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Fostering Inquiry-Based Learning for All Students

During the 2010-2011 school year, I was fortunate enough to have my school send me to a year-long project with the Teachers College Inclusive Classrooms Project, focusing on creating inquiries around the inclusive practice of multi-modality.  I had a lot of success with my inquiry, focusing on assessing independent reading through multimodality.  I was thrilled and excited to continue along this line of inquiry for 2011-2012 year, focusing on how to make this inquiry more accessible and how to apply it to more than just independent reading.  

 
As I began implementing a first unit of the year, I realized that this group of students was very different from the group I had conducted my inquiry with the previous year. Just like the prior year, I taught four classes of 9th grade English: two general education classes (one of high-achieving students and one of lower-achieving students, based on 8th grade ELA scores) and two classes of students with classifications (an ICT class with the world’s best co-teacher and a class made up primarily of current and former English language learners, which I taught with an ESL teacher), but that was where the similarity ended.  
 
Based on the results from the Performance Series exam, the students were, on average, reading on a much lower reading level. More importantly, though, it seemed clear that many of the students these four classes were less interested in school than the students I had taught the year before.  I did not see evidence of intellectual curiosity that I had seen the prior year. For instance, when I taught the students how to use Animoto in 2010, several students came home and immediately began experimenting with making movies.  I did not have a single student play with it on his or her own in 2011.  Furthermore, attendance was a lot more sporadic in 2011, particularly in the ICT class.  That class had a roster of 29 students, but we regularly saw about 17 of those students.  Every single one of the students in that class who had IEPs was coming straight from a self-contained environment and were having a lot of trouble adjusting to being in a larger class, a fact that was definitely reflected in attitude, behavior, and attendance.  
 
I tried to modify the curriculum to meet these needs. I swapped out "Harrison Bergeron" and "The Lady and the Tiger" for stories from the book Street Lit, and the story “Accused” from the website We Gotta Read.  Students in all of the classes seemed to enjoy the stories, but few of them read them outside of class because they assumed the stories were boring (which, after reading in class, they realized was not the case).  Students would regularly say, “There’s no point in me doing this, Miss, because I’m going to fail anyway.”  
 
Despite these challenges, I decided to continue with the next unit, a novel study surrounding the theme of identity, using the books Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, by Sherman Alexie.  I had hoped to have enthusiastic discussions surrounding identity, the difficulties of high school, and meeting the expectations of others.
 
Instead, in every single class, I got dead-eyed stares, few students reading at home, students using English class for naptime, and very little work to use as evidence to show that my students were meeting the standards I had set for them.  And not only were my students clearly miserable, but I was miserable, too, crying on the subway several times a week.  
 
After discussion with my co-teachers, I decided to throw out all of my curriculum maps and start fresh...