Making It Matter in the Here and Now:
Harnessing the Power of Inquiry to
Support Students' Reading and Writing
Michael W. Smith
College of Education
What Our Boys Told Us
English is about NOTHING! It doesn’t help
you DO anything. English is about reading
poems and telling about rhythm. It’s about
commas and crap like that for God’s sake.
What does that have to DO with DOING
anything? It’s about NOTHING!
They’re Not Alone
Most people teach biology by starting with
the molecule! This is exactly the wrong
way to go. No one cares about the
molecule. I DON’T CARE about the
molecule. UNLESS I have a reason to
care--that is, a problem that I am working
on that requires understanding molecules
Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson
So What To Do?
Start with a big, essential question that is debated in
the world and organizes disciplinary conversations.
Identify a real world task that involves meaningful
making, a constructed response to the question, i.e. a
kind of knowledge artifact or social action that will do
work to explore and address the problem at hand.
Figure out what activities will help students to develop
the conceptual understandings and abilities essential
to addressing the question and creating a meaningful
response to it. Create a sequence of such
instructional activities that will start with students’
current needs, interests and abilities and will build from
there to develop the needed expertise.
Characteristics of Essential
At the heart of a discipline.
In need of uncoverage.
Essential Questions Are Not
Answerable through information retrieval
Understood in one day or even one week
Easily agreed upon
Some Ways to Generate Questions
Analyzing your own interests
Reframing a required text or topic
Reframing a standard
Looking around the community
What Makes Me Me?
What Rights and Responsibilities Should
How Can We Balance Everyone’s Rights?
What Makes a Hero?
What Influences a Person’s Choices?
What Makes a Good Parent?
Examples of Meaningful Making
In-role writing Websites
Extended definitions Museum exhibits
Informational brochures Video documentaries
Letters to the editor Raps
Story extensions Graphic novels
Childrens’ books Museum exhibits
Some Additional Benefits
of Inquiry Units
Each text/activity helps prepare students
for the next
Variety of text types
Multiple exposures to unit vocabulary
Inquiry in Individual Works:
What We Know about Classroom
It’s very rare.
It’s dominated by teachers.
It’s very beneficial.
The Problem with Questions
They cue IRE.
They presume answers.
Some Generative Problems
Most important word (or scene or
Semantic differential scales
Ranking (of characters or quality)
Taking characters out of context
Drama: One Kind of Generative
Good angel/bad angel