Journey towards Inquiry Based Learning

The Rome City School District’s Journey towards Inquiry Based Learning
Posted on 01/31/2020
ECP play

Roberts classroom
What do you know about where you live? What do you want to know? While these questions may be easy for adults to answer with a quick Google search, it is challenging for a young child to answer without learning how to think critically and practicing the steps required to investigate a topic. The students of Mrs. Roberts 4-year-old Pre-K class at the Clough School are exploring these important life skills and building the foundation for school readiness.

While Mrs. Roberts students are currently focusing on where they live, the larger unit that this is a part of introduces the students to Inquiry-Based Learning. This learning model is a form of active learning that starts by posing questions, problems or scenarios for children to wonder about, investigate and begin to formulate their own learning. For Mrs. Roberts’ class, the current essential question is “Where do the people and animals around me live?” Each interdisciplinary unit lasts approximately a month in duration with all lesson plans and activities built around how students answer the essential question. For example, since one child said she lives in Rome, the students may learn more about Rome or cities as a general topic. While another child said he has a backyard, the students may explore the difference between urban, suburban, and rural environments to learn why some people may or may not have backyards. Mrs. Roberts’ then extends the children’s learning and connections through documentation, such as mapping children’s homes on the large map of Rome displayed near the block area, providing graph paper and blueprints for children to begin exploring architectural design, and capturing children’s understanding through dictation of stories.

The differences between the traditional Pre-K teaching model and the Inquiry-Based Learning model are making a positive impact on students, according to Mrs. Roberts. “Students are using the questioning process to develop many life skills, such as research, reading, writing, and developing their social and emotional skills,” said Roberts.

A few students around the room could be seen writing on notepads as a part of their play. Learning through play is an important teaching strategy for the Inquiry-Based Learning model for young children. In recent years play has had a negative connotation associated with the word. There seems to be a general misunderstanding around purposeful play as an effective teaching strategy for young children. It is not a free-for-all or an unstructured environment and curriculum, rather purposeful or guided play is work that requires a skilled teacher who can analyze and steer students through their play to spontaneous learning. Pre-K teachers strive to move children from their natural curiosity to fostering more executive function skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, persistence, collaboration, communication, and creativity which results in higher engagement in children’s learning and retention of essential skills and concepts. The students are very enthusiastic and show high engagement towards learning and answering the essential question. In the old model, students would be told to sit for long periods of time while they learned about the “letter of the week.” This model was entirely teacher-led and did not give the students much choice in regards to their learning. The goal of introducing the Inquiry-Based Learning model in the Rome City School District (RCSD), is to help students develop independence and self-help skills that they will need later in life.

Mrs. Roberts reflected on the shift of instruction by explaining the Inquiry-Based Learning model allows the children freedom to investigate through purposeful play. “Play becomes the child’s work. The children use hands-on tools to gain independence, confidence and enhance their language skills through the inquiry process. As a teacher, it is so rewarding to observe children independently moving to a center of their choice all while interacting with their peers building on those much-needed social-emotional skills. This new model also introduces more ways for families to be actively involved with their child’s learning through daily communication, classroom visits, at-home projects that extend the investigations for each unit which all redefines the benefit and purpose of homework,” said Roberts.

The Pre-K staff and Director, Dana Benzo presented their journey last year at the NY Association for the Education of Young Children (NYAEYC) Annual Conference to a packed room of educators and administrators from across NYS. Subsequent visits from the Watertown City School District resulted as they partnered in building the state’s efforts to shift instructional practice toward Inquiry-Based Learning as outlined in the new Next Generation Standards.

The RCSD is ready to present again at this year’s NYAEYC Conference on April 2-4 at the Turning Stone in Verona.

With this new learning model, RCSD is preparing itself for a future where students take control of their education by learning based on their interests long before they enter college. The students work cooperatively with their peers, their families, and the teacher which not only allows them to grow as human beings, but to enrich the Rome community as well.

--Dana Benzo, Director of Early Childhood/Elementary Programs



"I honestly can say I like the “children learn through play” approach. I like the hands-on experiences that the kids are doing. I think they get to feel like what they say and do is important. I think they engage at their own level and our kids are learning a lot.
We had a student who couldn’t tell you any letters in her name or find it when it was the paper. Now she’s trying to write it. I feel it’s because it’s visually displayed and in different centers, there are things that she can use to write it or make it. No one pushed her to write her name, but I think when she was seeing her peers showing an interest in how to write theirs it peaked her interest," - Shelley Razy, TA

"When I began my Pre-K experience as a teacher, it was with no standard curriculum. I taught units seasonally and provided cute, parent-friendly crafts for the students to complete and take home. My classroom was always center-based and play-based learning was very important. I made the move to UPK and was given the common core curriculum, which I faithfully taught and supplemented with more seasonal activities and of course my cute Pinterest crafts.
When I was asked to begin to change my view of Inquiry-Based Learning instead of what I was used to, I was disappointed to lose what I thought wasn't hurting anyone. I liked my well-planned lessons and my crafts. I was puzzled as to why these things were no longer going to be acceptable. I was a teacher, I needed to teach! I am ever the rule follower, however, and I complied. It wasn't until I began to let go and buy into it, really put my heart into the inquiry-based method, that I realized how much better it could be.
Letting go of the old concept of teaching, presenting broad topics in the curriculum, and letting the students drive the learning allowed me to see immediately how I needed to differentiate and provide materials for students learning at different rates.
I only had one year as a teacher with Inquiry-Based Learning. I am now an administrator. Now, even more, I see the need for Inquiry-Based Learning. I see less and less the need for the neatness and uniformity I once craved. I walk the halls of Rome Catholic and I see engaged students and teachers. I see creations that I sometimes cannot recognize for what they truly are, but are beautiful and unique. I see students in need of social/emotional support getting that support and flourishing.
I see what I could not see before and yet was what every child in my care needed," - Nancy E. Wilson, Principal, Rome Catholic School

"Coming from the elementary buildings, Pre-K has been a huge learning curve for me. With that being said, purposeful play is what our children need. I have seen so many children in my past years of teaching that don't possess the proper social and self-help skills needed to succeed in the classroom and outside world. I have had so many students that do not know how to effectively communicate with peers and adults, because they are being pushed beyond where they actually are developmental. This program is helping our students to gain these skills and use them in the world around them. I see every day how play brings out a child’s imagination and sparks questions and inquiry into a subject area.
I would say one of the biggest challenges I have had is letting go of “control” and letting the students guide the learning. This has been difficult, as I have always been tied to a timeline and lesson plan. It is certainly a learning curve for me, but I think I am starting to get more of a grasp on it!," - Trista Sgroi, Teacher

"From a support staff perspective, I have noticed that as a result of our families taking an active role in the Pre-K building, a shift has taken place. Families (moms, dads, cousins, siblings, grandparents) all feel more involved with their child’s educational experience. This involvement has set the foundation for open communication, providing support (child or family-directed), and lower incidents of unwanted behaviors. The transition was difficult for families and staff, but now that families are present every day, there is a more comfortable and understanding environment in Pre-K," - Michelle Tikalsky, Secretary

"For me, switching over to Inquiry-Based Learning has allowed me to take a step back from the stressors of following a “curriculum” and instead of following the children's interests. The questions and comments they have while discussing or creating our anchor charts amaze me for 3-year-olds. The children enjoy learning, and they are not even realizing that we are “teaching” them. For me it was an exciting transition because I have always loved the inquiry approach to teaching and learning, so being given the go-ahead was a relief! Their little inquisitive and creative minds are really at play learning about the world with each other. Letting go of the control brings back my love for teaching!"  Sharline DeMatteo, Teacher

"Some of the successes that I have seen this year are that my students are extremely engaged in what they are learning. I have many creative children who, since we talked about being your own author and illustrator, just want to create stories and books all the time. They are writing and illustrating every day. Mrs. Razy has spent a lot of time in our writing center with the children, and I am noticing that they want to be there all the time. They copy words from books that are in the center (which we talk about often). They are writing their names much more than ever before and they are so eager to share what they have done. Our Art Center is always full, and the conversations and creativity that are happening are amazing. Circle time is wonderful, as the students love being read to, and I am able to teach some incredible vocabulary words because the kids are so inquisitive. There is a lot of interacting, reflecting and conversation relating to the topic going on at this time. The Dramatic Play area is also very popular. Real-life connections are being made constantly" - Deb Pinti, Teacher

"Part of the transition to Inquiry-Based Learning in the classrooms was our implementation of The Pyramid Model, to specifically address the social and emotional needs of our children. The challenges with the transition to The Pyramid Model as is any new change was first buying into it, second understanding it, and third implementing it. However, as a school counselor, the Restorative practice approach and the hands-on play method has developed the students to become aware and understand their and others’ feelings while educating them with reading, math and the list goes on. It is the continuous repetition and role-playing that the students are learning the skills needed to be successful,"  - Tina Campos, School Counselor

"As a newcomer to Pre-K, I love how engaged students are because they are able to investigate through learning. Students have demonstrated success as they are able to have a role in their learning process. Students are always actively engaged and learning from their own hands-on experiences. I have observed an increase in their language, ability to ask and answer questions and solve problems. I believe it has also had a positive impact on their social-emotional learning. The process of inquiry and purposeful play fosters a deeper understanding of what they are learning. I enjoy seeing students make their own choices and be independent. The relationships built between student and teacher, creates a level of trust and a sense of family within the classroom community," - Alyse DiGeorge, Teacher

"Being part of the Rome Early Childhood Program team and part of changing the educational practices for our students is exciting. Over the last year and a half, I have enjoyed waking up and coming to school to explore with my students. Watching their enthusiasm and growth is confirmation that our program is providing all students a strong foundation and preparing them to meet the demands of the elementary classroom. I am hopeful that our district will continue to develop the P-3 initiatives and teachers will have the freedom and support to be creative and embrace Inquiry-Based Learning. “Play” is a great thing. It brings challenges and joy to the learner. Isn’t it true that what we learn best is what we had to struggle to figure out? And what are we willing to struggle with and give our greatest effort? Isn’t that which we decide is worthy of our time and effort?
My hope is that the P-3 initiatives will help our students become better at asking relevant questions and problem-solving answers; to take more ownership of their learning; to develop perseverance when struggling to master a new concept or skill; and to think of school as a place of discovery and fun. A place where they feel safe to fail because it means that they have learned what doesn’t work in their endeavor to continue to discover what does," - Denice Luczak, Teacher

"Change can be difficult for everyone. There is a need to hold on to what we know and resist the unknown. In the beginning the shift in Pre-K made many uncomfortable. However, there has been a notable difference in the learning that is happening at Pre-K. One of the biggest changes is the engagement of parents and the willingness on the part of parents and staff to work together as a team to give students the skills they need to be prepared for kindergarten. Allowing parents in the building has given them a better understanding of what their child’s day looks like. They are able to see the skills being taught to their children as it is modeled by the teachers. This in turn allows families to use these skills at home as well. With parents feeling more comfortable, we have seen an increase in communication, which leads to successful teamwork. This is a first step to opening the door for a more successful and involved educational K-12 career," Jenn Davis, Parent Liaison

"This is my 34th year working in the district. Most of that time was in Kindergarten. When I began teaching there was a lot of playing and socializing among the children, each year little by little the paperwork started and there was no time for play. The children sat in their seats and had lessons in math, writing, reading and more. I noticed the children were not happy in school and they cried when it came to doing work that was too hard for them. In the last few years in Kindergarten the children were crying at writing time. Some of them couldn't even write their names and they were expected to write paragraphs with opinions or predictions. I was so frustrated for them because they were five and they were already beginning to hate school. Three years ago, I moved to Pre-K and it was refreshing to see the Inquiry-Based Learning through play! The children are having fun again and they are learning through play. Yeah! They are happy to come to school!!,"  Mary Vincent, TA

"As an Early Childhood Educator one of the quotes I’ve always kept with me was “children learn through play”. Through purposeful play children learn the necessary skills to communicate with peers. Children can learn in their own direction as their curiosity leads them to finding answers. Students can also concentrate longer because they are having fun" - Vicki Linstruth, TA

"When I was first introduced to Inquiry-Based Learning I had to do a lot of research to completely understand the approach. At the time I was a teacher of 13 years. I was always groomed to stand in front of the room and be the facilitator of the learning. For me to fully wrap my head around inquiry I had to do a total mind shift of what I thought about how to teach and how children learn. I always believed children learned by doing, but our curriculum was never built that way.
The challenges for me were to fully understand the process, to let go of being the leader of the learning and to stay positive during the process. I stay positive because as a whole “our building team” was having a hard time with the switch, which in turn was making tension between peers.
The rewards for me during this process are I have gained a new understanding of how children learn, a new burst of energy and excitement for me. I learned to let the children lead the investigations and overall a really rewarding feeling when I look at the children during our purposeful playtime. The children are engaged, smiling, asking questions, having conversations and building the skills needed to succeed," - Nikki Roberts, Teacher


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