We’ve been partnering with Language Arts teacher Sean O’Connor the last few weeks as his students have been engaged in presearch around topics that students identified and developed around motifs and themes of To Kill a Mockingbird.  After participating in the reading frenzy activity, students left with a topic of interest that they wanted to explore further and refine through presearch.  After several days of gathering information and sources to build background knowledge, the students were ready to think about focusing their topics even more by developing a refining research question.    After some conversation, Sean and I thought it would be meaningful for students to collaborate and use the question lenses activity that my friend Heather Hersey shared with me last fall and that I piloted with Sarah Rust’s students.   We felt the question lenses would give our students a way of looking at their presearch information with fresh eyes and alternate perspectives.  Inspired by both Heather and Sarah Ludwig’s adaptation of the activity, Sean and I decided to do our own variation on Sarah’s version of writing around question lenses using our new dry erase tables (we purchased the Expanse and Nebula tables with dry erase surfaces).

We began by introducing the question lenses and activity procedures to Sean’s students:

After showing and discussing the five question lenses and examples [see slides above], we asked students to form “birds of feather” groups around like or similar topics at the dry erase tables. Once students had formed their groups, we asked them to write their topic(s) on the table and to get a variety of dry erase markers we had available.  We gave them about 10-12 minutes to talk and draft at least two questions per question lens for a minimum of ten.   We encouraged them to keep a tally on their pink sheets (every student received one to have as a guide and to record questions they liked for personal keeping) as their groups composed their questions.










Some groups were initially a little quiet and needed some encouragement/nudging from us to help them get their conversations and group thinking going.  Sean is especially gifted at helping students communicate and helping students tap into their cognitive processes as he circulates about and engages in discussions with the students without giving them answers or leading them to a response.

After the question incubation period, we asked each group to look at their questions and come to a consensus about which question they felt was the best one and to be able to articulate why it was the best question.  They then composed their top question on one of our Verb whiteboards.  Next, we did a large group share out of questions and rationales.   As each group finished their brief presentation, they placed their Verb Steelcase whiteboard onto the Verb easel.





Students then had an opportunity to vote for best question of the period by placing a checkmark on the easel with their favorite question.  As we voted, students also finished recording favorite questions on their pink sheets; other students also used this time to photograph their group table.   We asked students to reflect on the questions they had seen both in their groups and from the other groups as we thought about what makes a good research question; this activity was our springboard for helping students either draft their own question or to use one of the questions from their birds of feather topic group  that resonated with them as their focus question for moving further into search. They are now doing additional search and are starting to think about multigenre element products they’ll craft to represent their key understandings and insights.

Two aspects of this activity that we loved are reflected in many of the inquiry driven activities we’ve done this year in helping students move begin or move through presearch:

1.  Writing is a medium for processing ideas and thinking in a visible way.

2.  We move through a continuum of individual, pair/small group, and large group work that ultimately helps students experience learning in a social and collaborative way and that will inform their individual work.

We are always happy to provide students these kinds of learning opportunities for our students, especially for those who may not have had many of these learning experiences prior to high school and/or during their previous high school research/inquiry experiences.  If you don’t have access to dry erase surfaces, you can easily adapt this activity with butcher/bulletin board paper or oversized sticky notes.  While I know there are virtual mediums for doing this activity, I increasingly feel that being “unplugged” and having students do this work in a tactile and physically present way makes the thinking more concrete and gives students chances to interact socially in an academic context that would not happen through a virtual tool.   This face to face modeling and opportunity to practice these skills and grow these cultural, social, and cognitive dimensions of academic literacy is especially important for students whose opportunities to do so have previously been limited (Kiili, Mäkinen, and Coiro).

We’d love to hear from others how you are either helping students develop and refine research questions, using writable surfaces for thinking and learning, or other collaborative work during presearch.  For more photos of the activity with our two classes, please visit the photoset.


Kiili, Carita, Marita Mäkinen, and Julie Coiro. “Rethinking Academic Literacies.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 57.3 (2013): 223- 32. Professional Development Collection [EBSCO]. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.