search for and evaluate sources, they still search for information carelessly and haphazardly when using the Internet. Students also need more practice to independently extract the most relevant details from a source, i.e. take reliable and truncated notes.
  • When your back is turned, they will take shortcuts. O.K., so they’re middleschoolers. Of course some will take the low road if left unattended, but it’s our job to hold them accountable for every step of the way. This is where expert planning and classroom management comes into play. The Big6 model provides a framework that is easy to apply and adapt to any problem solving situation. Check it out.
  • Sometimes less is more. Since this was a class of mixed ability, I found it necessary in some cases to make adaptations to the assignment. For example, in the case of three students, I helped each locate one good source and altered the minimum requirements for length of text to one paragraph. Helping students of varying abilities feel successful isn’t a cop out, it’s good teaching.
  • Student choice = student engagement. It goes without saying, that when students are investigating something of interest to them, they are far more engaged. That’s not to say that the classroom is quiet and students are at their desks. On the contrary, there was a workshop atmosphere that doesn’t always happen when students are assigned work by me.
  • When using technology, students quickly become the experts. Call it foolhardy, but I’m always up for launching something new, often before I’ve thought of everything that could go wrong. Besides, experience has taught me that when it comes to technology, I’m surrounded by experts. I’m always amazed, and ever so pleased, that it’s often the most unlikely student who figures out how to do the one thing that has stumped the rest of us. One such student figured out how to embed a video on his page and helped several classmates do the same.
  • You never know where it may take you. True story. One student, a resilient and brave young lady who was out of school for several weeks, wrote, without my knowledge, to the Holocaust survivor whose book she read for her inquiry project. This dear woman has not only kept in contact with the student, but also spent a day at our school sharing with us her experience as a child during the Holocaust. It was an amazing day.
  • It’s all about the questions. An inquiry project wouldn’t be complete without returning time and again to the questions posed from the start. How are students constructing the knowledge as they read, watch videos, & share information with one another? When asked to reflect on what they learned, here is what some of them said:

Something like the Holocaust could happen again if we just stand by and do nothing.

I learned that the Jews were innocent people and many were loyal Germans who fought in World War I. They didn’t deserve to die or lose family members.

Kristallnacht was a turning point because at first the Germans placed restrictions on the Jews and took away their rights, but then things got more violent on that night. The Holocaust didn’t happen overnight. It grew and things got worse and worse for Jews.

Check out some of the other topics:

The Warsaw Ghetto.pdf

The Nazi Party.pdf

The White Rose.pdf

Charlene Schiff .pdf

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