Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Carousel Brainstorming That Encourages Inquiry

Earlier this month, all of the teachers in our city gathered for our annual two-day teacher's convention.  I was lucky enough to present on reading strategies for secondary students.  As I closed the doors to the full house that I presented in (yikes!), I commented that I was surprised to have so many people attending my session as it was bright and early on a Friday morning.  The participants told me that the word "secondary" is what brought them in- they find that there is a lot of support available for younger students who struggle to read, but not much for the older students.  As a result, teachers often feel alone and stuck.  They want to help their older struggling readers, but they just don't know how.  

The first strategy that we used in the session was carousel brainstorming.  This certainly isn't a revolutionary idea, and I'm sure that many of the teachers in the room had already done some form of carousel brainstorming.  I took the work of Dr. Jeffrey Wilhelm, who has done a lot of work on using inquiry to support struggling readers, to make the carousel brainstorming more meaningful. Dr. Wilhelm did a study on boys to find out why they under-perform girls in every area of literacy.  While I am over-simplifying his findings here, one thing that stood out was that boys needed to see the point or purpose of the activity, and to think that the purpose was worthwhile, in order to buy in and seek out mastery.  This partially explains why boys tend to prefer non-fiction to fiction.  If I want to learn how to fix the motherboard of my computer, I will find a non-fiction piece on that subject. At the end of the reading, I will have the knowledge that I was looking for.  I understand the purpose, I buy in to the purpose, therefore I engage fully in the activity.  It is often more difficult for boys to find a similar purpose in fiction.

So how can I take this research and use it to improve my teaching?  I used it to improve my ordinary carousel activity.  I took the reading that I used in my PD session, and I looked for some juicy (or what Dr. Wilhelm called "sexy") questions that I could get students to buy into.  I used an article on factory farming and food animals to demonstrate that these strategies were not "English Language Arts" strategies, but could be used across content areas.  Some of the framing questions that I came up with were:
  • Why do some people choose to be vegetarians?
  • Why do some people choose to eat meat?
  • What are some reasons to eat fast food?
  • What are some reasons to avoid fast food?
  • Do you care how the cow who produces your milk is treated?     

I tried to create a variety of questions that students in a secondary classroom would relate to and would have an opinion on.  If I were in a classroom, I might ask the kids to help me to craft better questions before engaging in the carousel activity.  In the case of this group of participants, they were definitely most interested in the questions related to fast food. 

Once you have good "juicy" questions, it is time to get the kids up and moving, engaging with the questions.  The carousel activity allows kids to make predictions, make connections, and engage prior knowledge, all skills that strong readers use. 

Food for Thought... do you use framing questions in your teaching?  What are some of the most successful questions that you have used to engage your students?

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