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Use powerful openers to jumpstart student research projects

By Colette Cassinelli
April 11, 2018
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Rebecca Larson is using current event topics, like school safety and gun control, to inspire her student’s argumentative essays. A high school English teacher from Sunset High School in Beaverton, Oregon, she knows that passion will make all the difference in their writing. 

 Using the format of a socratic seminar, Sunset High history teacher Jason Lowery asks his students to think critically about the impact of teen activists leading school walkouts in protest of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

And secondary students across the nation are examining position statements by the NRA, writing passionate letters to their elected officials and making public service announcements in support of their political views.

Current event topics have long been used as powerful openers to inspire curiosity and propel students to conduct research. A hallmark of inquiry-based learning is when students choose the topics to investigate while their own questions propel their research forward. Learners steer the direction of their inquiry as they consider the best way to uncover facts or unexpected ideas.

There are many ways librarians and teachers can use powerful openers to engage students in critical thinking and stimulate their interest in a research project. Observing a problem firsthand is one way. Watching a documentary, listening to a guest speaker or reading about a challenge in their community might be enough of a jumping off point to involve students in civic engagement. Social justice issues and current events are powerful openers.

Not sure how to bring current events to your classroom but leave your own political views at the door? Here are some resources and lessons that inspire inquiry:

Current events

Newsela offers daily articles grouped by theme (war & peace, money, kids, science, law, health, arts, sports, opinion) and scaled at five Lexile reading comprehension levels. Another excellent resource is CNN10, a daily 10-minute news show from CNN that explains global news to a global audience.

Another Sunset High history teacher,  Andrew Brown, begins every class with some type of news segment, infographic or current event topic. As students watch news clips, he asks them, “What additional questions do you have about this topic? Whose story is missing?” Brown wants his students to research and think critically about the news and not just take everything at face value.

Another activity involves looking at newspapers from around the world from World Newspapers to see how different countries present current events and notice any differences.

Literary openers

Powerful openers are not limited to current event topics but extend to all disciplines. Examining art, music, science, poetry and literature before diving into inquiry inspires curiosity and engages students in a different way of thinking.

Literary themes from novels can provoke big picture questions about human existence, explore coming-of-age issues or address chaos and order. Discussions surrounding themes in books are powerful openers because the stories are timely and relatable. If students don’t have the sophistication to recognize and articulate literary themes on their own, consider reading excerpts from published teen writers who explore their own identify and write about their world through first-person essays, spoken-word poetry or editorials. Online magazines like Rookie Magazine  and Teen Ink are written by teens for teens are great openers.

Documentary films

Language arts teacher Stephanie Lalley uses documentary films from Independent Lens to inspire her 11th grade writing students before an argumentative essay unit. She shares excerpts from documentary films and encourages students to notice how these films pose a question and then dive deep into the topic. TED Talks are inspirational talks on a wide variety of topics that educators use to inspire, educate and engage students in deeper thinking.

Experts from the field

Also consider using Microsoft’s Skype in the Classroom community to bring an expert into your classroom. Nepris connects industry professionals with classrooms to bring real-world relevance to what students are learning. Astronomy teacher Katherine Kraft invited subject-matter experts to help her students understand how astronomy topics apply to various industries. Presenters can help students with their projects, offer feedback, and or just make learning authentic.

While this list presents many great ideas for opening activities for inquiry, educators should constantly be on the lookout for engaging stories to inspire curiosity. Whenever you come across an interesting phenomenon, a clip from a movie or read about a crisis in your community, bring it to your students and ask, “What do you think of this? Why should we care?”

Sometimes the inquiry-based lesson is spontaneous and organic, other times the teacher and librarian can craft experiences that present opportunities for students to think critically and solve problems. The goal is to inspire curiosity and to move students toward authentic inquiry-based learning.

Colette Cassinelli is a librarian and instructional technology teacher at Sunset High School in Beaverton, Oregon. She’s is as a lifelong learner who is always on the lookout for great information literacy or technology integration lessons to share with faculty. Colette is a Google Certified Innovator and has presented at local and national library and technology conferences including the Northwest Council for Computer Education (NCCE), the ISTE Conference & Expo, EdTechTeam Google Summits and the Oregon Association of School Libraries (OASL). She has master’s degrees in educational technology from Pepperdine University and in library/media from Portland State University.

Find more ways to inspire curiosity in your students with inquiry based-learning in Colette's new book, Inspiring Curiosity: A Librarian’s Guide to Inquiry-Based Learning, available now for pre-order.

Guide students through effective inquiry. Get the ISTE book Inspiring Curiosity.