As the weather gets warmer and the sun sets later each day, I always find engaging my middle school students increasingly difficult. With their sights set on summer vacation, each school day is a new challenge for teachers. Using inquiry and student-led learning is a great way to keep students engaged even as summer break is inching closer.
Mini inquiries are best for this busy time of year when students are taking tests and end-of-year activities creep in, because they can be done in a few class periods or less and they get students moving around and engaged in what they’re working on.
Students are given a focus question for their inquiry, time to explore diverse perspectives for a possible response, and a creative or interactive method to share their findings.
Here’s how I use mini-inquiries in my classroom to help stave off end-of-year distractions:
Pose the question: For my class, I use the inquiry “What makes a hero?” We had just read Black Panther: The Young Prince by Ronald L. Smith, but this lesson can be used with any book that depicts heroes or anti-heroes. In the book, one of the characters known to be a villain does a heroic act, so my goal with this lesson is to teach students that the idea of a hero can be flexible and complicated. First, I had students answer the question using their own background knowledge. We were keeping a running list of qualities that make someone a hero, letting students see that there are many possible ways to be a hero. We discussed and came up with a class working-definition.
Empower students to research and answer the question based on texts that are relevant to them: I then send them on a mission to find heroes in this Newsela Text Set I curated. Students will select a text that resonates with them In the case of our hero unit, I included articles about people who could be considered heroes for different reasons.
I like to use text sets that incorporate diverse perspectives to increase student choice and agency in the inquiry. It also provides an opportunity for gradual release of responsibility. First, the teacher can select one of the articles to model their thinking and any annotation requirements. Next, the class can work together with students contributing ideas. Depending on the length of the article and size of the Text Set, sometimes I do the first two steps within the same article or use two different articles. Finally, students can work with partners or independently, gathering evidence from multiple texts, as time allows.
While reading their selected article, students can use the annotate tool to highlight text evidence or take notes that helps answer the inquiry question - What makes a hero?
Use creative ways to have students share findings: After students complete their inquiry, it’s important for them to share and discuss their findings. I had students share with a small group and then facilitated a class discussion. Each small group shared a few important findings and we added those to our class definition of a hero. We were keeping a list of qualities on a Google doc, but this could be done on chart paper or using a collaborative tool like Jamboard. You may also have students create a product, such as a poster (digital posters work too), and then facilitate a gallery walk for them to review each other’s findings.
Students appreciate having choices in their learning and building in a way to share findings helps make the work relevant. Inquiry capitalizes on student choice and is a great way to keep students engaged even though they may be counting the days to summer.
Don’t want to make your own text set? Newsela-created Text Sets are ready and waiting for you and your students!
Why are holidays important? This inquiry can be done in 1-2 class periods or broken up into smaller chunks over several days.
What does it mean to be equal? This set is a great launching point for a unit on the suffrage movement.
What future careers interest me? This is a collection of Newsela's dream job articles. You could have students learn about several careers and share their learning with each other.
Learn more about inquiry and student-led learning here.