Do Fish Live Near Airports?

Sometimes inquiry leads in strange and funny directions. It requires trust in the process and outcome. I’m learning to let go and enjoy the ride, even though I don’t understand this whole inquiry thing.

In the afternoons, my children and class group have the amazing opportunity to spend time at the be you house through the Innovation Lab of Thompson School District. There, they have the freedom to pursue their own interests and passions supported by mentors and expert tutors. My son, Caleb ((I have  his full permission to share this story… he’s always interested in seeing newcomers to his blog and knows that linking is a powerful thing.  He’d love a few visitors. 🙂 )) , has decided he has a passion for fishing that he would like to pursue… in addition to authoring a chapter book, which he plans to self-publish ((Using or a similar site.)) later this school year. This week, he toured a local tackle shop, researched local fishing places, practiced casting in the backyard of the be you house and went fishing (or wading) with his Dad.

However, I’ve been struggling with letting him direct his own learning. Today, I finally sat down with him and asked him to map out some questions he has related to fishing. And because I’m a total nerd, he grudgingly opened a mindmap on… added “Fishing” as the main node…. and promptly had a meltdown.

Why is it so hard for children to think freely?   I don’t have an answer, but I can say that this has been a difficult transition for my own children. It’s like the years of filling in blanks has trained them not to think. Part of me believes that memorization and worksheets create lazy learners, but part of me also senses a great deal of fear coming from these little minds…. “What if I’m not correct?” “What if I make a mistake?” “How will I know what the right answer is?”

After I reassured him that I just wanted him to get some questions down, he relaxed and typed this:

Do fish live near airports?

Seriously???? Of all the questions in the world, that’s the one he wants to know about fish? I took a few deep breaths, let him return to his game, and then tried to figure out how to question without leading. I finally asked, “What do you think about that? Do you think that they do live near airports, or not?”

His response really made me a believer in this whole inquiry thing in a concrete and real way. He said, “Well, I think it would be pretty loud near the airport, and I wondered if fish would not like the noise. Can they hear? Do they have ears?”


Guess that shows me, huh? I think those are great discovery questions, even if the first one sounded pretty insane to me initially. It taught me that we all think very differently. He saw an airport built in an online game world with water near it earlier in the day, and it made him wonder…. would fish live in that water with all those loud planes flying overhead? The student is the teacher.

Have you heard any very unusual inquiry questions lately? What is your favorite resource on inquiry?

Don't Have the Answer

The coolest part- besides how engaged the students were- was that I DIDN’T HAVE THE ANSWER. Usually, as teachers, we have the answer. Students know we have the answer. They want to give us the right answer.

Creative Commons License photo credit: extended.epiphany

I’ve been excited to visit so many schools in the past few months while searching for a new position. The diversity in education is both amazing and astounding. In one school, there is not a desk in sight, students wear slippers in class, and it’s hard to find the teacher in the room because they are on the floor engaged with kids.  In another, the desks are in rows facing the front, students achieve amazing results in writing- years beyond a traditional school, and the teacher has amazing things to share while students listen attentively. Different, but both valuable. It’s helping me temper some of my more ‘radical’ tendencies to see excellence and value in educational approaches I’m not generally a fan of. ((Take that…. I’m ending a sentence with ‘of’…. my high school AP English teacher would have kittens…))

My favorite moment during the student interaction and observation portion of these interviews was working with a small group of 5th graders on a Science lab. Students were testing for indicators using a liquid substance and a group of powders (cornstarch, baking powder, plaster of paris, salt, etc.). In this particular exercise, we were using iodine. Now iodine is a substance that few 10 year olds have played with- unless they’ve been around farm animals, surgery, or birth. They first had to learn what it looked like outside of the opaque squeeze bottle. As they took turns adding drops to the powders, they became really engaged with the experiment. So did I. Our results were not conclusive, which led to a rousing debate.  They talked. I let them. They were loud. I just asked that they take turns so we could hear what they had to say. The coolest part- besides how engaged the students were- was that I DIDN’T HAVE THE ANSWER.

Usually, as teachers, we have the answer.  Students know we have the answer.  They want to give us the right answer. Shortcuts and cheating abound, since it’s not about learning- it’ about getting it right. It was exciting to be a learner alongside these 5th graders- exploring, comparing, questioning, evaluating, discussing. Since I didn’t have the answer, my role was to ask questions. Things like, “How does that compare with your last experiment with vinegar?”, “What do you think it would look like if we just used water?” (Plaster of paris was a huge issue- it looks like it reacts, but it’s really just acting like plaster of paris…. solidifying when liquid is added.) “I don’t have the answer- what do you think?” “Is it reacting if it stays the same color?” “Can a form change alone be a reaction?” “I don’t know- what do you think?”

It was a really eye-opening discussion for me. I loved every minute of it. Except for the part about not knowing. Not knowing the answer. Not knowing what the observers were looking for in me. Not knowing whether it was ok with that lead teacher to go with the process rather than the outcome. I wonder if that’s how our students feel- they love the learning, but not the ‘not knowing the right answer’ part.

The learning outcomes?

Students learned that:

  1. Adults don’t have all the answers.
  2. Experiments don’t always go according to plan.
  3. Thinking is fun. And messy.

I learned that:

  1. Students don’t always need to find the right answer.
  2. Experiments don’t always go according to plan.
  3. Learning is fun. And messy.

The results? (In case you’re curious about the ‘right’ answer…)

Iodine is an indicator for starch.  After some research, I think the salt used (which also turned black) must have had some kind of starch in it as an anti-caking agent. Either that or it was contaminated somehow by the cornstarch.

My take away?  I want to learn to be a great inquirer, and to ask meaningful, rich questions of children that address much more than their knowledge.

Do you have any great resources to share on inquiry and asking questions? Help me learn how to do that better.

“Teaching with Primary Sources: Essentials Exploration”

Today, I attended an incredible 8-hour professional development course presented by the Library of Congress in conjunction with the University of Northern Colorado.  Due to a number of pressing circumstances, there was great temptation to stay home.  I am so glad I didn’t!  My mind is pleasantly full, my heart is ready to approach another week of students, and my hands will certainly be busy for weeks navigating through the digital catacombs of the Library of Congress.

Migrant Mother

Erin Hunt, the instructor, did an wonderful job sharing the vast Library of Congress website, introducing teaching ideas using primary sources, and exploring copyright issues.  My favorite part of the class was exploring the “American Memory” Exhibition.  One valuable thing I learned was that you can view a photograph, and then display images with neighboring call numbers.  This will often show other photos taken in the same town or of the same family, which help to give context to photographic images.  It was interesting to see the images surrounding the famous “Migrant Mother” photo by Dorthea Lange.  I also learned about the availability of maps and high resolution images which can be printed from the Library of Congress to use on classroom walls, etc.  Additionally, there was information on inquiry-based teaching and the 21st Century learner.

I’m looking forward to completing one of the three projects assigned in order to receive graduate credit, and to incorporating the lesson ideas with 3rd-5th graders in the computer lab over the coming months.

“Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California..” Library of Congress. Web. 24 Jan 2010. <