A School Where Inquiry Flourishes

Learning for Real: Teaching Content and Literacy Across the Curriculum 
By Heidi Mills
(Heinemann, 2014 – Learn more)

Linda-Biondi-120Reviewed by Linda Biondi

Ever since I started teaching, I have been fascinated by the process of learning. When I grew up, the old-school didactic method of teaching did little to help students understand what they were learning, much less be able to apply it. We now know that we learn best when we are at the center of our own learning.

Heidi Mills’ book, Learning for Real: Teaching Content and Literacy Across the Curriculum, reminds us that “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand.”

learning for real 2 biondiAs soon as I opened the first page of the book, I became fascinated with the work of Professor Mills and the Center for Inquiry (CFI), a university-public school partnership with Richland School District Two in Columbia, South Carolina. Mill’s book has encouraged me to consider how I can reshape my teaching to involve my students even more deeply in their learning as I teach them to inquire, discover, and reflect.

Learning through inquiry

Inquiry based learning is a process based on the questions generated from the interests, wonderings, perceptions and experiences of the learner. When students are invested in the learning process, the intrinsic rewards come from the answers to their inquiries. Using inquiry based teaching shows students how to learn as well as what might be worth learning. It sets them up to be life-long learners.

The book is rooted in the following precepts (xxiii-xxiv):

  • Carefully observe the world using tools and strategies of the discipline
  • Pose questions and investigate/solve problems from numerous perspectives
  • Access primary and secondary sources in complementary ways
  • Use the language of inquiry and discovery to learn and communicate new understanding
  • Use reflection and self-evaluation to grow and change

biondi bk pg millsLearning for Real: Teaching Content and Literacy Across the Curriculum reminded me of the value of teaching thinking strategies, connecting content learning and content literacy, and continuing to make my classroom a student-centered place where my students’ passion for learning is evident from the moment you walk in.

I have to admit, I felt a bit jealous as I read the book. I wanted to step into the classrooms, not as an observer but as a participant.

I wanted to be in Dori Gilbert’s kindergarten classroom studying ornithology (complete with an  observatory full of birds’ nests, feathers, binoculars, and magnifying glasses).

biondi kids reading millsI wanted to be in Chris Hass’ second grade classroom participating in learning about “Normalcy and World Cultures.”

I wanted to watch the Live Webcams in Jenifer Barnes’ classroom, listening in on interviews; browse through the photo essays and memory books students created in Tim O’Keefe’s second grade classroom; read the magazine students created in Julie Waugh’s fourth and fifth grade classroom, and watch as students in all these rooms reflected on their learning and set realistic and authentic goals.

I wanted to take a trip to South Carolina and see this school in action.

A virtual visit to the Center

While I wasn’t able to schedule a quick trip to the Center for Inquiry, I was able to gain a virtual glimpse into some of the classrooms. Mills graciously offers online teaching resources such as video clips, narratives, a Unit of Study template, and several sample Units of Study.

For example, I became a passionate bystander in Tim O’Keefe’s class while he took a biography project a step further to include a social action component. His students created and published a song they wrote about Rosa Parks and sold CDs to raise money for a charity entitled Rwandan HUGS to purchase goats for Rwandan families.

biondi card stacks millsThe book follows a natural progression of introducing inquiry based teaching with sufficient samples and resources. Common Core Standards are inherently embedded as well as the Next Generation Science Standards.

You will want to read the book again and again. I found that each time I reread a chapter (using the close reading strategies that I am teaching my fourth graders), I gained new insight into adapting and applying strategies and units into my curriculum.

Included in the book are:

• Chapter 1: A Cross-Content Area Vision of Balanced Literacy
• Chapter 2: Carefully Observe the World Using Tools and Strategies of the Discipline
• Chapter 3: Pose and Investigate Questions from Numerous Perspectives
• Chapter 4: Strategically Access Primary and Secondary Sources in Complementary Ways
• Chapter 5: Use the Language of Inquiry to Learn and Communicate New Understanding
• Chapter 6: Use Reflection and Self-Evaluation to Grow and Change
• Chapter 7: Planning for Inquiry
• Chapter 8: Across the Day and Year: Balancing Daily Planning with Long-Range Planning
• Chapter 9: In Their Own Words: Children Who Are Responsible, Joyful Learners

Growing through true inquiry

biondi kids outdoors millsPlant a seed and a flower blooms. When true inquiry is supported inside the classroom by educators and outside of the classroom by parents, the student feels valued and respected, and takes responsibility for his or her learning. Plant the habit of inquiry in your students and true learning will blossom perennially. Nurturing natural curiosity produces a garden of knowledge that self-propagates as students strive to understand the world around them.

Dr. Mills’ book awakens the wonder in the teacher. She makes us wonder how we can integrate literacy into our daily teaching…wonder how quickly we can begin to restructure our lessons…wonder how we will contain our excitement…wonder where this book has been all our life!

Linda Biondi is a fourth grade teacher at Pond Road Middle School in Robbinsville, NJ, and a long-time Morning Meeting practitioner. She’s also the recipient of several educational grants, a Teacher Consultant with the National Writing Project and a participant on the NJ Department of Education Teacher Advisory Panel. Linda participates in ECET2 Celebrate Teaching which has posted an interview with her.


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