Professor of English education at Boise State University, Jeff D. Willhelm, spent a day last week in workshop with a couple dozen teachers at Davis High School. The workshops involved using the core curriculum as a springboard in creating inquiry-based units.
Teachers worked in teams, a lot with different subjects, and began re-working a unit to meet Willhelm’s suggestions of inquiry-based education. That type of education focuses a lot on literacy, no matter the subject.
“You can’t teach reading in isolation,” said Willhelm. “You can’t learn anything outside of a context, and we are now approaching the support of literacy itself through context.”
Davis High School media specialist Elayne Finlinson has been working to get Willhelm to the school for more than two years. The teachers who attended had specific units in mind they wanted to work with. Willhelm’s first visit was in the fall, and this served as a follow-up to focus on those units.
“We began this when the administration asked me to develop something to help with reading, both for the faculty and for the students,” said Finlinson.
Willhelm’s focus through literacy inquiry involved what he called the six Ms; model, motivate, mentor, monitor, multiple modalities, and multiple measures. Through teacher modeling, increased motivation and mentorship, teacher and student monitoring, and various ways to teach, assess, and learn, educators have re-vamped their units to apply to their students’ lives.
“Reading and writing always have an immediate application,” said Willhelm. “My students read and write every day.”
The relationships between the student and text, the teacher and students, and students with their peers, help develop a safe atmosphere of inquiry as well. The teachers working through Willhelm’s model focused on essential questions like “What would you risk everything for?” “Who/what controls your life?” and “What makes a person evil?”
The final steps to Willhelm’s workshop involved creating a culminating project. That involves the students staking a claim in their own learning. It is what modern educators call authentic assessment.
It also involves students working together to form their own opinions and justifications about what they learned together, as well as individual accountability.
“You don’t learn the important stuff quickly,” said Willhelm. “You keep trying and trying. But that’s better than being safe, because then you don’t learn anything.”