One Sunflower

cycle of inquiry


I’ll bet not many teachers consider the “Cycle of Inquiry” over their Christmas vacation.  The cycle was something we reviewed at our last staff meeting and since I like to look things up that intrigue me, I found this graphic on the internet and I’ve been pondering my progress through these stages. 

I did some research on the practice of “Kaizen” which I think was a precursor to the cycle of inquiry.  But Kaizen emphasizes more team work; the teams do the work through the stages – something we Americans just haven’t quite figured out how to do well!   I think we make our teams too big and we don’t truly hold people accountable – management still takes the lead and decides what the teams should  pay attention to.   I read some articles about schools that have been trying to apply the principles of Kaizen to their improvement plans. The only ones that seemed to have success were those that adhered to the Japanese model and created grade level teams that really analyzed data, teacher practice and the impact of change in their classrooms.  

I’ve participated in these cycles without really being aware of what I was doing or what the intent was behind the process.  Our school is using the steps to define and refine the teaching of “word work” and each staff member has also been asked to use the cycle as a part of their Individual Learning Plan.  The challenge I identified for myself was to strengthen the oral language of my students.  At the beginning of October, I identified 5 students that were low in oral language and I decided to use them as bellwethers for whether my practice is impactful.  I have focused on using classroom routines, and reading and writing experiences as primary vehicles for promoting oral language practice. 

This focus has increased my consciousness about oral language output in general and I have found myself pouncing on “teachable moments” and reflecting constantly about the effectiveness of my efforts.  I’ve discovered all sorts ways to build on opportunities for my students to talk or practice language.  Our attendance taking has become a “word of the day” exchange.  Sometimes I choose words that relate to a curriculum activity like “pumpkin,” sometimes I choose a string of words that are a common expression such as “shoes and socks.”  I have found that by including tunes, rhymes and actions with words, I have increased my students’ capacity to recall and repeat.  Our writing experiences have also become wonderful  opportunities for the students to talk and for me to listen and support their efforts.  When they retell  picture stories, it is a good time for me to build on their utterances, extend sentences and add new vocabulary and/or grammar. (My favorite acronym is W.A.I.T., why am I talking?)

 This is a summary of what I’ve noticed in my bellwether students:

Daisy started school with no English and was reluctant to participate in large group interactions in her native language but would be conversant in play.   Now she is singing along with the class, although she is still shy when approached.  She has recently begun to participate in our “word-of-the-day” activity.

Elmo still struggles to speak, his articulation is poor in his native and non-native languages.  He has been referred for evaluation and will begin receiving speech services.  “Wait time” works wonders and he will usually try to express himself with one or two words, occasionally surprising us with full-blown sentences.

Rose Red is now communicating in Spanglish, no longer hesitant to verbalize her thoughts but her word choice is confusing and I sometimes struggle to understand her intent.  When I do understand what she is trying to say, I repeat it in English and encourage her to say it with me.  I have to be careful because she lacks self-confidence, but as long as I demonstrate a true appreciation for her work and her efforts, she participates in this exchange.

Thumbelina grows more confident each day in her ability to speak and be understood.  I can see her rolling words around in her mouth, practicing how to say them.  She still resorts to being non-verbal if I let her, but understands that I expect her to speak out loud and am fully aware of her capabilities.

Zed stutters less these days.  I am glad that the classroom environment is one where he can relax and take his time to express himself.  His body still demonstrates urgency in that he will hold onto me when he talks.   But now he speaks to me knowing I will stay in front of him until he has said what he needs to say.  He continues to be evaluated by the speech therapist and I have conferenced with his family about being patient when he talks.

January is a good time to take stock of what has happened, evaluate progress and make changes. Reflecting on each of these students has made me realize that whereas my strategies have provided opportunities to use and develop oral language, it is my and Maestra’s personal relationships with these students that make these strategies work and be significant factors in their progress.    These students might participate but they wouldn’t necessarily practice if we didn’t stay in tune with the nuances in their oral language development and their personal communication needs.  Knowing each child intimately allows us to structure situations throughout the day that will provide unique opportunities for that particular student to practice. Working closely with their families encourages all of us to work cooperatively toward the same goals. 

In a sense, I have created a small team that is doing Kaizen work.  By participating in horizontal and vertical teams I am able to weave my classroom cycle in and out of the other cycles that are working in the school.

I have also come up with some strategies to continue the work when I return to school:

Partnering Daisy with the chattiest English-speaking student will provide lots of peer modeling while she works. 

I want to engage Elmo in games where he needs to use words to ask for game pieces or tell what action he is going to take next. 

Using Rose Red’s and Thumbelina’s natural interest in dressing up and pretending to cook meals will involve them in extending language experiences in a comfortable and fun way. 

Cozying up on the bean bag pillow with Zed and a favorite book or magazine will give him the special time he craves and hopefully he won’t need to struggle to communicate his thoughts.

Mid-term evaluations are set to begin in February but I will be assessing these bellwether students at the end of January in case I need to provide different interventions.  I will really need to focus on activities that stretch the oral language capacity of these 5 students – making sure I’m really adding to what they can do, strengthening vocabulary and lengthening their sentences.

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One of my fellow teachers made a request for help in the form of a visit to her classroom to observe and the assistant superintendent honored her request.  Since I was given a whole day to do this, I contacted the other preschool teacher in our district and offered to visit her as well.   One of my learning objectives is to practice being a coach, so these visits offered me a chance to try it out.

My intent was to meet with each teacher on the day before to hear about their specific concerns or teaching goals they wanted me to observe.  But Mother Nature gave us a snow day so I followed through with communication by email and chatted with one of the teachers on the phone. I wish the situation had been different but I went ahead with the visits even though I felt like I didn’t have clear indications from the teachers about what they wanted me to watch for.   It became a day of driving back and forth between classrooms to accomodate their requests that I observe specific portions of their curriculum and to assure time for debriefing. 

Before I went out on the observations, I reviewed a book I purchased last summer titled The Literacy Coach’s Companion, PreK-3, by Maryann Mraz, Bob Algozzine, and Brian Kissel.  I bought the book when I thought I might be coaching this year and even though my job assignment changed, I skimmed through it over the summer.  The first chapter describes the coach’s role and has pages with tables identifying three categories of coaching:  [Helping Teachers] Plan Instruction, ….. Manage Instruction and …..Deliver Instruction.  I felt my first priority was to “foster a collaborative professional environment” but I made copies of the tables for the teachers.  My thinking was that after observing the teachers in their classrooms we could work together to choose a category for working on together.   (I feel that in my own work I am concentrating on  “delivering instruction” in my teaching with an emphasis on “monitoring student learning” and “adjusting instruction” as outlined on page 16 in the book.) I took the copies with me, and a pen and small pad of paper that I could cram in my pocket and headed off to the first school.

I knew that the first classroom I was visiting had a lot of students with high social/emotional needs; the teacher had identified 9 students as needing significant intervention strategies.  I came to her class just after they finished breakfast and were headed to the gym.  I stayed for gym time, the transition back to the classroom, and for part of circle time.    At this point, I had to leave to visit the other classroom.  When I returned, the students were at lunch. I continued with my observation of lunch, story time and a table activity before the children got on the bus to go home.

I debriefed with the teacher for a short time before she left for a home visit.     Because this teacher had not been the one to make a request for my visit, I felt the primary purpose for visiting was to focus on our collaborative relationship.   In between my visits that day, I had glanced over the tables again to familiarize myself with the categories. I really wanted the  goal to come from the teacher, not from me.  I opened the conversation with questions about her classroom routine, what she was enjoying the most about her class, and what she found most challenging.  I shared my observation that I had noticed the systems she had established to support initiative and independence – marks on the floor to indicate where to line up, chairs to be in when not participating in the group activity.

I remarked that transitions seemed particularly difficult for this group of children and asked if there were parts of the day that were less problematic and where the children were more successful.  The teacher shared that the free choice portion of the day seemed to be the most successful;  the children were able to make choices, play together and move to different activities within the room.  I asked if there was any way to lengthen that part of the day so the children could build on the success of this experience.  I also asked if there was any way to reduce one or two of the transitions in the routine – suggesting that January was the perfect time to reintroduce classroom routines and skills for transitions.  The teacher reflected on these observations and considered ideas for changes she might be interested in making. 

It was clear to me that at least one of the transitions could be eliminated or revised – the extra handwashing after the gym could be done with diaper wipes or gel, table activities could be set out before lunch with explanations for participation when the children returned to the classroom.  This class of students exhibited a need for clear directions and guidelines for transitions, participation and behavior. I was only seeing a brief part of one day but I know the same is true in my classroom and I, too, am working on creating a good picture schedule and verbalizing my intentions and expectations clearly and constantly (!) to the students.

The other teacher had requested that my observations be of a transition and student journal work.   I arrived as the students transitioned between gym time and circle time with a handwashing and toileting routine.   Staffing is more generous at this site than at the other.  Children were supported at each point – entry into the classroom, sinks, and the gathering place on the rug.  This teacher led the students through a calendar and weather routine, singing a few songs to maintain interest.  After this she did a story tell which included drawing a picture and having three students retell the story from her lap.  Then students were dismissed to three staffed groups of 6 for journal work.  I observed the teacher working with 6 students of different ages and abilities. She conferred with most of the students at the table, I ended up conferring with the one I sat behind.  The students went to free choice after this and I headed back to the other school.

I came back after lunch and was able to debrief my observation.  I worked side by side with this teacher last year so we already have a relationship and she had definitely made a request for suggestions.   I gave her a copy of the tables from the book and we reviewed them together to identify the categories that best defined her current focus.  After some discussion we agreed that she seemed to be concentrating on “identifying student levels” and “scaffolding instruction.”  I remarked on the suggestion from David Matteson that we divide our students up and assign each one a day for conferring.  I told her about my current trial of using colored folders for each child with certain colors being assigned to particular days.  I was only in my first week of trying this system out but I already noticed that it helped me focus my attention and scaffolding.

My aide also confers with students as a daily practice so we are able to confer with at least 3-4 students a day.  The teacher I was visiting has 2 aides in her classroom and could confer with at least 6 in a day making it possible to meet weekly with each student.  However,  one of her aides is not as confident in her ability to confer with students.  Figuring out how to support our aides will need to be a goal of our all staff professional development sessions.  It is also necessary to have good systems to organize this work – I’m experimenting with colored folders but another teacher might come up with a different/better system.  This will be another area we can collaborate on and share our progress. 

Visiting the two classrooms reminded me that:

every class has its own personality – and this personality is as dynamic as the children in it

every teacher has strengths – some strengths they are aware of and use, some they don’t know and it is helpful to point them out

it’s okay to start over – even in the middle of the year

adequate staffing is essential, not a luxury – we really should start the year with extra staff and then reduce their hours/support as the kids became more successful

teaching preschool is exhausting – especially the last week before Christmas

students are puzzles that sometimes take a year to figure out- and then they might become a different puzzle the next year 

it’s difficult to refrain from trying to “fix”

relationships are the key to everything

observing the practice of others should provide insight to my own practice – and insight should impact

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why bother

why bother seeking effectiveness as a teacher in culturally complex classrooms?

why bother knowing what other teachers are doing in their classrooms?

why bother learning about what happens at other grade levels?

why bother designing interventions for individual students?

why bother trying to confer with student family members?

why bother cultivating a family friendly school?

why bother trying to identify “word work?”

why bother with evaluating practice?

why bother trying to change?

why bother trying?

why bother?



because Jaymz had a toothless grin I couldn’t resist and yet when I see him now, in first grade, his eyes have a dead look

because Ernesto is so smart and so motivated to learn, but I worry that his parents are here illegally

because Leah wore a shirt that said “Trouble” in preschool and I worry it might come true

because Yoana finally feels like a learner but her mom might be deported this summer

because Marjorie draws a full garden of flowers but her eyes are dark and sad

because Carlos is a follower and someday it might be a gang that leads him

because Savannah’s sisters will be entering  preschool next year

because Edgar writes incredible stories but his dad is abusive

because Diego is 6 and struggles to write his name

because Edwin is so curious about everything

because Valentin opens his arms for hugs

because September comes each year

and June follows so quickly

and what happens

in between

is crucial



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