Last fall I had the pleasure of spending a good bit of time with Dorsey Sammataro’s art classes during the first nine weeks of the semester. One of the things that struck me about her classes was the inquiry-driven approach that felt like a real-world workshop because there is shared ownership of learning by the students. In late October, I was really thinking about how her approach to teaching and learning reflected the ideals of inquiry-driven learning and how could her art classes inspire how we approach research projects.
While I’ve been busy with other projects, assignments/initiatives, and working with other academic classes, Dorsey and I have continued to muse and think together. Earlier this month, I had the chance to observe Dorsey’s 1st period students, and this experience crystallized the possibilities of learning I want to see happening as part of our instructional program. At the same time, it really brought to the surface a lot of the frustrations I have felt in recent years as I’ve tried to elevate my work and role as an instructional designer. If you’ve taught in a high school, you know that these learning environments are often the most difficult to frame from an inquiry stance on learning and literacy.
I thought it would be helpful to share the aspects of the learner experience I’ve seen in Dorsey’s classes since starting here last August. Dorsey provides learning structures, but students ultimately make choices. Some elements I’ve observed include:
- Students set learning goals—short terms and long term.
- Students engage in multiple “drafts” and passes at art work.
- Student have freedom to “fail” because failure is viewed as positive and part of the learning experience that values experimenting and mistakes.
- Students keep idea books/sketchbooks that they share and serve as a place to pen ideas for immediate use or to revisit at a later time.
- Students do regular peer review and discussion of their works; collaboration is encouraged and an integral part of daily life in these classes.
- Students engage in frequent reflection and self-assessment.
- Formative assessment is integral in these classes as is time to actually engage in the craft of creating art.
- There is always something to learn from completed projects even if they did not turn out the way students planned or if they are not completely successful in the eyes of the student.
As I have been drafting this post, I was taken back to the roots of my interest in an inquiry stance in learning: READ 8100 (Inquiry Based Literacy) with Dr. Bob Fecho at the University of Georgia. I could write an entire post about this life-changing course, but instead, I’ll point you to some reflections I composed (2002!) in response to a reading on Paulo Freire. Here are some of the qualities of a learning space that takes an inquiry stance on learning (this list was compiled by my classmate Sharon Murphy Augustine, and I incorporated them into my response):
- DIS-ease. There are many questions raised without answers
- Establishes more than the teacher as validator of knowledge/work
- Feeling of responsibility to yourself and the class
- Recognizes classroom as a complicated, non-laboratory place filled with complex, caring human beings
- Fights culture of school that wants THE right answer
- Doesn’t hide what is occurring in class and makes class part of determining what is occurring.
- Patience- doesn’t give up too quickly and realizes community/learning/inquiry doesn’t happen overnight.
Unlike the banking concept of education, Freire says, “For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”(72).
Of course, these qualities dovetail with those of participatory learning spaces, something I’ve written and spoken about extensively over the last few years. You can search my blog if you are interested in reading more, check out my pieces in print, or view my presentations.
One of the regular learning structures of Dorsey’s class is peer critique—students have an opportunity to share a completed piece of work and share the successes as well as the struggles. It’s a fantastic reflective experience for the student sharing as well as the peers providing feedback.
Here is a sample set of reflection questions that Dorsey uses when students are ready to share out individual projects with the larger class:
Students write or type a narrative based on these questions to help them think about the verbal/oral discussion with the group. Over a series of a couple of days, each student has an opportunity to share these reflections with the group, and classmates then provide on the spot feedback. It’s a relaxed conversation, and I’m always struck by how articulate, candid, and invested students are in their work and assessment of their work.
So what does the exemplary work of an art teacher have to do with me as a school librarian?
What I see in Dorsey’s art classes invites us to rethink how we see literacy practices like research projects and writing assignments. What if more teachers approached research and writing the way Dorsey’s artists approach their work? What if students had more say in topic selections? What if the processes of topic selection, developing questions, investigating, wrestling with information, drafting, and composing final products (whether a paper or alternative forms of expressions/composing/creating) were valued as much as the end product (usually a traditional paper)? What if formative assessments were integrated and valued as much as the summative assessment? I think we would see deeper learning, higher quality of work, authenticity, and more excitement because students would be taking responsibility for their learning rather than the experience being completely teacher driven. It’s hard to be emotionally invested in something when you have little to no input or voice.
I’ve been lucky to experience this sustained, inquiry-driven approach with different teachers in recent years, but these experiences are often the exception, not the norm. I become giddy when I get to help co-design learning experiences where we can go deep and kids are not rushed through some of the most important life skills they will acquire and take with them wherever they go. I relish these opportunities to do deep dives and give students choice and ownership of their learning as well as meaningful learning structures to scaffold that decision making. I worry about the consequences of these kinds of literacy practices are increasingly commonplace and limit kids to certain kinds of assignments that are often couched in “college and career” readiness rather than a broader mindset of life readiness where literacy practices are evolving as people move through different careers and personal experiences. Many of you teachers, librarians, and students are weary of research assignments that feel formulaic and artificial. I have always aspired to be someone who helps grow a learning environment of inquiry and curiosity and meaning making like Dorsey does in her classrooms. As a teacher and librarian, I worry about the practices I’ve seen in recent years with research assignments and how it seems increasingly marginalized at the high school level.
Maybe it’s my life and professional experiences of recent years, maybe it’s part of being this far in my career with only a few years left to go, or maybe it’s the culmination of these factors and more, but whatever the case, I feel a sense of urgency to be a catalyst and team in player in a larger learning environment that dares to re-imagine not only research and literacy practices in academic areas, but also the public school learning experience from an inquiry, participatory lens. The art studio experiences that Dorsey and her students live and breathe serve as inspiration for how we might rethink the dominant research and composing practices and framework. I am looking forward to continued collaboration with Dorsey, art teacher Donna Jones, and their students as we all learn from each other.