Sunday, July 1, 2012

Inquiry in the Reading/Writing Classroom - Units of Study

Last year, I was looking around for ways to use more inquiry in my Reading/Writing class.  I was in love with the idea as a content-area (science and social studies) teacher, and I wanted to use it more.  

It helped that I attended a Summer Leadership Institute with the Illinois Writing Project.  I met several teachers from other schools, and I found that another school had begun using Study Driven, a book by Katie Wood Ray.  The book introduces a way of teaching reading and writing in related ways, as part of a focused, intensive study of ("immersion" in) a specific genre.  

Let me explain by example.  Let's say that you choose to study memoir.  You flood the students with examples of memoir, as many as you can find that are appropriately leveled and (hopefully) engaging.  After they have read and studied several examples, you ask them to notice or discover what these texts have in common.  You articulate these common features, and you talk about the ways that writers can choose to adhere to these conventions or not, but that generally a genre will follow a certain set of conventions.  Memoir, for example, is typically told in first person and focuses on significant events in a person's life.  It is tied to specific contexts and settings, often to specific objects or people.  It is almost always intensely localized or focused on the minute details of the past.  

This is the inquiry part.  You are focusing students on a specific line of inquiry, and you are asking the big questions, but students are discovering the nuances of the answers.  Eventually, the goal would be to encourage them to branch out on their own, discover and analyze their own notion of genre, or even start to formulate an emerging genre (very cool!).  The end product, however, is for them to create a text that fits the genre they are studying.  

So, students are buried in examples or models of a genre, asked to study them closely, articulate the conventions of that genre as a result of that study, and then create a text that adheres to those conventions.  The text is created under the conditions of a typical writing workshop, with students choosing the particulars of how they will create the text and allowed to work at their own pace in an environment where they are supported and given time to compose and revise.  

The results were impressive.  Partly because I supported this with journals, and partly because I swamped them with models - all directed toward a specific, up-front objective - my students created some of the best memoir I have seen from 7th graders.  I read so many good examples that it was overwhelming.  

Part of the success comes from the choice of genre.  You can't study a genre like political satire or medieval mystery plays in a middle-school classroom.  You need good examples that students can connect to, and you need to be able to help them focus topics and sustain effort over time.  Many of my students were writing longer texts than they had ever written before.  And not every student wrote great stuff or tried their hardest.  That's something I will continue to work on, but it was not a Hollywood movie or a fairy tale, so it wasn't 100%.  But it was much closer than I have ever been before.  I was also successful with the "scary story" genre, and with shorter examples like the 55-word story.  (I found a book of examples of this - the number of words is not important, as long as they are forced to fit that example.  Like haiku, forcing them to shape their thinking into a certain conventional container can be challenging and fun.)  Odes also worked well - mostly because of examples from Pablo Neruda and past students.  We also had fun (perhaps a little too much) with tweets as a genre.

I'm working on units based on jokes, narrative nonfiction with "tension" (a concept from Donald Murray), tweets (a more organized version), and some kind of persuasive text (still searching for a good, authentic genre appropriate for this developmental level with engaging models of appropriate length).  

I was planning to also discuss inquiry and the teaching of grammar, but I'll have to post about that later.  
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