As I opened this school year, I decided to take stock of old procedures I follow, as well as my long term plans for the year around inquiry. After spending 5 days this past summer working on inquiry design in both a C3 summer institute and at the district level, it occurred to me it would be wise to consider what skills my students were bringing to my class and how those skills were relevant to inquiries I planned for the year. 

What inquiry skills do I want students to practice by the end of the school year?  How do we get started building towards those skills now?

In my small district, our entire social studies department, grades 6-12, meet and work together as a unified department. After NY state implemented a new curriculum and assessments for high school graduates in social studies, our department agreed a couple years back that we would all dedicate ourselves to instruction that would build student capacity around the skills embedded in the new assessments. These skills are centered around Gathering, Interpreting and Using Evidence, Chronological Reasoning and Causation, Comparison and Contextualization, Geographic Reasoning, Economics and Economic Systems, Civic Participation, Analyzing Historical Evidence and Argument development.

This is a rather large laundry list of skills and hardly ones that are all going to be included into a single inquiry cycle within any unit of study. However, I can clearly see many of these skills are relevant to the earliest inquiry my students will undertake. As I opened the year, I did what I have often done in years past: create a pre-assessment for my students. This year however, I decided to look carefully at the new inquiry my students were going to undertake and try and include as many skills as I could into my pre-assessment. I needed to construct a pre-assessment that would help me gauge the extent to which students could independently engage in skills they were going to soon have to demonstrate. Of course this meant a great deal of time in the days leading up to the opening of school redesigning the tool I had often used to gauge student knowledge and skill at the beginning of the school year. 

Because I know student success in argumentation, contextualization and interpreting and using evidence will be the cornerstone of the first large inquiry of the year, I put those 3 skills to the forefront of the first unit. I view the first month of school as the chance to practice, learn and practice these skills some more. Therefore, student activities this month will center upon primary source work ,which will engage students in building capacity around these three crucial skills. By creating and sharing specific standards for students, they can constantly evaluate their own performance to determine their progress. With each new activity this month, I gain insight into their skills and then create new activities within other primary sources from with our first unit of study. 

These smaller daily activities embedded in primary sources will help students develop the foundational skills to engage in subsequent experiences with much larger, more complicated and numerous primary sources that I have planned for our first large scale inquiry. By engaging in smaller lessons targeting the essential skills found in the future inquiry, I hope student independence, confidence and resilience will all be advanced enough for a highly successful first inquiry. As inquiry is not an experience our students are exposed to prior to 8th grade, it’s incumbent on me to help set them up for success instead of frustration when we get to our first full inquiry.  Here’s to a great opening to the year of inquiry for all.