We started a new Guided Inquiry unit this week with a Grade 8 Creative Writing Class.  The idea behind this unit is that students use research around world issues, specifically the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, to write effective and meaningful poetry.  The teacher that I’m working with has recognized that poetry writing can be shallow when students don’t have a deep knowledge of the topic that they’re writing on and is hoping that a more effective research unit will lead to better poetry writing.

So… the easy and traditional way to tackle this research would be to provide a handout of the 17 goals, distribute the goals amongst the students (which works fairly well with this group of 16!) and tell them each to research a goal and write a poem.  The problem with this is that it doesn’t build any engagement and the depth of the research is likely to be shallow.  A quick trip to Wikipedia with a skim of an article or a bounce through a bunch of hyperlinks and a surface understanding of the goal will be enough to engender a false sense of understanding and they’re off to write the poem.  The good news is that they will be done the assignment in under a week!  But the poetry isn’t likely to be any better.

We’ve taken a Guided Inquiry approach and have decided that we can’t spoon feed the student the topics, nor can we be the ones that select which goal each student researches.  They have to uncover this knowledge for themselves (with some guidance from us).  With this in mind, we launched into our Open phase this week.

We had two classes with the boys this week (we are an all boys school) and began the process with a free writing/reflection activity where the students simply wrote anything they wished while images of the earth scrolled past on the screen and the sounds of Dvorak’s New World Symphony played.  They then wandered down the hall to the Learning Commons where we debriefed the kinds of things that they wrote about.  They talked about the differences between the world and the Earth.  They commented that the Earth was small while the world was big, defining the Earth as a planet and the world as a collection of human beings.  This lead us to discussion of how humans live together and what kinds of issues this might cause.  We left them with an assignment for homework where, in groups that were responsible for specific continents, they were to review news headlines and look for the kinds of things that the news agencies around the world deemed important enough to write about in their publications.  We showed them how to generate alerts for news searches in Google so that their research would be more efficient.

Friday’s class began with a discussion around the boys’ news research.  As a large group, we gathered headlines, and wrote topics on the board.  I’d originally planned to hand out post-it notes where the boys would write down their headlines and then we’d arrange them into themes, but the large group discussion took off and seemed to be heading in a good direction, so we went with it.  Once we’d identified categories such as environment, politics, culture, and economics and had slotted in some subcategories and identified certain news stories as belonging to one or more of these categories, we moved on to looking at another tool.

We opened up Google Earth Pro with the Global Awareness layer toggled on.  I’d preset the view to show Africa with the Cape of Good Hope on the top and the Mediterranean on the bottom.  This was based on a comment that our English teacher had made in the previous class about our view of the the world and maps as a representation of that world view being particularly North American-centric.  It was interesting to listen to the comments when an inverted map of Africa pops up on the screen and some of the boys have a hard time recognizing it!  We randomly clicked on links on the Google map layer and discovered one story from the Sudan that was about 250,000,000 displaced people due to human rights violations and conflict.  We talked about what that might be about.  We then stumbled on a story about deforestation due to vast over-population in another area of Africa and wondered if this had bigger global implications.  I’d asked if we care about a village in Africa that none of us had ever heard of with a population and deforestation problem.  This lead to a discussion of wider implications and the discovery of another site that listed changing statistics on global issues such as the number of years left in our world oil supply, the number of people who suffer from malnutrition, and the number of people who lack access to clean, drinkable water.

It wasn’t until this point, about 2/3 of the way through our second class, that we actually introduced the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.  We explored them a little bit and let them students click through links on the Global Goals website on their own for a few minutes.  You could see a number of them starting to get more engaged as they showed each other what they’d found.

The final discussion before we sent them on their way looked at comparing the news headlines that we started the day with to the Global Goals and the stories that we found on Google Earth Pro.  The boys noted a disconnect in that news headlines tended to be more directly applicable to a specific population and that they were chosen often on their ability to sell the newspaper, TV news program or web-based news platform.  Stories like the 250million displaced people in the Sudan were not as well publicized.  They felt that that might have to do with the fact that this was not a story that directly impacted our local population and that it was not easily solvable.  It was too remote and complex for an easily digested news story.  This lead to comments about the need to get these stories out and to communicate global issues in a more pro-active way.

The teacher and I have talked about a few different ways of getting the story out as we progress through this unit.  Our next phase will have the boys connect with a specific goal and start to delve into their research in more focused ways with the ultimate goal of developing enough personal expertise to write effective poems around the issue that they choose.  These poems might be put together in a self-published book and/or via social media to spread the word in other ways.  I look forward to seeing how the boys’ new interest in publicizing these global issues will manifest itself.

What is interesting about this discussion is the power of building a conversation around a topic vs simply putting the content that we wish to address in students hands.  This is very much a tightrope walk.  One one hand, there is a specific area of content that the teacher wants to address.  On the other, the power in the learning comes from genuine student inquiry.  It can be difficult to gently prod students toward a certain direction while maintaining their enthusiasm for the discovery process and their ownership of the quest.  It would be much more efficient to simply tell them what we want them to know – letting them discover takes much more time.

We’ll see over time how effective this Opening activity has been and what effect, if any, it has on the end result.  After all, this is a Creative Writing class and any specific content research needs to serve the goal of improving writing.  There is no multiple choice test on world issues and UN programmes.  The proof is in the poetry!

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