Inquiry, redux

I haven’t written here in ages, but instead of writing a long explanation as to why I haven’t written here in ages, I’m simply going to start writing again. (The explanation is pretty simple, anyway: I got really busy.)

I am embarking on the third year of my inquiry into student-determined outcomes, and I’m very interested in how I can use a workshop approach as a basis for organizing my instruction toward this end.

If I were to sum up my learning from the past two years, it would be:

2015-16 – My students needed support and scaffolding in order to take on self-directed projects. I wasn’t quite successful at providing that support in most cases.

2016-17 – I provided more structure and scaffolding for my students, and they were more successful at completing their projects. However, the projects did not reach the level of quality that I had hoped for; more importantly, we did not succeed in taking the projects beyond our classroom to a wider audience (either in-person or online).

This summer, I had a wonderful experience teaching two periods of the first semester of junior English. Because the periods are 160 minutes long, I organized the periods into three sessions based on a workshop model: a reading workshop in which we read The Stranger; a research workshop in which students created a report about self-selected topics; and a writing workshop. When I use the term “workshop model,” I am referring to this essential structure:

  • Mini-lesson (5 – 10 minutes)
  • Work time, with peer support and teacher coaching available (20 – 25 minutes)
  • Reflection and/or sharing (5 – 10 minutes)

The major insight I gained from this summer: my students are hungry to write about their experiences. They are hungry to choose their topics for writing. They are hungry for their writing to have meaning outside of the classroom. They tended to see themselves as writers when I encouraged them and supported them in tackling the topics that they selected as being meaningful for their lives. I don’t think – in my “regular,” year-long courses, that is – that I’ve been giving students space or support to engage in that kind of writing.

As a result, I have resolved to teach a writing workshop in my senior English class, which I teach in block periods. Half of the period, then, will be devoted to the Expository Reading and Writing Course curriculum, which was developed in a collaboration between Cal State professors and high school English teachers with the goal of preparing students for college freshman English; the other half will be a writing workshop.

James Beane, whose Curriculum Integration has been my model for this inquiry, discusses the need to create community with students before attempting to tackle student-directed projects; he recommends autobiographical writing as a method in building this community. With this in mind, I am going to begin my inquiry this year with what Dave Cormier calls a “learning subjective.” In introducing this idea, Cormier asks the question, “How do we design learning when we aren’t sure where we’re going?” At this point, I have a vision for my inquiry – my students will take part in meaningful writing and/or projects that engage an audience outside our classroom. The “learning subjective” has to do with method: I know that I need to listen to students to find out where they want to go with their learning, and I believe that writing workshop can be a starting point for this. Perhaps some students will express interest in community-based projects; the workshop can expand to become a space to explore this. Other students may find that they want to explore writing about intellectually-authentic topics for audiences beyond the classroom; the workshop can accommodate this as well.

There may be – almost certainly are – other expressions of authentic intellectual endeavor that this approach might support.

So my research brief for this year is a bit less well-defined – which is okay, since I didn’t really follow my research plans with fidelity the past two years! My goal this year is to spend more time writing about my inquiry, even if it’s a series of “rough drafts” in the form of blog posts.

We’ll see how it goes!

One more neat thing: I may be able to collaborate with a former student, Brenda, who has become a teacher in Oakland. We talked about our goals for the upcoming year last week and we are going to check in next month to see if there are any ways that our students – she teaches a 9th-grade humanities/ethnic studies course – can work together. At the very least, I hope that they will be able to share their work with each other and thus broaden their audiences.


This is an update on last year’s brief, with italics added where I have made updates.


How can I involve students in setting their own learning outcomes and meaningfully pursuing these outcomes?


How do the power relationships at my school affect (or even constrain) efforts to create democratic spaces?

Can teaching practice that is non-coercive or non-deficit influence student motivation positively?

If students are involved in co-designing curriculum with teachers, will students have more meaningful learning experiences?

What is a meaningful learning experience?  How can teachers collaborate with students and families to determine what a meaningful learning experience is in their context?

What scaffolding or support is needed for students to design and pursue self-determined outcomes?

How can a workshop approach encourage students to pursue such outcomes?


I am hoping to discover and describe practical ways to empower students and create a learning space that is more democratic. I am also hoping to include families in an authentic (non-coercive, non-deficit) manner. Finally, I hope to create opportunities for students to compose for and address audiences outside our classroom.

Literature Review

As I conduct the inquiry, I will conduct a limited research review by blogging about relevant research once a month.


I will draw on James Beane’s Curriculum Integration model as an inspiration for inquiry.  In particular, I am interested in the approach described in Chapter 4.

Though I intend to use similar methods with my junior U.S. History classes, for purposes of manageability I will limit this inquiry to my two senior English classes.

I will begin the year by implementing a writing workshop that will take place each period. (We have block periods, so I will teach the required content of the course as well as the writing workshop.) The writing workshop, I expect, will provide the students and me with entry points to authentic writing and inquiry. After building community and a student-driven learning environment in this manner, I will engage students in considering possible directions for inquiry as well as in addressing audiences outside the classroom.

We will also create a Class Constitution and attempt to build a collaborative, non-coercive classroom culture that is based on honoring our agreements to each other.  We will also have brief but regular “check-ins” to discuss how well our Constitution is working for us. Check-ins will take place on Mondays/Tuesdays (i.e., the first meeting of the week in our block schedule).

I will use surveys, interviews, and perhaps sociograms to gather data from students on their perceptions in October, January & May.

Data collection

  • Field notes
  • Teacher blog posts
  • Student questionnaires/interviews/sociograms re perceptions of power
  • Student work
  • Student blog posts

Data analysis  

I will analyze my field notes daily using a version of Shagoury & Power’s method of “cooking” notes, or reflecting on notes shortly after you take them (page 45-50).

I will reflect in writing in my inquiry journal regularly – daily, if possible; otherwise at least three times weekly.

I will blog at least once every two weeks about the inquiry’s progress.

I will also meet monthly, and more frequently if possible, with our instructional coach, Jennifer Yoo-Brannon to reflect on the data collected.


August 1 – 16 – draft research brief

August 17 – September 2 – obtain permissions from students, revise research brief as needed

September 5 – September 23 – initial data collection (student perceptions of power); implement strategies; begin field notes

September 26 – December – implement strategies, collect data, analyze data, blog, meet with Jennifer and/or lesson study group

December, end of semester – ask students to comment/write about perceptions of power

January, February, March, April, May – continue to collect & analyze data, implement strategies, blog, meet with Jennifer and/or lesson study group

May – ask students to comment/write about perceptions of power

May/June – final data analysis

June/July – draft report


I will publish the report on my research on my blog by the first week of August 2018.

Reflection before beginning

I am interested in how I can broaden my conception of authentic outcomes. For example, in summer school, one of my students wrote a translation of an excerpt from Mexican anthropologist Miguel León Portilla’s Visión de los Vencidos. This was fantastic, and certainly an authentic, student-driven product. I hope that bringing back writing workshop – after drifting away from this approach to teaching writing over the past few years – will provide an entry point for student-driven selection of topics. From there, I hope to engage students in forming groups (as needed) and addressing audiences outside the classroom.