Professional Learning Teacher Inquiry

Getting Inside Inquiry: Teachers’ Questions Transform Their Practice

When Darla Liparelli, Wendy Wilson, and Annie Ortiz met at the Inside Inquiry Summer Institute in Wellesley, Massachusetts, they didn’t know that the questions they posed would spark an ongoing collaboration that has changed their classrooms.

The institute, sponsored by NWP’s Teacher Inquiry Communities Network, focused on immersing teacher-consultants in the possibilities and practices of teacher research while encouraging them to form and facilitate teacher inquiry groups at their home sites.

Through four days that the three women describe as alternately challenging and empowering, they and twenty-one other teacher-consultants from across the country thought, talked, imagined, and dreamt about their classrooms as sites of inquiry.

They delved into such things as Allen Trent’s “Decentering the Teacher,” the Teacher Research Collaborative’s “Building Inquiry Communities and Leadership for Equity,” and a writing exercise called The Stuck Place, designed by Joe Check of the Boston Writing Project, to help teachers explore a teaching concern.

As Liparelli, who is with the Great Basin Writing Project in Nevada, summed up, “You learn and you write and you talk. You come to believe in yourself as much as others believe in you.”

The Roots of Collaboration

The trio shared their tentative plans for conducting inquiry in their classrooms. For Liparelli, a third grade teacher, that plan involved making sure that her students were learning the vocabulary words that her “school had embraced.”

In particular, this meant using the commercial text A Word a Day, a vocabulary program that, as the title suggests, focuses on a key word per day, places it into a sentence, and provides both a closed and an open-ended thinking activity centered on that word.

Ortiz, a teacher-consultant from the Oklahoma State University Writing Project, who was considering collaboration between her fourth grade classroom and the school’s speech pathologist, wondered how A Word a Day might impact student speech and language development.

Wilson, a teacher-consultant with the Great Basin Writing Project who taught fifth grade in the same school as Liparelli, focused on trying to show how her students were better writers as a result of her implementation of writers’ workshop. Now she had started to wonder how vocabulary figured into improving student writing.

Transforming Practice

Although foundationally sound, A Word a Day was, these teachers thought, just words on a page. So Ortiz, Wilson, and Liparelli set out to make those words come alive.

“It is absolutely important,” noted Liparelli, “to make the connection.” Students needed to see the words as relevant or even essential to their everyday lives, and thus worthy of engagement.

All three teachers began to share strategies—drawing, acting out, clay modeling, parental involvement, word necklaces, word buddies, word parades—that would make words jump off the printed page and into the lives of students.

Much of this sharing among the three women was facilitated by email and phone calls, allowing them to connect across the halls and miles. Nevertheless, they were quick to point out that the face-to-face involvement of the institute permitted the rich exchange.

As Liparelli noted, it matters that when she reads an email from Ortiz, “I can hear her voice; I can see her face.”

They found that, as a result of their collaboration, students became deeply engaged in learning vocabulary. Learners began to suggest words for study, discovered ways to include them in their writing and speaking, would ask about upcoming words, took delight in teaching words to siblings and parents, and generally embraced the idea of word play.

Transforming Local Sites

Along with a plan to inquire into practice, Ortiz, Wilson, and Liparelli also had developed plans for creating teacher inquiry communities at their local sites. Their idea was quite ambitious: work in their classrooms, start a teacher inquiry community at their sites, and establish a state teacher inquiry community network.

By the November Annual Meeting in New York, the women reported that they had made significant progress on all three initiatives. The results of participation in the Inside Inquiry Institute were extending far beyond the classroom walls of three energetic teachers.

A spontaneous reunion occurred when a dozen or so institute participants crowded together around a conference table at the Teacher Inquiry Communities workshop session during the 2007 NWP Annual Meeting in New York. On a weekend the following January, the same crew met again online for an Inside Inquiry follow-up. They, too, reported that teacher inquiry at their sites is alive and well.

A subset of that group, including Ortiz, Wilson, and Liparelli, shared their work in a session titled Looking “Inside Inquiry”: The Power of Teacher Research Across Writing Project Sites at the 2008 NWP Annual Meeting in San Antonio.

“Not One Rosy Answer”

Inquiry leads to more questions because, as Ortiz puts it, “There’s not one rosy answer.”

Wilson pointed out that her inquiry around vocabulary has made her quick to notice other facets of her practice that might be improved. As a case in point, she took a hard look at her writing conferences and came up with a more precise and focused protocol. She credits inquiry with helping her see “it was okay to change.”

For her part, Liparelli wondered if students sustain their interest in words when they leave her classroom, and Ortiz wondered why students weren’t using their new words more often in their writing.

Writing Exercise: The Stuck Place

Write about “the stuck place” in your teaching. It might be something that has parts that are successful, goals that are good, but something about it is iffy. It might be a new concern or one you’ve fretted over for a while. This is a concern you’ve already thought about, and may have lost sleep over.

Don’t try to solve it, just describe it.

Inside Inquiry Institute Agenda

Download the Inside Inquiry Institute Agenda