One Sunflower

cycle of inquiry

on December 31, 2009


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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