Structured Inquiry: Not a Bad Way to Begin the Semester

I learned so much more about inquiry thanks to my students in first semester; their willingness to push their skills as well as their limits kept me on my toes while I admired their independence and tried to support them in any way I could.  I wanted to provide free inquiry for my students, but I’ll admit that my organizational skills needed to be refreshed as I attempted to create a foundational structure on which we could build our new knowledge.  Now that a new semester has begun, it’s time to take a step back and keep it simple for a while.

In Trevor Mackenzie’s book, Dive Into Inquiry, he recommends a scaffolded approach.  “…we begin the year in a Structured Inquiry model, transition to a Controlled Inquiry, move on to a Guided Inquiry, and if all goes well, conclude with a Free Inquiry.” 

Ok, so I didn’t begin last semester with Structured Inquiry, but this semester I did!

Before curriculum, outlines or procedures, I knew I needed to focus on relationships.  One of Trevor’s recommendations is to build an atmosphere of trust on which we can rely in the coming months.  Since our school board is emphasizing the need to support students through their learning environment, I wanted to use circles as a way to let my students know that they are welcome, their voice is important, and that I am listening.

Every voice matters. #SGDSB #onted

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Deliberately designing structured inquiry tasks was another method I used to provide support for my students as they transitioned from one semester to another.  My grade 10 students were challenged to design an automaton, my grade 11 students designed a cardboard arcade game, and my grade 12 students were given a #mugchallenge.  There were very specific parameters but you would be surprised by the freedom found in such rigid limitations.

Please take a moment to read about the exciting story related to this tweet:

I’ve never had someone from the Canadian Space Agency give one of my students advice before!  #socool

We celebrated our learning by inviting a group of grade 7 & 8 students to view and assess our automatons:

My Educational Assistant and I often found ourselves fascinated when we watched these students throughout the design process; they really had to push their thinking as they addressed problems that needed to be solved!


Grade 11 students jumped right in to their first task, and enjoyed sharing their cardboard arcade games with our young friends from Red Rock Public School!

Arcade #game fun!!

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More #fun!

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The games were fun to design and construct, but it was so rewarding to share our games with young students.  They were excited to play and their willingness to have fun was contagious!

What a thoughtful thank-you note from the students at Red Rock Public School!! ❤ #SGDSB

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This was one of the sweetest thank-you notes we’ve ever received. ❤  Their teacher also let us know about one young gentleman who was so inspired by our class that he built his very own cardboard arcade game!  Wow!


I don’t know if the beginning of a semester has ever been so memorable.  As of today, we’re just beginning our third week.  The grade 12 #mugchallenge is almost complete, and my grade 9 students are beginning to explore the Elements of Design by creating stop motion videos.

As we progress through the semester, our model of inquiry will evolve to provide students with more control over topics, resources and solutions.  It sure helps to have some very positive first steps to help us on our way!

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Challenging Assumptions: Classroom Design

Conferences have always been a part of my interactions with students, but I can’t say that I’ve planned or structured these conferences before.  This year, I am using conferences as an integral tool for my students’ inquiry tasks; they schedule meeting times with me and are responsible for recording what we discussed as well as their plan for the next step of their task.  As much as I enjoy the first meetings with students, I was surprised by the level of accountability in the 2nd and 3rd meetings because we used their notes to assess their growth.

If I am going to continue using conferences in my classroom, I think I have to consider redesigning our classroom space.  Although my students and I are able to have productive meetings, it would help if we had a designated area that was more conducive to meaningful discussions.


While I tossed a few ideas around in my head, I noticed Aviva Dunsiger‘s post on Instagram:

What a beautiful way to use her classroom for the benefit of her students.  It made me wonder if my students would feel comfortable in my classroom if they needed a “brain break”.  What would this look like in a secondary classroom?  How would it compare and differ from an elementary classroom?


I have heard that the classroom is the third teacher, but I haven’t honoured this concept by intentionally planning our learning environment… yet.  Maybe this is my next step…

If you have suggestions or ideas for classroom design, please share!



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Assessing an Evaluation: #DiveIntoInquiry

A conversation with Heather Theijsmeijer (see the tweets embedded below) made me do something crazy:  share my rubric.


For some reason, I find it difficult to share my evaluation techniques with others.  I rarely get other perspectives on this really important aspect of connecting with students.  Why? I’m not sure yet.  I just know that it’s difficult.

If so much is riding on evaluation (consider our students’ perspectives), why don’t we share our rubrics, checklists and grading schemes more often?  

<I take a deep breath and prepare to jump in the deep end>

Here is the link to my rubric, along with the related resources (a questionnaire & assignment handout).  If you’re curious and able, would you consider giving me feedback on my evaluation scheme?


Hey Trevor, is this why it’s called “Dive Into Inquiry”? 😉


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I have enjoyed reading several posts and tweets from educators who are sharing their #OneWord2017 (or, in our school board, #SGDSB1Word).  I wasn’t sure if I would contribute a word — there are so many words to choose from! — I have commitment issues… — but a colleague from Dorion captured my attention tonight on Twitter:

Dave’s honesty was refreshing, and I can understand why balance is so important.  Sometimes my own balancing act resembles a performer with spinning plates on long sticks.

So, to honour the need for balance in my own life, I have chosen plan as my #oneword2017.

My roles as a teacher, a parent, and learner (Dave’s wording) all vie for my full attention. I need to learn how to budget my time so that the most meaningful people in my life get the attention they deserve while I still tend to the other necessary tasks and responsibilities. Add a few side-jobs to the mix, and life gets really interesting.

Inquiry is one of the most important aspects of my current TLLP project, and I recently realized that organization is the critical component of a fruitful inquiry task.  I might have known this before, but it’s rather convenient to ignore and hope for the best… 

Thanks for sharing your #OneWord2017 today, Dave.  It meant a lot to me.



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Organization: My Nemesis


  1. the inescapable agent of someone’s or something’s downfall.
  2. a long-standing rival; an archenemy.

Thank you, Google.  You have described my relationship with Organization perfectly.  Organization deserves to be capitalized in my world, since it has grown into its own entity; my rival, the thing that should not be named, the thing I would rather avoid…  you get the idea.

That’s why, when I continued to read through Dive Into Inquiry (something I’ve been blogging about lately), I felt a pain — it’s hard to say if it was actually physical, but at the very least it was intellectual.  Have a look:


Uh-oh.  My nemesis found its way into my favourite book!  Albeit, disguised under the pseudonym of structure, but it couldn’t fool me.  My spidey-senses knew my rival was close by.

I chose to do what any superhero teacher would do:  I avoided it until the fateful day when I would have to face my enemy.  I donned my armour and braced myself for …

a snow day (cue dramatic music).

I’m not sure how the victor of a battle is determined, but I think I came out on top.  By the end of the day, I had managed to plan an inquiry unit for the month of January (here is a copy of the PDF), prepare a schedule for conferences with students, and make folders for everyone.

My reward?  A restful holiday.  I fought well, I fought hard, and now the bounty was mine.  I wasn’t stressed or anxious while I celebrated Christmas with my family — I can’t think of a better treasure.




Now to help my daughter with her own battle…    😉

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Hindsight is 20/20: #DiveIntoInquiry


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A Chat with Trevor Mackenzie

My daughter makes fun of me when I use the word cool, but that’s the best way that I can describe today.  Cool.

Take a look:


Yep.  That’s Trevor MacKenzie, author of Dive Into Inquirychatting with me about the ideas in his book.  I’ve been interested in student-centred learning for years, but I haven’t had a solid framework to use for larger tasks.  Trevor’s book is helping me appreciate and understand the structure of inquiry so I can confidently approach open-ended projects with my students.

A few days ago, I wrote about my first encounters with essential questions, so I wanted to clarify my thinking in today’s chat with Trevor.  At this point, my concern was the creation of these questions:  was it ok if I didn’t find it easy to create an essential question?  Who knew it would be a learning experience to simply clarify the question you’re going to try to answer!



The student who began his inquiry last week wasn’t in class this afternoon, so I began talking about inquiry with another student since I knew that she has a passion for trapping.  Before creating an essential question, I wanted to know what was important to her so that I might help her connect her love of trapping with our art class.

At one point, I thought back to my conversation with Trevor when he was discussing the importance of why.  As I looked at Brandi’s notes, I asked her, “When I look at your final art work, what do you want me to understand?  What do you want me to think; to value?”  This is when she was able to talk about the importance of trapping as something that is shared in her family, passed down through the generations.

Now we’re getting somewhere…

Meanwhile, other students began listening to our conversation and began asking if they could design their own inquiry too.

That’s pretty cool.  

*I’m looking forward to exploring some examples of student work that have been shared on Trevor’s blog.

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