Following Our Students' Voices: A Yearlong Inquiry Sparked By Our Visits to Chichester Park
We are a team of educators who, last year, felt very lucky to learn with each other and with 42 grade 2/3 students.
At the beginning of the year, we decided that we really wanted to come together to learn in community. Our goal was to immerse ourselves in learning and support each other as we tested out some of our ideas. We were especially interested in digging into connecting to our community through inquiry-based learning.
We had been thinking a lot about our beliefs about teaching and learning, and knew that we wanted to keep our students at the very center of their learning.
As a team, we were really clear that we wanted to take on the perspective of teachers as learners and researchers, and had a goal to learn alongside our students as we followed where they wanted to go with their learning.
It was such a great experience for us all. Together, we were all learners, we were all teachers, and we were all researchers. We learned so much that we wanted to share our story with you.
Here are two videos that will make some of our thinking and learning visible:
We wanted to think deeply about our big questions all year and it acted as an anchor for us. We were exploring: How can we explore our uniqueness as we form connections with each other and with nature? How can we encourage all learners to flourish in our community?
Throughout the school year we had to learn to 'un'plan. We didn't want to come to our students with fully formed ideas about how we would fill our days. Instead, we co-created our learning environment and our learning intentions with our learners. We filled our spaces with their thinking and ideas.
Throughout the year, we documented our learners' thinking, questions, and ideas as a way of co-planning our days together. They felt so proud when their wonders were shared and we investigated them. It went beyond agency. It felt empowering. By following our students' voices and acting as guides throughout the learning journey, our students were able to share their passions with us and with each other. This seemed to ignite within them a drive to dig deeper as they continuued to build their understanding.
This was particularly clear to us when we were in nature. We noticed that our students were always excited and seemed to flourish when they were outside in the fresh air. Because we felt uninhibited by space or subjects, we gave each other the permission to just be curious together. When we were outside, we often found tiny, perfect things that we wanted to bring back with us to our classroom, and we always returned to school excited to share what were were noticing and wondering about the what we had experienced during our adventures.
Integrated studies is one of our favourite ways of exploring an idea or interest shared within our learning community through the lenses of the different content areas.
Community and Identity
As we explored nature, we discovered that we already knew a lot! And, as we listened to, connected to, and built on each other's thinking, we grew our collective understanding. We also sparked each others' curiosities and this led to some really fun inquiries into the the natural world that surrounds our school.
So, how did we begin?
Initially, we connected to nature through the story I am Human: A Book of Empathy by Susan Verde.
We were exploring the question “Who are we as humans and what is human nature?”
In one of our first outdoor field experiences, our learners collected natural building materials to construct words based on connections or ideas that resonated with them. Then used the materials to construct their own word.
As our students moved through Chichester Park, a local park that we visit often, we noticed how intentional they were with the materials they selected. They were naturally making connections to math, fine arts, and science, through shape, colour, patterns, and their wonders and noticings. We had not anticipated the students integrating content independently, and our role was to encourage them and to listen.
Here are the words they created that day:
During some of our early adventures, we recognized that we needed to slow down and take the time to inquire into how we wanted to be as a community of learners.
We began our exploration with a read aloud of The Good Egg by Jory John and Pete Oswald as a way of exploring our emotions and the personal and social core competencies.
Our students loved it. They immediately connected the eggs to our community, so we explored different attributes of story, math, and fine arts that we discovered in the book.
This led us to read a second book by the same authors, The Bad Seed. We were able to compare the stories and make even deeper connections.
Our learners were really connected to these stories, and so we invited them to create the most detailed plasticine characters of themselves as good eggs and bad seeds.
We created posters of our seed and egg community and we shared these with Pete Oswald, the illustrator of both books. Our learners were so invested in these books and their message and it made them feel proud to share it with him. He replied and they were blown away!
Pete Oswald: "I love this so much! Thank you for reading our books. What an amazing workshop. This warmed my heart. I'd love to send a signed copy of THE COUCH POTATO to you and your students. Thank you!"
So, how did we follow our students voices as we inquired? Maybe we can share best through story. Here we will share with you some of the things from nature that our students wanted to explore. Among other things, we inquired about wolves, mushrooms, owls, and beavers.
During one of our morning gatherings, there was talk of a wolf sighting. This sparked a lot of wonders and curiosities about wolves. We began our exploration into wolves by investigating Indigenous perspectives. We asked our Indigenous advocate, Miss Jackie, to come and share local knowledge about wolves with us.
As we continued to explore, we learned from a Cree elder that:
Wolf will not show himself unless he wants to tell you something.
Wolves are intelligent, loyal, and family oriented.
Wolves are 'keepers of the balance' in nature
Like all things in nature, wolves are our relatives - our brothers - and we should treat them as such.
Ultimately, our learners decided that they wanted to name our learning community 'The Wolfpack.'
They were curious how to say our name in the local Syilx Okanagan language, so we researched how it was spelled and pronounced and created a community sign that included both languages.
Then, we watched a documentary called Call Of The Coastal Wolves.
By this point, our students had so many questions about wolves.
What do wolves smell like? - Lexie
How big are wolves? - Rachel
How can wolves hear so far? - Kaiden
How old can wolves live to? - Mason
What is their favourite food? - Henry
What is their favourite weather? - Reeva
How many different colours can a wolf be? -Isabella
How long do they usually sleep? -Mikayla
How feisty do they get? -Mikayla
How many pups can a wolf have at one time? -Lauren
How long can they run? What is their endurance like? -Nicolas
So, we decided to consult the experts. Our Teacher Intern, Ashley Stephenson, connected with an expert, Gary Allen, at a wolf sanctuary on Vancouver Island and arranged a Zoom virtual field experience for our community.
Their questions about wolves were never ending, and we just tried to keep pace with their energy and excitement.
As we explored, we intentionally tried to connect their thinking to different curricular areas. So, we wrote about wolves, we read about wolves, and we learned some statistics about wolves. We learned that wolves can eat 20% of their body weight at any one time, and that they can run ~50 km an hour - they are long distance runners, NOT sprinters.
While we were exploring wolves, another interest popped up. We were exploring Chichester Park in early fall and we took iPads to capture pictures of the things we were curious about, and the things we thought were cool. We listened to hear what our students were thinking and talking about, and documented their thoughts with pictures and their words. During our nature walk, we came across some strange looking brown cup-like things on the ground near the pond.
We continued to explore and we found more examples of mushrooms throughout the park. There seemed to be an interest developing about mushrooms, and we started to notice mushrooms popping up everywhere as the students talked and shared. Even our community members and their families, who knew we were curious, started sharing their mushroom pictures with us.
And so, we started investigating our questions about mushrooms. Our intern, Nicole Donkin, is passionate about mushrooms, and was so excited to share her knowledge with our learners. She contacted a mushroom farm in Summerland called What The Fungus? and was able to bring back 2 oyster mushroom kits for us to grow. Our students now had the opportunity to practice fungiculture and to see if some of their questions could be answered through observations. As we continued to explore, the students curiosities grew and they expanded on their wonders.
Listen to Marcus, Henry, and Scarlette share their wonders about mushrooms:
We exploring our wonders by comparing different mushrooms, and there are so many. We began to connect mushrooms to many different curricular areas. We did not plan these explorations in advance, they simply came naturally as we began to inquire into mushrooms.
A science connection: We learned about the mushroom life cycle and mushroom anatomy. Then we created realistic plasticine mushrooms.
A social studies connection: We learned about the Indigenous uses of mushrooms.
A math connection: We measured our mushrooms as they grew and compared our data.
An english language arts connection: We asked students to label their mushrooms (a connection to non-fiction text), we compared and contrasted mushroom types using graphic organizers, and we listened to text and stories about mushrooms.
A visual arts connection: We examined what would I look like as a mushroom and created our own mushroom community using plasticine.
Take a look at this short video to watch our exploration of mushrooms:
Our inquiry into owls began with a Castanet news story, 'Rutland's New Celebrity' about a great horned owl that appeared on someone's back porch. One of our students, Lauren, was friends with the person who had this owl land on her porch.
As you can imagine, This quickly became an intense inquiry, and even helped us to connect with other classes who shared the same inquiry.
We explored owls in many different ways.
We immediately connected with Owl-Orphaned Wildlife, a rescue, rehabilitate, and release non-profit society.
We learned so much by connecting with Zac, a local BC owl expert. Some of our questions were answered but our discussion also led to more wonders and ideas. This virtual meeting amplified our students’ interests.
We were able to support our students' wonders by showing them videos and connecting them with local experts. Miss Jackie, our Indigenous advocate, was able to share some First Peoples perspectives on owls, as well as her own personal beliefs about owls. The students were excited to gain different perspectives.
We examined an owl feather and compared it to other feathers. We also examined owl pellets to explore the predatory habits and what owls eat. The students were blown away by what they discovered in the owl pellets.
The students had no hesitation digging into the pellets- literally. Watch how excited Audrina was to find a skull in her owl pellet.
After the disection, we used some owl videos to provoke our students thinking around some of their wonders about owls.
Ryder wondered, "How do owls catch their prey? and How do owls fly so silently? So we watched this video: Experiment! How Does An Owl Fly So Silently? Super Powered Owls
Alexa wondered, "How do owl’s nests look?" and Maddy wondered, "How do owls raise their babies? Nicholas wondered "What do owls eat?". So, we watched this Barred Owl Webcam to observe and learn more.
As we inquired, our amazing custodian, Owen, was chatting with us, and we shared that we were exploring owls. He very kindly offered to lend us an owl taxidermy he had acquired through his father. He shared the story of how the owl had tragically hit a powerline and the city had allowed his family to preserve the owl.
He was so excited, that he brought it to school for us the next day. This of course made the owl inquiry explode. Our learners were able to touch and explore a once live owl.
Another coincidental, yet powerful connection to our owl inquiry was through art. Jan Brett was booked in our school to do watercolour painting with our students, so...owls it was. She was such a valuable resource to not only connect our students thinking about owls to visual arts, but also to give them the opportunity to pay attention to the finer details of owl as they painted them using water colour paints. They were painting like scientists!
On one of our final trips to Chichester Park, we had noticed that the path we usually walk was becoming extremely flooded. As we walked around, the students were trying to find the culprit: they were on the hunt for the beavers and their dam.
When we came back to school, the students continued talking about the flooding, and how they have seen beavers before. Hilde was really excited to find a beaver pelt at a flea market, and we knew this would be the perfect opportunity to do inquiry and wonders about beavers.
This exploration took us to the end of the year, but we know we could have continuued to explore and investigate all of our curiosities about the natural world for much longer. The students were still so curious!
What Have We Learned?
What we will take away with us is the power of student agency that can be created in a community based on curiosity. The power of inquiry and student agency was undeniable. We recognize that our various, though connected, inquiries never truly ended. They just shifted and changed as our curiosities did.
We learned a lot about ourselves as educators as we went on this yearlong journey. We learned that when we listen closely to our students, and let them guide the way, we can have a lot of fun together as we create deep understandings. We have learned to be flexible and to trust that our students will take us to really interesting places that we also want to visit. We have learned that when we put our learner and researcher hats on, our students become our teachers. For this group of students, everything just always seemed to connect back to nature, which taught us that we need to continue to learn all the ways that the natural world is our teacher.
We learned that when we follow our students curiosities, we can continue to draw connections to the curriculum. When we think about our learning last year and the science curriculum, for example, we see so many connections. We hope you do too. Here are just a few of the science curricular competencies that we were growing throughout the year:
We experienced and interpreted our local environment.
We demonstrated curiosity about the natural world.
We identified questions about familiar objects and events that could be investigated scientifically.
We suggested ways to plan and conduct an inquiry to find answers to our questions.
We made observations about living and non-living things in the local environment.
We collected simple data, and compared our results with our predictions.
We expressed and reflected on our personal and shared experiences of place.
What do we think our next steps might be?
We want to continue to create opportunities that will allow our students to make themselves visible to us, so we can see where they take us. What resonated most strongly with us last year is that as we lean into our students beliefs and passions, each year will be brand new, because our students are unique individuals who are interested in and care about a variety of things.
We have decided that each year, we want to start with 'tableau rossa' (the absence of preconcieved ideas). A blank slate that our students will fill up as they share their hearts and minds with us and we learn and grow together. Above all else, we want to create spaces where our students know that we hear them, we see them, they are cared for, and what they say matters to us, to each other, and to the world.
by Hilde Dietzel and Kate Knox
Rutland Elementary School