Classrooms working with Read.Inquire.Write. investigations are usually well-functioning and fast-paced. They feature frequent transitions between individual, pair, small-group and whole-group work. A wide range of students consistently participate and engage with the content at high levels, both orally and in written form. Observers often comment on this, and they wonder how teachers set up the environment for this kind of work.
We illustrate how teachers establish an environment for inquiry teaching here through the example of Mr. Kabat and his colleagues. For the past few years, Mr. Kabat has been developing an ‘inquiry approach’ in his classroom as he teaches the Read.Inquire.Write. investigations, and as his whole building migrates towards inquiry. For Mr. Kabat, a good classroom environment and a strong community have been key for the success in adopting an inquiry approach. Another important change in his teaching has consisted of reducing his own participation and increasing the students’, thus creating a more interactive environment. Though keeping up the class’ stamina in these intellectually demanding investigations is challenging, students’ engagement can be sustained, and they get satisfaction out of the work.
Frequent group talk before whole class discussions is one of the most distinctive features of Mr. Kabat’s classroom. It “gives them ownership, gives them interest, gives them more ideas than they would ever get calling one on one.” Students value this too: in a survey, many of them said that it helps to talk with their group, because it allows them to hear what other people have to say, and to know that they’re not always right.
Small groups help English Learners as well: Mr. Kabat has noticed that if they are not socially or linguistically ready to participate in whole group, they have the option to “gently join” or “gently not join,” instead of the hard dichotomy of raising or not raising their hand in whole-group. A variety of students in Mr. Kabat’s class, including English learners and students who are below grade level in reading, have substantial oral participation.
Small-group talk is one among several participation structures that routinely support inquiry in Mr. Kabat’s classroom and the classrooms of other Read.Inquire.Write. teachers. Other participation structures featured here are bell work, individual thinking (usually followed by small group talk), whole-group discussions (usually preceded by small group talk), and individual writing time.
Also featured here are strategies to set up and sustain the conditions for student participation within those varying structures: a strong sense of community and a safe environment, expectations for the different participation structures, routines to transition between them, and routines for organizing classroom materials.
In this site, we have assembled:
- Three video examples of how Mr. Kabat and two other expert teachers use a combination of routines to support inquiry in the context of Read.Inquire.Write. investigations.
- The different participation structures in Mr. Kabat’s class: their mechanics and rationale, along with short videos of how he introduces them during Orientation Week with an incoming cohort of 6th
- The strategies Mr. Kabat uses to foster a learning community, set up and uphold work expectations, transition between participation structures, and organize classroom materials. They are also accompanied with short videos of him introducing this during Orientation Week with an incoming cohort of 6th
We hope this site will be useful for teachers who want to establish a learning environment that supports students’ involvement in inquiry, whether they are using Read.Inquire.Write. or other materials.
Combination of routines for inquiry during Read.Inquire.Write. investigations
Here, 7th-grade students are working on the investigation Was democracy in Athens a good form of government? After reading one of the sources -Life of Solon, by Plutarch- the teacher asks students to think individually: what does the source help them understand about democracy in ancient Athens, and is the source reliable for that purpose? He then calls them back together, using the ‘fingers up’ signal, and he launches a whole-group discussion. A variety of students make substantive contributions, which the teacher helps them elaborate and connect. At one point, he uses the ‘fingers up’ signal again to remind them of discussion expectations. Finally, the teacher commends the students on their analysis and asks them to work individually again, for 2.5 minutes, on the headnote and attribution for the next source.
Here, 8th-grade students write their counterargument essays at the end of the investigation Was Reconstruction mostly a story of triumph or tragedy? Ms. Damiani sets up expectations, supports, organization of materials, and a relaxed ambience for individual writing time. The students write individually for around 36 minutes (abbreviated in the clip). There are some moments in which the teacher uses noticing language, highlighting the work students are doing, or reminding students about expectations those who are done before the others. At the end of the session, the teacher commends the class for finishing their work, and indicates where to leave it.
Here, 7th-grade students work on the investigation Which sources are most reliable for learning about the Silk Road? After reading a source by Marco Polo, Ms. Heart asks them to discuss in pairs the source’s main point, and whether it’s reliable. She gives directions and confirms them by having some students repeat them and adding clarifying remarks. The students work in pairs for a couple of minutes (abbreviated in the clip). The teacher brings them back together and asks to hear from the partnerships, thus launching a whole-group discussion in which a variety of students contribute substantively.
Participation Structures for Inquiry
The following are different participation structures through which Mr. Kabat and his colleagues carry out the Read.Inquire.Write. activities, as well as other lessons. Every day starts with bellwork, and every day includes several cycles of individual, small-group, and whole-group moments. In contrast, individual writing takes up a whole class session (or more). Individual writing is a culminating moment of prior work: all Read.Inquire.Write. investigations end with this activity.
This is a routine to begin each class. Once the bellwork routine is in place, students come in for class every day knowing what to do and what the behavior expectations for this activity are (although reminders are often needed).
Before class starts, the teacher projects a slide with the name of the lesson, the learning goal, and a ‘bellwork question.’ When the bell rings, students should be at their seat and take out their bellwork sheet from their binders. They copy down the day’s learning goal and the bellwork question in the space corresponding to that day, and they answer the question individually.
The question is usually open-ended, and it is about something they worked on the day before, or something they will work on that day. For instance, it can be about a connection between the material and the students’ prior knowledge or experiences, about their take on the reliability of a source, or their current stance regarding the central question they’re examining that week. After bellwork, the class usually starts with a share out and debrief of students’ responses to the bellwork question.
This routine makes for a smooth beginning of class, and it helps students get their minds into the lesson right away.
In this clip from the first day of class, Mr. Kabat tells the students about the bellwork routine and expectations.
Before asking students to share their ideas on a specific prompt in small groups, the teacher often asks them to think individually for 10-60 seconds (if no reading is involved). This helps them be more ready for group talk: they can formulate a point of view or have something to contribute. For Mr. Kabat, the fact that these moments for thinking individually don’t last long is key to their effectiveness.
In this clip, Mr. Kabat asks this class to think individually for the first time. He has a student confirm directions to make sure everyone knows them. He also foreshadows that they will be talking in small groups and then in whole-group after thinking individually.
Mr. Kabat often asks students to work and talk in small groups. This is usually preceded by individual thinking, and followed by whole-group discussions. Small-group moments usually last one minute or less, and they only involve a single or a few steps. (If multiple steps are involved, instructions need to be very clear, modeling is required, and either the procedure or the content needs to be familiar already).
Brief and frequent small-group moments have many advantages for inquiry. They help break down complex disciplinary skills into smaller components with which all students can engage at a deep, nuanced level. In small groups, they get the chance to try out their ideas and refine their understandings in a safe environment, and benefit from their peers’ input.
Kabat’s expectations for small-group talk is that students are engaged at their own table groups rather than with other tables; that their volume level allows their own group to hear them, but not other tables; and that everybody participates. This last one is not a hard-and-fast expectation, especially during the first days of middle school. Mr. Kabat explains,
“I will notice kids that are listening but not talking, and I get a sense that maybe that’s their personality, they’re introverted. I might give them a week or two before I go up to them during small group talk and say (whispering), ‘How come you’re not talking? Think of something.’ And I might get them to tell me something and I’ll say, ‘Beautiful. When he (another group member) stops talking, I want you to tell everybody.’ I try to encourage them to join that way.
(…) As the community is built, and as the students feel comfortable and safe, they're much more likely to talk. (…) And sometimes I have to talk to other kids and say, ‘Alright now, you're talking a lot and it's fantastic. But part of your job in a group is to make sure everyone talks.’”
Mr. Kabat has experimented with small groups over the years, and he has come to some configurations that work best for him: He sets up the room with permanent pods for 3-5 students. Leaving furniture this way, instead of moving it each time for small-group work has several advantages: a) it prevents hassle, noise, and distraction, b) it promotes more frequent small-group work, c) students are used to sitting in groups all the time – they don’t feel like it’s a special, social moment in which they can have unrelated talk or ignore directions.
In Mr. Kabat’s experience, groups of 3 or 4 members (or even 5) help enhance group inquiry. With this range of participants, multiple perspectives are put forth. Students who might be shy not only benefit from this, they are also more likely to participate than if they were in pairs. (Other Read.Inquire.Write. teachers prefer pair talk.)
Mr. Kabat doesn’t assign different roles to students within a group (he has experimented with this, but it hasn’t worked out). Instead, he gives everyone the same prompt, such as answering a question to elicit prior knowledge, coming up with possible claims for an argument, finding evidence in a source. He makes sure that everyone has the materials they will need, and that the directions are clear. He may also indicate the duration of the talk; for example, 30 or 60 seconds before signaling for the students to start.
If there are worksheets involved, some students may tend to fill them out individually. Teachers need to signal that the priority is that they actually talk to each other: worksheets and graphic organizers are just supports.
Mr. Kabat takes advantage of the fact that everything about middle school is new to incoming 6th graders. When he asks students to talk in groups, starting on day one, they do it, and it gets established as a normal routine. In this clip, Mr. Kabat introduces group work with one of his classes on the first day of school. He goes over the expectations, and students suggest language they might use to get everyone involved in a group conversation.
Whole-group discussions usually happen after small-group talk when Mr. Kabat brings the group back together with the help of the “fingers up” signal. He often launches discussions by asking students to share something they thought, said, or heard at their table, offering options for students to participate, even if it’s something they didn’t share already at their table.
This clip shows two examples of Mr. Kabat asking his incoming 6th-grade students to share out after small-group moments, using different moves.
Once the discussion is going, Mr. Kabat promotes the collective exploration of ideas, while being mindful of respecting each student’s ownership of their contributions. To accomplish this, he uses discussion moves such as:
- letting students’ contributions stand on their own without evaluation;
- asking them to amplify their voices if they’re too quiet;
- strategically reformulating students’ contributions and asking them to confirm that’s what they meant;
- asking students to clarify, elaborate, or back up their thinking;
- connecting one comment to another
Each class, Mr. Kabat’s goal is that every student speaks out loud at least once. If a student or a group hasn’t spoken, he’ll call on them even if they don’t raise their hands. He’s aware of other teachers’ apprehension toward cold-calling, but he finds that by starting on the first day of class, students take it as the normal routine, and they learn that they can be called on anytime. Also, “they quickly learn that they have the total power to say, ‘I'm not sure’, or ‘I wanna pass today,’ or whatever, for whatever reason, because it's a safe and comfortable environment: it's all good." They know that even if they give “the most wrong answer possible,” Mr. Kabat’s response is going to be positive. “We're gonna steer it, we're gonna thank you for saying that, because it's gonna make us think of something that'll maybe get us to the right place."
The Read.Inquire.Write. curriculum prepares students to write at the end of each investigation by providing sources to ponder and draw from, purposeful tasks, decomposed directions, graphic organizers, mentor texts, and language supports.
However, teachers need to set up appropriate conditions, climate, and expectations so that students can hold successful writing sessions in the classroom. The Investigation Example 2 clip shows a Read.Inquire.Write. 7th-grade writing session in Ms. Damiani’s classroom.
In the clip below, Mr. Kabat sets up his incoming 6th-graders’ first writing session during Orientation Week. He provides them with directions, encouragement, and sentence starters to write their debut essay in middle school. Students write for around 25 minutes (abbreviated in the clip), with apparent engagement and enthusiasm, until the teacher asks for volunteers to share some sentences from their writing.
Building a Community, Organizing Inquiry
A strong community is the key underlying condition for inquiry work in Mr. Kabat’s classroom. This entails that he and the students know each other’s names and personalities. Mr. Kabat greets everyone by name in the hallways, and expresses he’s happy to see them. A strong community also entails a safe environment. As Mr. Kabat explains, this means that students know “that everybody's working on the same team in this room, that I’m not gonna be teased or disrespected in this class, at least when the teacher's paying attention … That no matter what I say, there's value to it in this room.” They know that even if they give the “craziest, most off-topic, most wrong answer possible,” Mr. Kabat’s response is going to be positive. “We're gonna steer it, we're gonna thank you for saying that, because it's gonna make us think of something that'll maybe get us to the right place." This strong sense of community allows for substantive participation from all students in different participation structures, including small-group and whole-group moments.
Another key set of conditions for the smooth functioning of inquiry-centered classrooms like Mr. Kabat’s are clear expectations for each participation structure, strategies to transition between them, and systems to organize materials. Mr. Kabat thinks that teaching and establishing these routines during the first week of class is time well spent. However, even with this early groundwork, these routines take maintenance and reminders throughout the year.
Getting to know each other as soon as possible is a high priority in Mr. Kabat’s room. It’s important both to the community building and to the interactive style that supports an inquiry-based classroom.
During Orientation Week, many moments are dedicated to this. In one activity, for example, Mr. Kabat shares about his personal background, and then asks students to share something about themselves at their tables.
Other activities during Orientation Week aim for everyone to learn everyone’s names. Additionally, the teacher takes time to make sure he calls each student by the name or nickname of their preference, and that he’s pronouncing each one correctly. Preassigning students to specific pods of 3-5 members also helps him learn names quickly: he keeps a seating chart with him during class, and he calls on different students by name.
During the first couple of weeks of class, Mr. Kabat notices which students tend not to participate, or participate too dominantly, in small-group and whole-group. He adjusts his expectations based on their personalities, and he takes steps to encourage more balanced participations (see small-group talk and whole-group discussion).
In rooms like Mr. Kabat’s, each participation structure has its own set of expectations. The expectation during bellwork, for example, is that students will sit at their pods, take out their bellwork sheets, write down the relevant information, and work silently and individually on the bellwork question before talking to their peers about it.
Students are familiar with the term “expectations,” and teachers use it to cue students at different moments. They might say: “Independent work expectations will be in place for this activity”, “Can someone remind me what the expectations for group work are?”, “The bell just rang: bellwork expectations are in place”, “You’re doing a great job following discussion expectations”, etc.
In this clip, as a preparation for this class’s first-ever small-group talk, Mr. Kabat discusses the expectations for small-group talk, and he elicits some language students might use to get everyone involved in a group conversation.
After giving directions for an individual or group activity, and before signaling for students to start, Read.Inquire.Write. teachers often ask a student to repeat the directions. This helps them know whether the directions are clear, and whether they need further clarification (see Investigation Example 3). Confirming directions makes it more likely that everyone will know what to do.
In this clip from the first day of class, Mr. Kabat asks students to think individually about an example of an activity that’s engaging, energizing, and engaging. A student repeats the directions.
This is a hand signal that teachers at this school use to ask students to finish their separate conversations and come back together as a whole-group. Mr. Kabat may also use it to draw attention if the room gets noisy for other reasons. The signal doesn’t call for immediate silence (unless students are having unrelated side conversations during instruction); rather, it asks them to finish what they were saying, and then remain quiet and focus on the teacher. This explicitly and implicitly tells students that it’s important for them to finish expressing their ideas.
The teacher may say “fingers up,” or he may just hold up his fingers, without saying anything. When students hear and/or see this, they hold up their own fingers. This way, even if a student doesn’t hear or see the teacher, he or she can see others holding up their fingers. The whole class gradually realizes it’s time to come back together. As soon as this happens, the teacher puts his fingers down and resumes instruction.
Mr. Kabat introduces this routine on the first day of class, and has students practice it. That same day, he puts it to use, with and without the verbal cue. He uses some of these moments to have students comment on how the routine went and discuss the rationale behind it (the clip below exemplifies this). With some groups, the routine is in place and can be used smoothly by the end of the first day of class. In other groups, the routine takes further practice, along with the strengthening of relationships and reminders about classroom expectations. Mr. Kabat warns that the signal will only hold meaning if teachers actually wait for ALL of the students to be quiet before they start talking, even if that takes a long time or feels uncomfortable at the beginning.
In Mr. Kabat’s class, each student has a folder with two pockets. Students label the folders with their names. All of the worksheets they use in class during any given unit -including Read.Inquire.Write. investigations- go in their folders.
The folders stay in the classroom, inside a labeled box for each class. The teacher or a student hands out the folders when they are needed. (Some Read.Inquire.Write. teachers have specific roles and routines in place for the efficient distribution of folders). At the end of each class, students return their folders to the box as they exit.
Students use the materials in the folder for an assessment at the end of each unit. When a new unit starts, students add the next set of materials to their folders. This allows them to review and build on prior work.
In the clip below, Mr. Kabat first introduces this system to students.
As part of a building-wide effort, Mr. Kabat uses “noticing language.” He often comments on what he’s “noticing” students doing in a given moment, or what he “noticed” them doing after the fact. He comments on students following directions and expectations as a way to reinforce them. He also comments when he notices students innovating in some way that might be useful for the rest of the group, or when students run into some difficulty that he thinks is productive to raise with the whole class.
Occasionally, he “notices” when students aren’t following expectations, and he reminds them of what the expectations are. He doesn’t call out on particular students when he “notices” this.
The clip below includes two different examples of how Mr. Kabat uses noticing language.