Thursday, 2 August 2018

A Guide To Year-Long Personal Inquiry

I've been using year-long personal inquiry (also known as Genius Hour, Passion Projects, etc.) in my classroom for a few years now.  I get a lot of questions about how I run it, how much time I allocate to inquiry, what the students present, and how I assess.  I've broken it down into seven pieces to share with you.

Starting Out

I usually start talking about personal inquiry in the first few weeks of October.  To really kick-it off, and get students engaged, I do a room transformation.  I blogged a tonne about my first one here:

Mystery Investigation: A Kickoff to Personal Inquiry

This past year, I kept it similar, but changed the scenario.  I had some repeat students, so I wanted to keep it fresh.   I won't go into too many details as the procedure was very close to that in the previous blog post.  A Goldilocks and the three bears scene was used this year:

Both of these activities really helped students to understand the word "inquire" and led to discussions about "big" vs. "little" questions.  

We then talked about what an "inquirer" does and about the inquiry process cycle.

If you read to the end of this post, you'll find a way to snag your own copy of these posters!

Narrowing Down

Students immediately have ideas on what they'd like to do.  But, to really make sure that it's a topic they are able to stick with all year, I help them to narrow it down.  I use a process developed by A.J. Juliani.  He describes the process perfectly in this blog post: 

The Pitch

Once students have a topic they love, they have to pitch it to the class "Shark Tank" style... like the T.V. show.  Again, this idea is from A.J. Juliani.  I keep this part really simple.  First, I show them this video to make sure they all know about the show Shark Tank and what I'm after:


Students can create cue cards, or not.  They can create a video if they are nervous to speak in front of the class (it's still pretty early in the school year... end of October, usually).  This is a brief, one minute or so, presentation of the following:

- What you want to learn
- Why you want to learn it
- What you want to make
- How you plan to make it

Students then choose two or three classmates to give them a bit of constructive feedback with statements such as:

- "Have you considered..."
- "What is your plan for..."
- "I am curious if..."

Some students stuck with their original ideas all year long for what they would make, and some didn't.  They all stuck to the same topic, although many because more specific and focused as they year went on, which is amazing!

Checking In

Throughout the year, students work on their inquiry project for about an hour a week.  I like to build this into the schedule to ensure it happens.  I check-in with students in many different ways about their progress:  

1. During each work period, I will walk around the room and have a conversation with as many students as I can.  Sometimes,  I'll park myself in one spot, students who need me can sign up and I work my way through the list.  
2. We have whole-class check-in's about progress about once a month.  These conversations usually last 5-10 minutes.  
3. Sometimes, especially after a work period that I feel was not as focused as it could have been, I will have students complete a short, written reflection about their progress.  
4. Students are also given a check-in group of 2-3 other students.  These are students they can use as a collaborative feedback team about their progress.  

The Three Pieces

From the beginning, students know that they will be required to present three different pieces at the end of the year.  They need to present something written, something oral, and something visual.  As a class we create anchor charts on these topics and add to them all year as students come up with ideas.  Here's a sampling of ideas we've come up with:

You'll notice there are some similar ideas on more than one chart.  Students can't "double dip".  They have to present three unique pieces.  At the bottom of this post, you'll find a place where you can snag your own copy of these anchor charts.


Presentations occur in the last week of school.  When we present, we do it "science fair style".  Parents are invited in to view.  Students are divided into three groups and I split an hour into three, twenty minute rounds.  In two rounds, students stand by their projects and present.  In one of the three rounds, they walk about and listen to classmates.

This student inquired about vegetables.  She presented with a PowerPoint slideshow, a oral presentation, and a game where you had to match the vegetable to its' seed.

This student wanted to start her own coffee shop.  As part of her research, she even worked a day in a coffee shop!  Here is her vision board for her cafe - she found decor pieces, uniforms, furniture, and other required items needed.  She had a price list of materials she'd need to purchase and found a total cost.  In front, you can also see a bundle of menus she created for the cafe.

Two students researched the solar system this year.  I love how both of their projects came out totally different!  One focused her efforts on the planet layers, while the other looked more broadly at key facts.


The easy answer? I don't.  I do not assess their personal inquiry.  I do not give a grade on their personal inquiry.  I want students to be driven by their curiosity, not by a letter grade or report card comment.  I do, however, have the students assess themselves.  The Critical Thinking Core Competency is an excellent place to start.

Are you interested in applying some of the pieces I've shown you in your classroom? Follow the image or button below to grab your copy.  

Send me the posters!

If you'd like even more ideas about student led inquiry, you can check out my Pinterest board.

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Helping to inspire,
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Monday, 4 September 2017

Black and Rainbow Classroom Reveal

I'm so excited to share my classroom space for 2017/18 with you all!  Get ready for a visual journey!  (At the bottom of this post is a video version of the tour if you'd rather watch than read.)

Here is the view standing in the hallway.  The wreath by my door is made with pencils.  It was a super fun and easy craft.  I also paper crafted the welcome sign above my doorway.

I failed to take a photo of my main coat area.  There are 24 hooks in that space.  Then, I have 6 coat hooks that are off on one side.  I love that this gives me an option for students with sensory needs or allergies to keep them out of the hustle and bustle.  Each student gets a bin to keep their mitts, toque, lunch kit, etc in.  The bins above are for library books, a pencil case, and ongoing work.  As my classroom is fully flexible seating students do not have a desk space to keep their items.  The bins above serve as that space for them.  Once I have my class list, I'll label all of those items for kiddos.

You can also see my positive notes board in this image as well.  I've written all about how that works here.  All of the borders used in my classroom are from Creative Teaching Press.

I'm trying something new this year... Epic Failures.  This idea comes from A.J. Juliani and ties into Genius Hour (or Personal Inquiry as I prefer to call it).  Whenever we (students or myself) fail, it will be written on a sticky note and placed up on the board.  The thought behind it is that by celebrating failures we are normalizing it and helping to students to learn to take risks more freely.

To the left of the coat hooks shown in the image above, is our washroom.  I'm so fortunate to have a washroom right in the classroom.  It's been a game changer for sure!  Kids don't have to ask to use it, they just go.  At the beginning of the year we talk about when it's appropriate to get up and go, and when it isn't.  I love the freedom it allows us all.  No more guided lesson interruptions!

 No space is off limits for decorating.  I added this bit of vinyl to the mirror in the bathroom.

A view of my classroom standing at the coat hooks.  I've got a range of seating options including traditional desks and chairs, standing tables, kneeling spaces, crate seats, fitballs, and carpet space.

Here is another view from the sink area.  You can see my big, bright windows in this shot.  I love overlooking the playground.

Above my sink area is the Canadian flag and anthem.  We sing O Canada every morning.  This has really helped students to become more respectful and confident when singing the anthem in assemblies.  Previously, I felt students didn't know the words, didn't know how to stand, or even why we sang the anthem.

 My math items are above my two main whiteboards: a numberline to 100, six 3D shapes, and tens frames from 0-10.

Below the whiteboards are some anchor charts that are referred to frequently.  I use "Class? Yes!" from Whole Brain Teaching.  Beside that are my attentive listeners/powerful speakers and voice levels charts.  These are explicitly taught during the first few days of school.

Beside those whiteboards is my 6 Traits of Writing area.  As we learn about a trait, a new piece is placed under the appropriate category.  Over time this board becomes a large rubric for students to self assess with.  If you want to know more about how I use this board, it's all written in this post. The blank space on the left is for mini anchor charts of whatever we're learning about (figurative language, speech writing, etc.)  The "What Do Writers Write?" pencil can be found here.  You can see a bit of my Zones/self regulation pieces to the right of the board.  I add to this as the year goes on.

Another whole class view, this time from my desk space.

My class library/duotangs area.  As students don't have a desk to put everything in, duotangs are held back here.  Even if they had their own desks, I would use this strategy.  I can't stand the overflowing desk with crammed papers.  One of the many perks of flexible seating!

I have WAY more books than are out at one time in my library.  A few times through the year I change out books to keep it fresh.  I've labeled the books with an image that matches the bin they belong in.  This has almost entirely removed the issue of books being put back in the wrong location!

Finally, my Hello Kitty friends (I love her and have been gifted a few over the years.  Many are in my scrapbook room at home, but a few grace the shelf in my classroom).  They guard the fidget bin!

Watch the video tour for some additional details!


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Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Even More Back to School Bulletin Boards

It's my favourite time of year again - back to school prep time!  I love love love planning and making my back to school bulletin board.  Yesterday, my teaching bestie and I went in to create our boards, and ended up creating a third for another teacher as well.  These boards were all fairly inexpensive and quick to put together, which makes them even better.

I jumped on the cactus theme this year with my board.  

The letters were printed out and hand cut.  "Sharper" was printed on Astrobrights paper and is made from the font KG Shake it Off.  The rest is KG Satisfied Script.  The flat cacti are clipart printed on 11x14" paper.  The remainder are tissue paper puffs I purchased at a local dollar store.  Add a bit of bulletin board paper, and you're done! 

Crystal made this duck out of poster board!  The highlights are are added on with oil pastel.  The "Quack Quack" letters are printed large, 1 per 8x11 page and cut out.  "Welcome Back!" is letters purchased from a teacher supply store.

Finally, we created this Lego inspired board for outside of our Applied Design and Skills Technology classroom.  The top and bottom pieces are the font Legothick printed on Astrobrights paper.  We used the same teacher supply store letters for the middle piece.  We created the man out of bulletin board paper.

If you need more inspiration, check out my previous two back to school bulletin board posts:

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Sunday, 16 July 2017

10 Must-Read Tips for Back to School Success

1) Create Bulletin Boards

I'm putting this one first because it is my favourite!  I love a good bulletin board.  Each year I search for the best possible idea, and change my mind soooo many times before I actually commit.  Check out my Pinterest board to see what's currently on my mind. 

2) Set Up Seating

This year, I'll be starting out with flexible seating.  When I began with flexible seating a year and a half ago, I created 4 posts on the topic.   I'm in a new room now, which is much more flexible.  I've been very fortunate that admin has been on board to support this venture.

In the past, before flexible seating, I've set my desks up in two's for the first week of school. I've also started in groups. 

3) Parent Letter

Draft something that lets parents know about important classroom routines and school procedures.  You might choose to also include a survey.  I've used this foldable version by Ashley Reed for a few years.  I love pairing it with Astrobrights paper.  Many parents have commented on it as well!


4) Sharpen Pencils

I'll be honest,  I do one of two things here.
1) Find a small child who is willing to work for candy or a gift card.
2) Buy pre-sharpened pencils.

You might even want to consider a pencil management system like my friend Erin, at Mrs. Beattie's classroom, uses.


5) Prep Community Building Activities

 Setting up a strong class community is crucial.  This post has several great ideas for building classroom community and links to several more!

6) Sort Supplies

This might be my second favourite part of school setup.  I love all the new supplies! With flexible seating, my students don't get supplies in the traditional way.  Meaning, I don't have desks that are vomiting out a mess of pencils and crumpled paper.  We use shared supplies.  Kids grab a bin and have access to pencil crayons, markers, scissors, and glue anywhere in the room.

7) Substitute/TTOC Binder

Prepare as much of your TTOC Binder as you can ahead of time.   There will be some info you won't know until school actually starts, but a lot of it can be prepared early.  Some of the info I have in my binder includes:
- Where to Find it (in the classroom and around the school)
- Classroom Procedures (morning meetings, inside recess, etc)
- Safety Procedures (fire drills, lockdown)

8) Emergency Procedures

From fire drills to lock downs, there are so many things to consider.  You'll want to consider all scenarios ahead of time, especially if you're in a new room.  My emergency procedures are typed up in my TTOC binder.  I have a class list on a clipboard near the door.  

I like this tutorial for simple window covers by Kindergarten Works.  My covers are on magnets, but this option would be really great for a wooden door.

9) Organize Class Library

My class library is organized mostly by genre.  Really popular series, like "Who Would Win", or "Captain Underpants" have their own bins.  The labels I created match my genre posters so students can easily compare.  Each book has a small label on it with an image that also coordinates.  Since I've started this system I have rarely had to rearrange the books.  Kids know where to put things back properly, and they do!


10) Rest and Relax!

Don't forget to take a break.  You don't want to be exhausted before school starts.  Mrs. Beers has an awesome post on the summer teacher refresh.

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Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Sharing Personal Identity Through Plaster Masks

Giving students opportunities to share their interests, explore their identities and self-assess their personal awareness are essential parts of the new British Columbia curriculum.  We found a fun and engaging way for students to tackle these competencies this year.

Early in the year, our students worked to cover each others' faces in plaster strips.  (You can purchase this at any art store, like Michaels.)  It usually comes in large strips, so you'll need to cut them down ahead of time.  Students just wet them with water and smooth on.  Don't forget to coat the face in LOTS of Vaseline first so the mask comes off easily.  We dimmed the lights and played some soothing music.  The students were very kind and compassionate to one another.  We heard things like:

"You're doing great! We are nearly finished."
"Do you want me to cover your nose first, or your mouth first?"
"Just take deep breaths, you're doing awesome."

It was a great strengthening activity for our growing community. 


The masks sat in the cupboard, tucked away until January.  We just had too much going on to tackle this job until then.  In the end, I actually think this turned out well, because the students thought deeply for months about the pieces they were going to use to represent themselves.  Once it was "go time" they had very little trouble stating what they were going to use and why.  

As a group, we built criteria for the masks. You can see it in the image below.  If you do this task, I encourage you to build criteria with your students as well, but you're welcome to download a PDF of the criteria sheet we used.

This is my mask.  I shared it with the students as an example of meeting the design element criteria, but also as an example of justifying choices.  I wrote 5 different versions of my justification, with varying levels of description and attention to punctuation and spelling.  Students had to debate the order from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest).  Once determined, these were placed on a bulletin board in the room and used as a reference/self-assessment tool for the writing piece (more on that below) that accompanied their masks.

This mask belongs to one of my students.  I love the soccer ball background and the fact that he was comfortable enough to add the flowers to honour the nickname his mother has for him.

Here are the masks all up in the hallway.  You can see in this photo the writing pieces students did to accompany their masks.  Students were to write to justify each piece placed on their mask.  They had to state how it represented their unique personal or cultural identity.  They were not able to say things like "I like to read, so I put on a book." It had to be much deeper than this and really connect to who they were. The majority of the students nailed this job!

One of my favourite pieces of writing.  This child is so insightful.  Although her mask is not as eyecatching as the designs of some others she was accurately able to justify each piece she selected and how it represents her personal and cultural identity.

Finally, students used the Positive Personal and Cultural Identity core competency to self assess.  I gave them the profiles directly off of the Ministry site.  I had a copy under the document camera and we discussed what the vocabulary meant.  I was a bit nervous that it would be too wordy for my students, but it really wasn't.  Even at grade 3 and 4 they were completely able to understand the profiles.  We shared as a class some examples of each others' work that represented the profiles.  Finally, students wrote a number in a circle at the top of their paper of the profile number where they felt their work best fit.  I was so impressed with how accurately they did this.  No one selected the top profile.  It was a very powerful little activity!

Next year, I'll be sure to do this task again.  I loved seeing the masks grace our hallway each day.  Such a wonderful way to bring us all together and understand each other a little more.

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