American Literature’s Amazing Inquiry Adventure

As I have written about several times, Heather Hersey and I tried a new approach to my American Literature course this year. Inspired by Meg Donhauser‘s work with her British Literature course, I wanted my students to have a collaborative but differentiated learning experience that they shape. After one run-through during 3rd quarter, I was eager to rework the process. I know that the initial experience was generally a good one, but there were tons of improvements I wanted to make. There were a lot of things my students felt unprepared for and several times throughout the process where they felt overwhelmed with too many tools, too many strategies, and far too many things to keep track of. So, I met with some real inquiry experts to further develop some tools and strategies that would help our students manage their learning in a literature class. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as an educator. Heather, Meg, Marci Zane, two students, and I met to figure out how we could improve the overall process. The students were particularly helpful in determining what skills, strategies, and content knowledge our future students would need frontloaded before engaging in the inquiry process. Below are the materials and strategies we recognized as essential to begin an inquiry project (in bold) with explanations of the adjustments we made.

  • An explanation of inquiry and what they can expect while they go through the Information Search Process: To introduce all of this, we started with this revised¬†syllabus and then used Carol Kuhlthau’s work to take the students through a mini-ISP as I wrote about here.
  • A way to group students who might want to get feedback or work with others to learn: For this, we developed a Text Interest Survey on Google Docs. It automatically puts all of the results in a spreadsheet, which we can then sort to show similarities and contrasts. We tried to initially group students by types of books so that they could help each other find texts as well as develop questions that would help them explore their interests. For example, we had a group that wanted to explore fear and horror throughout American Literature, so they developed questions around that and explored fear tactics in Jonathan Edwards’ sermons, Edgar Allen Poe short stories, and Stephen King novels.
  • Guidelines to develop strong questions: We used several sources for this. One was Moeller and Moeller’s Socratic Seminars and Literature Circles for Middle and High School English in which the authors identify three types of questions as they apply to reading: Factual, Interpretive, and Evaluative. We adapted their explanations slightly and combined them with Bloom’s Taxonomy to show how to get at really deep thinking through questions. Factual questions, we explained, are based on the responder’s ability to remember and recite information. Ex. “What authors were prominent during the American Modernism Era?” Interpretive questions are slightly more involved in that they require more analysis and application. They ask for an opinion in regards to some content knowledge. For example, one might ask, “Was Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry representative of the values of ¬†the post-war, 1950s?” And, Evaluative questions ask the responder to make a judgment based on his or her own values and experiences, thus requiring synthesis and evaluation. Ex. “Do people need to go through times of struggle to truly feel at peace?” The final question can be answered using the texts that a student might read, but it can also be answered by investigating his or her own experience with struggle and peacefulness. By examining the texts with this lens, he or she will be able to see connections among the works and to his or her life experiences.
  • Ways to identify standards that will truly help students improve skills, not just practice what they already know: We struggled to find a way that students could still be held accountable for meeting state and national standards without compromising the integrity of the student’s natural direction, so we went with Meg’s plan to have students align each activity in their learning plans to at least one standard. They had to explain how they improved their understandings and developed skills as well as provide evidence for their explanations. We planned to model those procedures with the students in the first week of the course.
  • Suggest ways in which students can demonstrate proficiency and/or progress toward meeting standards. The reading standards seemed most difficult to prove for the students, so we began our focus with those. We implemented lessons, practice opportunities, and teacher modeling with reading strategies that would help them show evidence of their thoughts while they read as well as help them make connections between the readings and their own lives and their pursuits in our class.
  • Digital tools to track learning and reflections. Some students in our classes used Diigo to log all of their online text reflections, and students in Meg’s class had used blogs to track their learning about themselves as learners. We thought that those mediums were ones that everyone should be exposed to as a means to produce and publish thoughts as they went through these processes. So, we developed lessons using Heather’s and Marci’s online resource pages (Diigo and Blogs) to introduce these tools as well as activities to practice using them in meaningful ways.
  • Access to Instructional Media Center resources and practice with using them. Heather developed LibGuides for the American Literature Adventure and for the British Literature Pilgrimage that put all of the resources into one place. We used those to show students where they could go for help, and we also used those resources with the students to model the research process. The links to movements and helpful websites were to give students a starting point for their research with each era. Additionally, Heather created a Text Assistance Request Form that students could use if they still struggled after trying all available resources. This was meant to help them articulate their questions as well as to help us prepare to help them.

Now that I have completed my second attempt at the new structure, I am beginning the reflection process all over again, examining student work and taking into consideration their explicit suggestions. I will post again with my thoughts!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *