Educational Theory, Instructional Tools

One-Minute Inquiry: Classroom Quickies to Inspire Critical Thinking

There’s been a big push for inquiry-based learning…and for good reason! Inquiry-based learning (which also houses problem-based and project-based learning) encourages critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, creativity, craftsmanship, and so much more. When done well, it’s undeniably a beneficial addition.

Inquiry can be a bit of a tricky dance for educators. On the one hand, inquiry-based learning is largely student-driven and teachers serve as more of a mentor, as opposed to a guide, in helping students construct their own knowledge. They play a support role, particularly if students begin to stray in their thinking or get stuck. This is not to say, however, that teachers simply stop teaching and let students have a free-for-all. Rather, teachers can work with students as a class to generate a common starting point before students venture off on their own individually and/or in small groups. Certainly this method of teaching will engage students meta-cognitively, and they will start to chart their own routes of what they want and/or need to know and how they can get there.

For many teachers, inquiry can seem intimidating and maybe even clumsy, particularly if one has assumed more of a direct instructional role for most of their career and/or training. There is so much room at the table for teaching strategies, and inquiry-based strategies provide another way in which we as educators may reach students. Inquiry, at first glance, may seem like a total overhaul in one’s traditional instructional strategy, but in fact, it’s likely many classrooms already employ inquiry-based approaches without even realizing it.

Feeling stumped?

Here are a few quickie, low prep and high impact inquiry-based approaches that can be added to a variety of subjects.

1) Show Me the Money!

If you’re a traveler like me (or if your colleagues are!), you likely have come home with small coins and bills from around the world. I collect and save money from all of my travels and keep a small stash in my classroom. A fun activity for rainy days is to compile bags of money of various currency, divide students into small groups, and ask them a series of questions related to Social Studies and/or Mathematics curriculum. Generally, students have instant engagement as they look through different currency. Who wouldn’t!? Some questions might include:

  • Discover and list the various types of currency (ex: Rupees, Quetzales, Pesos, Francs, Euros, Dollars, Zloty, etc.) in each bag.
  • Convert all money to CAD or USD. Which group has the most money? The least?
  • Identify all countries each money bag comes from and mapping (use the Mapster app if your school has iPads)
  • Ask students to describe any symbols or people associated with currency. What might we assume about the values of the country through what is represented? Have students engage in mini research projects and explore the various symbols represented on bills and coins.
  • Discuss with students the different forms of currency. Why do some countries have many small bills (ex: Rupees) versus some countries have primarily only large bills (ex: Dollars)?

2) Creepy Creatures

During Halloween week, when attention spans seem to wan, it can be easier to embrace the madness (while also being mindful of students whose families do not observe holidays) rather than fight it. Creating creatures is another low prep, hands-on, collaborative mini-project with a wide range of curricular crossover, including Mathematics, Language Arts, Art, Etc. Gather a supply basket for each group with things in your classroom (especially those hard-to-find-a-purpose-for things, such as dried bits of clay, pencils down to the nub, etc.). Give each group a bin, provide studnets with directions, and a time limit. This is a great ongoing project for free blocks and/or introducing new topics. It can be adapted to include more robust skills, such as paragraph-writing, creating narratives, and/or character development. Check out my freebie to inspire your own creature projects!

3) What happened here?

One of my favourite uses of transition time (beginning of the day, after recess/lunch, in between projects) is some type of daily or weekly ritual. Writing prompts are one of my favourites and are an excellent way to prime students towards imagination, wonder, and critical thought. Thanks to the internet, there are E N D L E S S creative writing prompts available. Here are some of my favourite images and sources. Please use discretion when selecting images, mindful to copyright and sharing, as well as what you are sharing your students.

Thanks for stopping by! What other ideas do you have for quickie inquiry projects?

Instructional Tools, Must-Reads, Social-Emotional Learning

BOMish: August 2019

This month’s BOMish is a bit over the top.

It’s less about ONE book and more about… 35! *Gasp!* Say what?!

Indeed! This week, the Huffington Post compiled a list of 35 children’s books that are centred around empathy. These books range for reading levels from approximately grade 1-5 (more heavily clustered to lower elementary reading levels) featuring characters who embark on “compassion, acceptance, and inclusion.” The books range in diversity of topic, including heavy world events like terrorism (Most People) to diversity in our schools and neighbourhoods (All Are Welcome; Chocolate Milk, Por Favor; and Last Stop on Market Street) to bullying (One) to the power of reaching out and being a friend (Save Me A Seat). It also includes the modern elementary classroom hit, Have You Filled A Bucket Today? – a guide for happiness and social-emotional awareness for kids and classrooms, as well as the age-old classic of Ferdinand (personal fave). Books feature characters from all over the world and many have a focus on cross-cultural understanding and celebrating differences. Authors, too, represent

Admittedly, I’ve not ready many on the list, though I’m thrilled to seek inspiration and find more diverse voices and choices as I bolster my classroom library.

Huff Po’s 35 Children’s Books on Empathy & Kindness

  • Last Stop on Market Street (Matt de la Peña)
  • Those Shoes (Maribeth Boelts)
  • You, Me, and Empathy (Jayneen Sanders)
  • Most People (Michael Leannah)
  • The Invisible Boy (Trudy Ludwig)
  • Come With Me (Holly M. McGhee)
  • All Are Welcome (Alexandra Penfold)
  • Little Blue Truck (Alice Schertle)
  • Be Kind (Pat Zietlow Miller)
  • Save Me A Seat (Sarah Weeks & Gita Varadarajan)
  • Chocolate Milk, Por Favor (Maria Dismondy)
  • If You Plant a Seed (Kadir Nelson)
  • One (Kathryn Otoshi)
  • We’re All Wonders (RJ Palacio)
  • I Am Enough (Grace Byers)
  • Enemy Pie (Derek Monson)
  • Lovely (Jess Hong)
  • A Sick Day for Amos McGee (Philip C. Stead)
  • Have You Filled A Bucket Today? (Carol McCloud)
  • Each Kindness (Jacqueline Woodson)
  • I Am Human (Susan Verde)
  • Superheroes Club (Madeleine Sherak)
  • I Walk With Vanessa (Kerascoët)
  • The Monster Who Lost His Mean (Tiffany Strelitz Haher)
  • The Rabbit Listened (Cori Doerrfeld)
  • Otis and the Scarecrow (Loren Long)
  • Lost and Found Cat (Doug Kuntz & Amy Schrodes)
  • Hey, Little Ant (Phillip and Hannah Hoose)
  • How Kind! (Mary Murphy)
  • Pass It On (Sophy Henn)
  • Listening With My Heart (Gabi Garcia)
  • The Story of Ferdinand (Munro Leaf)
  • Empathy is My Superpower (Bryan Smith)
  • Just Feel (Malika Chopra)
  • Kindness is Cooler, Mrs. Ruler (Margery Cuyler)

  • How many of these have you read?
  • What’s missing in this book list?
  • What are some of your favourite titles for young learners?
Curriculum, Instructional Tools

Classroom Hack: Table Captains for Small Group Work

Small group-work: on the surface, it seems like a fantastic way to foster inquiry, bolster peer-to-peer interaction, and give students a taste of those real-world skills of collaboration, problem-solving, and communication.

But, as any substitute teacher will tell you, small group-work does not just happen. In fact, giving students a set of directions and letting them at it is most certainly a recipe for not-total-success. There are a lot of implicit assumptions on the teachers’ end: that students will know when they’ve reached the end of the task; that students will have all of the resources to finish the task; that all students will contribute and roughly equally; that all students will know exactly what needs to get done and a general idea of how. And the list goes on.

And, if your students are anything like I was when I was 11, if any of the above assumptions prove faulty, soon the task at hand, the collaboration, and any form of focus will fly across the room faster than a spitball.

So what to do?

First, let’s cover the bases. In order for group-work to…work, the following is a quick to-do list for teachers:


…come to think of it, this is probably an applicable framework for introducing anything in the classroom. But, I digress.

One of the problems with giving directions and letting students have at it is that students likely need more support when it comes to role definition. It’s unfair to constantly assume one student will “step up” as a leader. This is typically an extroverted student who perhaps doesn’t always particularly like the role, and it also makes it ever-challenging for introverted or more timid students to take on a role, which they may actually love!

Enter Table Captains: an equitable way for students to practice leadership roles, either as designated leaders or active followers.

How it works

Here’s the gist:

  • Students are divided into groups of 3-6
  • Each group has 1 Table Captain
  • Table Captains have extra responsibilities are in charge of keeping the team in line with respect to task completion; timing; and organization

A Table Captain is in charge of all materials and ensures the small groups stay on task within the given time frame. The philosophy is that students without a strong focus or drive tend to rapidly dissipate. With a clear leader in the group, students know who to turn to when they have questions about the task at hand. Additionally, when students have a leadership role, they are more likely to be invested in the tasks at hand, and ultimately, the learning at hand. This strategy also allows students to practice speaking to one another, instead of simply just to a teacher. In doing so, you’ll find students are learning from one another, and really… isn’t that kind of what we’re going for here? (Nod your head)

The Goods

Below is a sample Table Captain Task Page:.

Table Captain supplies in my (Grade 5-7) classroom typically include Post-Its + Folder with all necessary articles and Table Captain task page. I announce Table Captains the night before so students who may need (or appreciate) it can mentally prepare for being a leader.

Putting it all together

In order for students to understand how this works, follow the above to-do list:

  • EXPLAIN IT (have a conversation with your class about leadership opportunities)
  • EXPLAIN IT AGAIN DIFFERENTLY (show students a Table Captain sheet. Ask them what roles a Table Captain seems to hold)
  • MODEL IT (use a fellow teacher, aid, student, etc. and show, in a condensed version, of what this process looks like. For real. Do it.)
  • PRACTICE IT (give a sample task to the class. Offer students the chance to demonstrate to the class, if they’re confident)
  • DO IT (give a real task! Let it rip!)
  • COACH IT (wander about while students engage in Table Captain tasks. Check in with your Captains after class. Have them send you a quick email, including what went well and what was challenging– 1 sentence each)
  • PRACTICE IT AGAIN (keep doing it! You won’t know how it’s going until you’ve done it more than once)
  • SUPPORT IT (check in with your Table Captains. Be consistent. Even if it seems to not work the first few weeks, give it a chance. Don’t judge it until students have been Table Captains at least 3 times. That’s approximately 12 rounds. Data is important!)
  • REFINE IT (something work better or differently in your classroom? Get creative! Own it, customize it, rock it.)