Deep Learning in Inquiry (Part 2)

In reading part one of my inquiry blog, one might think, “That’s all lots of fun, but building a bee house isn’t exactly something that I can write on the report card.”  You would be absolutely right.  The learning is imbedded in the exciting things.  It is intentional and it is authentic.  Connecting with a local expert, using technology for research and having hands on activities with students engaged scratches the surface of inquiry.  Our deep learning with this unit began with the types of questions that we were asking.  I noticed that when the students began asking questions on Padlet that Siri could have easily answered many of their questions with one or two word answers.  This lead to a series of lessons on “THICK” vs. “Thin” questions.  We added better questioning to our goals.


The students also noticed that I had included a lot of infographics on the Padlet.  Infographics are seen everywhere in social media to communicate information efficiently and visually.  However, students need to know how to use this information, how to synthesize it, how to put it into their own words and how to source it.  We spent a significant amount of our language periods on reading and interpreting infographics.


Our learning goals and success criteria went way beyond making houses for bees and honey tasting.  Students wanted to DO something to help bees.  We created our learning goals and criteria together:

 D9EDA370-1138-49B8-965E-051FCD44D0A4     8AB3D3E8-C7F1-4B2B-8E49-BD8E4FE8068F     CD26AF15-F831-470F-9522-D17D415D0A33

Early on in the inquiry we watched an informative YouTube video called, We Can Save the Bees Together.  Sarah Red-Laird, bee enthusiast and scientist, gave us a number of ideas of actions that we could take.  The students decided that one of the things that they wanted to do was to call for stronger legislation about mono cropping and pesticide use in farming.  They wanted to write letters to politicians and change makers.  In addition, when Susan Chan, local bee researcher visited, she “planted the seed” about creating a non-stinging bee friendly garden in our school yard.  This prompted students to write letters to local school officials to solicit assistance and guidance.  One of our students from Curve Lake First Nation decided to write the Chief and Band Council to ask them to consider building a bee friendly garden in their community. The desire for letter writing lead to a series of lessons on how to write a professional letter, how to proofread and how to edit in a meaningful and authentic learning context for students.  The students also felt that educating others about conservation of  bees was important so they are now working on developing presentations that they can take to other classes as well as media advertising to share their learning and call others to action.

In math, we had been focusing on data management.  It fit in perfectly to what we were doing with our inquiry!  There is an incredible amount of data about bees on the Statistics Canada website.  We read real graphs with information that the students cared about, we labelled the important parts of the graphs and we will be creating our own surveys and graphing the information from different areas of our inquiry.


Statistics Canada

Honestly, the best part of inquiry is when the students start to direct their own learning.  I guide them.  I provide thought provoking questions and “what if” scenarios.  They make choices and feel good about doing something that is affecting real change.  Inquiry is empowerment for students.  This students aren’t done with this inquiry yet-they have many more plans ahead!  Stay tuned.

Tortoise Brained Learning and Students

In my last post I focussed on the philosophical belief that quality vs quantity of professional learning is a more effective way of enhancing pedagogical practice. What does that mean for my classroom instruction? As I grow to understand the presence of different learning styles in my class, the presence of multiple intelligences and the wide variety of learning rates it forces me to re-examine both the long term and short term planning that I set up.

In the earlier part of my career my long-range plans were reflective of an efficient way to ensure that all of the curricula was covered. This I now refer to as curriculum planning and not student centred planning. As my understanding of differentiated learning and assessment grew, so did the need to adjust the way my planning unfolded. What I had experienced was a short-term understanding of content and when that topic was revisited months later there seemed to be a regression in the level of understanding of my students. That forced me to ask myself as to how well they had really learned the content in the first place.

Through years of experimenting with both my long range planning and unit design there arose two aha moments for me. The first was the need to revisit big ideas (overall expectations) through a spiralling curriculum. This means that I would chunk the content into more manageable pieces and revisit the content several times over the course of the year (quality vs quantity).

The second profound understanding was in time management and how do I accomplish the ability to revisit overall expectations with so many demands on the school day. Thus came the desire to increase my skill set in integrating learning across a variety of curricula. The following is a direct reference from the 2006 Ontario Language Curriculum:

In cross-curricular learning, students are provided with opportunities to learn and use related content and/or skills in two or more subjects. For example, teachers can use social studies reading material in their language lessons, and incorporate instruction in how to read non-fiction materials into their social studies lessons. In mathematics, students learn to identify the relevant information in a word problem in order to clarify what is being asked. In science and technology, they build subject-specific vocabulary, interpret diagrams and charts, and read instructions relating to investigations and procedures. All subjects require that students communicate what they have learned, orally and in writing. Their studies in the different subject areas help students develop their language skills, providing them with authentic purposes for reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing, and representing.

Needless to say, this is a spiralling learning experience for me as I continue to help my students consolidate the learning that they are a part of each and every day.

Photo of Lisa Taylor

Healthy Options at Schools PPM150

With PPM150 having had some time to settle into schools, there are blog posts and parent forums popping up all over with discussions about food options being offered to students at schools. While the PPM does outline expectations for what foods can be offered to students at schools, many teachers provide food in class as a reward for good behaviour, sharing candies and snacks as curriculum connections (graphing M&Ms, making Rice Krispie Squares for measurement, blowing a bubble with bubblegum for procedure writing, etc.). Websites like Pinterest are full of ideas that involved engaging students with food and candies.

As a mom of a child with a food allergy and significant digestive struggles that require a very strict diet, I am often overwhelmed when she chealthy-meal-clipartomes home from school to tell me about all of the special snacks she had that day. It is next to impossible for a 6-year-old to say no to a cupcake, so we as the educators need to make those healthy decisions for them by simply not offering them at all. With poor eating habits and obesity on the rise, we need to take advantage of the time we have when children’s diets are completely dependent on the decisions of adults and only provide them with healthy options.

I have had classes that “earned” a positive behaviour reward and we opted to have a balanced breakfast reward where the first period of our day was spent talking about healthy breakfast choices and then we had a balanced breakfast together complete with wholegrain cereal, milk, fruit, and even some veggies! They loved it because it was a snack and it was out of the ordinary!

Think about the value of what you are giving your students both nutritionally and educationally. If you are giving candy or something that is not a healthy choice, ask yourself if there is a healthier option you could give that would get the same result (i.e., if you are teaching procedure with bubblegum, could you teach procedure with making oatmeal, or salad, or something else that is healthy?).

Starting Over



January can feel like September. It is an opportunity to initiate new routines and expectations or inject something new into your current program. For many teachers, the last weeks of school in December before the break is challenging. Students are excited about the anticipated break; programs are interrupted with practices for concerts and special assemblies; and teachers are hanging on as they maintain or try to maintain a normal environment.

With the much needed break, students and teachers return to school refreshed. Many will not admit it, but look forward to the return of a regular routine. Take this opportunity to get your students quickly involved in new learning that may have been hard to tackle in December. There are at least three weeks of school before the cut-off for term one reporting. Assigning projects the first week back will focus the students directly, and provide you with assessments needed at the end of January.

Over the holidays, I have prepared an outline for the Biodiversity Infographic that I will be assigning my Grade 6 students the first week back. It will provide assessment both in Science and Media Literacy. I have also been considering an autobiography or biography project for my class. I am still working on the outline but I am thinking about a booklet that will include entries in writing and art. To differentiate to all levels for both projects, I will provide graphic organizers, allow choice of topics, and encourage students to create their works in print or with technology.

Take something that has inspired you over the holidays, (travel, nature, art, movies) and find a way to bring that interest to the classroom. It is surprising the connections you will make to the curriculum and the enthusiasm that you will share with your students.

Integrating Learning with Technology




  “Some teachers feel technology is being pushed on them, especially those who struggle with it. They might start using technology just for the sake of using it. This has shown to be an ineffective method for both tech-savvy and tech-challenged teachers. There is a big difference between using technology to teach and the successful integration of technology into lesson plans.(

Here are some suggestions to integrate technology in a meaningful way that connects to curriculum:
  • in primary grades, use programs like Kidpix to have students create 2-D representations to demonstrate understanding for Science (Life Systems, Structures and Mechanisms)
  • watch videos of dance performances, (YouTube) and have students respond
  • have students select nature/architecture photo from images or take a photo with iPad and write poem to accompany photo/image
  • using spoken word poetry in the classroom
Also, don’t feel that you have to be an expert before you “teach” the technology to your students. Think of yourself as a facilitator of a technological opportunity! You can and will learn along with your students.
Photo of Alison Board

Big Idea of Balancing Needs

Back in October, I wrote about the 4 big questions we would use as a lens to consider our curriculum. I had noted that the first question, How do we balance our needs with the needs of others? was presented in September, but students were cautious. It was as though they weren’t sure what the right answer was, or how to form their own opinions based on their own experiences and the information they were learning in class. A bulletin board in the classroom was set-up dedicated for items we may collect that would contribute to our understanding as we worked to answer this question. When I taught grade 1/2s, they enjoyed adding information or images to our research board and watching the accumulation of ideas as the board filled.

In the grade 5/6 class this year, the concept of collecting representations of related ideas was difficult for them to either grasp or see as worthwhile. So as we discussed new books or issues, I would add something to our Inquiry Research board. Needless to say, it was more sparse than the research boards I was used to seeing in the younger grades. One of the first additions to the board was to add their initial responses to the question. This provides a good starting point. So, when asked How do we balance our needs with others?, the students responded with:

  • “Be kind and friendly.”
  • “Cooperate with others.”
  • “Eat healthy.”
  • “Some people in some countries don’t have food to eat, so don’t let your food go to waste.”
  • “Treat others the way you want to be treated, for example, if you’re mean to your brother he will be too.”
When I reviewed the responses I had to ask myself if the students understood what needs were and if they were providing answers they thought were “right.” The answers seemed like stock answers for a variety of questions, but not the question that I had asked of them. I realized we needed to backtrack and look at needs and understand them by definition. We considered what needs are (physical, emotional, and group needs).
Then, to understand the meaning of the balance between individuals or groups, we used books such as “The Encounter” and “Sees Behind Trees” to deepen through read-alouds and discussions. I was surprised that a visual of a scale was what really worked to help them grasp the concept. We then used that image to look at the curriculum to consider:
  • needs of First Nations vs. European explorers
  • needs of Space Explorers
  • needs of residents in areas of development (Fracking for gas extraction) – a topic that emerged from our look at matter.
At the end of our inquiry, students provided responses that showed a better understanding of needs and some were able to use specific examples from their learning:
“The Europeans wanted to change First Nations’ culture but what they didn’t know was that First Nations already had a culture – Nature was their god but the Europeans didn’t know that.”
“Balancing your needs is how you manage things in your life. The needs of the First Nations didn’t matter (to the Europeans). Nobody cared about their religion. They felt useless.”
“Some people need more than others.”
“I don’t think that they balanced their needs with First Nations when they took their children to schools far away so they can forget their culture and their language.”
Now in class, students continue to make connections about needs. They also consider their own needs as something that requires balance with those around them like their family, and especially other students. Going through the first Big Idea required more scaffolding than I planned, however it was necessary for the students to understand how to consider their knowledge in the context of bigger idea or question. We are now moving on to another question/lens, “How do people overcome challenges?” I am predicting richer responses from the initial question and the culminating task.

Engaging Idea

A new year is an opportunity for introducing new routines or learning opportunities. If your routines are already established and your planning is complete, you may just want to add a new “twist” to the assignments, addressing different learning styles and increasing student engagement.

Depending on the age group that you teach, – receive infographics on a wide-range of topics at Daily Infographic, see This is a great way to get comfortable with the use of infographics. View before sharing with students.  Infographics (information graphics) are all around us in subway maps, advertisements, and historical representations. They provide students with an alternative way to read information as well as present information. An infographic is a graphic visual representation. Larger amounts of data or information are presented in a visually appealing way that the reader is able to easily retain. Infographics can include timelines, maps, charts, graphs, illustrations or photographs, making them a useful and beneficial resource for social studies, math, language, science and art.

Suggestions for introducing or integrating infographics:

– receive infographics on a wide-range of topics at Daily Infographic, see This is a great way to get comfortable with the use of infographics. View before sharing with students.

– in Google search a selected topic and “infographic” to find a reputable author/creator of an infographic that connects to your lesson or subject. Preview the infographic. Provide it to your students to read individually or have them discuss in small groups.

– use infographics for specific knowledge-building. For example, if studying First Nations treaties with the Canadian Government, a government produced infographic is provided at: This infographic provides factual information in an interesting format for students that is easy to understand.

– after using infographics and understanding the components that make them effective, have students create their own infographics. It could be their own life story, their community or outer space. It could replace the pamphlet idea for presenting information on another city, country, or issue.

– create a campaign against bullying (or address various social issues) using student created infographics modelled on a reputable resource such as the infographic at Stop Bullying Gov, see

– students can design their own infographic with pencil or paper, or electronically with tools such as or Piktochart.


Enjoy introducing something new to your students for the New Year!

“I Know Here”

At one of our first staff meetings this year, we had a discussion about building community in our school. What is our community? How do we see ourselves? Many of the teachers had a difficult time describing our school community. We are in a building with additions that have been attached on various levels, resulting in doors and stairs that physically separate the classrooms into small groupings of three or four to a floor. The community outside of the school is also diverse. There are few apartment buildings as well as a neighbourhood of homes, a park, and a plaza of stores.

To discover our community through student inquiry, all the classes read the book I Know Here by Laurel Croza.


We then asked the students to take a similar approach and define their community with words and representations. The results were outstanding. Every age from Kindergarten to grade 8 was able to identify what made the community unique and they presented their own perspective. To extend that sense of our community defined by student voice, we set up a literacy night at the school to showcase the student work. It included descriptive writing, drawings, 3D representations, photos and videos.

The experience was rewarding for the teachers, students, and parents of our school community. The work was meaningful and the children were engaged. It was a topic that was accessible to all and promoted equity throughout our school. The children were also able to share new insight and point of view with us, the educators.

Literacy and Big Ideas

We started the first of our 4 big questions for the year. How do we balance our needs with the needs of others? The question has been on the wall since the second week of school, but only now are the students starting to find ways to answer that question. One of the ways the grade 5/6 students have started to approach the question is through their learning in Social Studies. As they learn about initial contact between Europeans and First Nations, they are also considering the needs of the explorers and settlers compared to the needs of the First Nations in Canada.

The other way that the students have broadened their understanding of the question is through read-alouds. One book in particular, Sees Behind Trees by Michael Dorris, was a favourite read-aloud to the class. It connected with our Social Studies learning as well as the model it provided for the descriptive writing we were experimenting with. At the end of the book, the students were eager to identify various relationships in the book and how the characters’ needs balanced with one another’s. Reading this book together seemed to click for everyone as a means of examining the big over-arching question.

This was a celebrated moment of understanding in our classroom and a confirmation of my own that students need to be immersed in a literature-rich curriculum. One of the most useful resources I have found to support discussion and understanding is ETFO’s Social Justice Begins With Me. This resource provides a robust list of books that connect to themes/ideas of community, empathy, rights of the child, as well as big ideas of cycles or beauty! It summarizes the text and highlights themes that connect the students to the learning. I also like that there are sections of the resource specific to Primary, Junior, and Intermediate grades with curriculum connections and activity ideas.

You can also view parts of the resource in pdf at or look at specific booklists that have also been added to the site.

Building Community


September has been all about building community in our 5/6 classroom. It is difficult not to move full-steam ahead into the curriculum and feel pressured by time. However, by slowing things down and making time for community circles, Tribes activities, and more discussions, the students feel valued as contributors to their classroom and also their learning.

To build community we:

  • Start each morning with a community gathering  – I say a gathering rather than a circle as we are challenged with space and don’t have a carpet to sit on. So we gather near the reading corner where there is a small carpet and some bean bag chairs. Students are welcome to sit on the cushions, the small rug, or pull up their chairs in a semi-circle. It has an informal feel to it and the options allow students a choice in their seating, which they appreciate. We initially started our meetings with prompts that everyone responded to, such as favourite hobbies, number of siblings, etc. Now we open the discussion to anyone who wants to share. Last week, a student shared that she had just got a puppy the night before. This led to an engaging talk about dogs as pets and the fears that others had experienced with dogs.
  • Writer’s workshop – To launch our writing workshop, we used Tribes activities that created discussions about our interests and selves. We then spent the first week writing lists that reflected those discussions, which will later be used to generate ideas during independent writing times. We all took a survey home to find out the origin of our names and why were given our particular names. After sharing our information in small groups, it provided a good starting topic for writing. We also wrote about our birth order after a fun Tribes activity that involved separating the class into four corners of the room for discussion, grouped as: oldest, only, middle, and youngest child.
  • Reading workshop – We are also going slow with our development of reading workshop routines. To do this, we are following the 20 day plan that is simply laid out by Fountas and Pinnell in their book, Guiding Readers and Writers (Grades 3-6). On the Heinemann website it describes the book as presenting, “the basic structure of the language/literacy program within a breakthrough framework that encompasses the building of community through language, word study, reading, writing, and the visual arts.”
  • Math – Starting with data management, the students have had the opportunity to survey each other about their interests and make graphs. We also took an online Multiple Intelligence survey and are graphing the strengths of the class on a large graph to be displayed and referred to in the classroom.
  • Social Studies and Art – Our first art activity followed a read-aloud about totem poles created by the Haida. We used a chart that described the meaning about each crest and the significance of colour. After selecting crests that reflected each individual, the students drew their crest using pastels with bold black outlines, then used brown paint around the crest to resemble the totem pole. We have attached the rectangular drawings into groups of 5 or 6 crests and formed 3D cylinder shapes to resemble poles. We are preparing to hang them in the hallway outside our classroom.
In addition to slowing down to build community in September, it is something to consider incorporating into subjects and activities throughout the year to maintain an ideal environment that continues to be inclusive and engaging for all students. Check out suggestions for inclusive activities and lessons in the Matrix of Ideas at the back of The Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning!