Celebrating Curiosity, Inviting Inquiry

Posted on January 23, 2019


What happens when I…

focus on inquiry and investigation in my courses?

model the life of a teacher researcher for my students?

have the courage to invite my students to question every claim, even mine, and never stop asking, “What evidence supports this claim?”

I’ve always been a teacher researcher, because my undergraduate English Methods teacher, Dr. Cathy Fleischer, introduced us to the concept in her course for pre-service teachers. One of my first questions, as I began my career in 1994, was, “Which aspects of grammar and convention should be prioritized in writing instruction?” The question arose out of my sense of being overwhelmed by “errors” in student writing, a sense that not knowing “how” was getting in the way of my students’ ability to write about “what”. I started collecting data on most-common issues that were harming meaning, and from there, I decided which mini-lessons to teach.

Likewise, by analyzing data in student essays, I created a list of categories of information to know after reading a text, because I wanted to help students know how to read critically, but not be tied to worksheets full of questions, vocab lists, or tests and quizzes. I wanted to empower students to be “free-range” readers, who could see, discuss, and write about layers of meaning in any text. Now, a quarter of a century later, I still empower free-range readers who look for layers of meaning, and I’ve deepened my students understanding by teaching them to see the “signposts” in their reading. I invite students to approach every text with the question, “What can I learn from this text? (About the world, about texts, about myself?)”

From the beginning, my decisions about what and how to teach have been based on research and data from my own students. This is one of the many ways that I personalize learning. I help students see the patterns in their reading, writing, and thinking, and I empower them to become more skilled in their use of language. There is much talk of “personalized learning” these days, which often means algorithm-generated content delivered via device, but my classes have always personalized and humanized learning.

I personalize instruction for each student because every student is unique. I learn my students interests, personalities, and patterns, so that the instruction I offer is appropriate to the individual’s development–enough to challenge, but not so much as to overwhelm, and always with encouragement: You can do it. Nothing bad will happen to you. I will help you. You have a caring circle of friends around you. We’re all learning together.

I am not afraid of students asking questions, even when they question me, because I am a teacher researcher. I LOVE all questions, I LOVE the search for evidence, the analysis of data, reaching for conclusions, and measuring my findings against those of the wider body of research and practice in ELA education. I feel excited when students become passionate about a question and embark on the process of finding answers. I invite my students to investigate all claims and evaluate evidence through critical lenses. I want them to love questions and research like I do. I want them to boldly question everything, without fear, because knowledge is power.

When I was a student in high school, I found nothing more distasteful than the idea that adults in the building demanded unquestioning obedience from students. I’ve always been a critical thinker, and in my teens, I wanted adults to provide valid reasons for their demands of me. I needed to know why it was important to obey. I know that many of my students feel the same way, so I encourage all students to ask their questions, and I help them find answers that satisfy their needs to know. Authority should be questioned in a democratic society, and I welcome critical inquiry. I get excited when students start to examine the conditions of their lives at school, because that is often when students start to become interested in participating in the democratic processes and institutions that create those conditions–which is one of the most important reasons for providing public education in our society.

What happens when I embrace the questions and celebrate curiosity?

I hope that what happens is: providing a safe place for my students to explore any and all questions will empower them to celebrate curiosity and questioning and embark on a fearless quest for knowledge that lasts a lifetime.

I hope that, like me, my students come to genuinely love and celebrate curiosity!