“I have too many ideas” was a pleasing lament to hear on an icy afternoon in mid-December. Nestled inside a first-grade classroom at Jackson Street Elementary School, Katy Butler (’12, MAT ’18), classroom teacher and Water Inquirer extraordinaire, guided her students through an exciting encounter with our interactive story, Inquiry, Inc. and the Case of the Missing Ducklings.
Collaboration was the modus operandi of our Water Inquiry team this semester. Together, we refined our duckling rescue story—from detailed illustrations courtesy of Zoe Dong ‘18J and Sarah White ‘20, to planful “hand-off” activities that allow students and teachers to “stop and think; stop and talk; stop and do” during their reading experience. We also conferred with community members to finalize our inaugural publication; to better understand the plight our fictional ducklings might face in the real world, for example, we spoke with Doug McDonald, Stormwater Manager of Northampton, about the design and function of catch basins in town, adapting our plot with his insights in mind.
Rich collaboration continued when our story made its way into the hands and minds of first-grade readers. Spread across multiple thirty minute lessons, our piloting program introduced students to “Inquiry Inc.,” the cohort of characters that solves problems (with the help of young readers) throughout our text. After giggles were shared over the irony of “duct tape” being mentioned in a story about ducklings (“[that stuff is] not made out of ducks!”), readers brought wise analytical feedback to our work; upon studying an illustration of a duckling rescue conflict, one student suggested that “Anna [a main character] needs to get closer to the grate, lean down, and reach in,” an instructive comment that guided our artist’s revisions of the scene. Similarly, during a “stop and do” hand-off in which students searched their playground for storm drains, one unlucky group member lost her pencil down the grate of a catch basin! An apt accident for the task at hand, students were thrilled to contemplate this real-world dilemma. Speculating that “my shoe could not [fit down the drain], but my toe could,” they thought of other probable items subject to this perilous fall and predicted the fate of their lost writing utensil. Students’ enthusiasm inspired our authors to construct a surprise ending; you must read our story to see for yourself, but we’ll give you a hint (shh!), the pencil makes a cameo.
There are few contexts in which organic exchanges can occur between authors, artists, and readers in the way that our team had the privilege of experiencing this term; our colleagues more than our students, first graders brought honest feedback to our conceptual work, and we integrated their feedback into our final product: a story that extends beyond its pages by asking readers to explore the outdoors, ask probing questions, build, create, and collaborate.
With an educative eye to the importance of inquiry, we designed our unit to transcend its topic. While our story interrogates the mysterious intricacy of storm-drains and weather patterns, a basal interest in knowledge building tactics informed our creative decisions. Woven into the fibers of our narrative, the transmission of these skills was best tested by observing reader discourse and engagement; in our pilot classroom, critical thinking was potently illustrated by our final hand-off activity, a project in which students designed and built model storm drains to better prevent real ducks from the entrapment our fictional ducklings endure. During this activity, student comments exposed careful attention: “How about we each draw what we think,” one student suggested, while another said, “I think we should have Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D so if it doesn’t work we can do the next one.” An excited reader boisterously repeated, “I have an idea!” while his group member scribbled carefully on a sheet of red construction paper so as not to forget her theory. Inquiry Inc. characters model problem-solving skills, which similarly transcend the plot of our story. Characters’ slogan, “Got a problem that won’t go away? Inquiry Inc. will save the day!” was quickly adopted by our chorus of readers. In the text, one character encourages the sharing of “half-formed thoughts” while another asks a multitude of questions without timidity. The efficacy of these latent lessons is most tellingly illustrated by students’ comments, as cited above. Their sentiments show the ways in which stories, especially those that are interactive, serve as catalysts for powerful ingenuity.
Katy Butler spoke of her students’ engagement, too, stating: “Students were immediately engaged in this lesson and very motivated by the tiny duckling pictures. It was interesting to see what they thought might be underground and definitely motivated me to think past just the story to their developing understanding of water systems.” In reflecting on their experience, students mentioned the thrill of doing “experiments,” or hand-off activities, “at the same time” as Inquiry Inc. characters, introducing an additional layer of collaboration: that of the interaction between characters and readers. One student exclaimed, “I am glad [Inquiry Inc.] rescued the ducklings. They even used our idea about the stick and the net!”
Students designed storm drains with an eye towards function and duckling safety.This group titled their project “The Scooper.” The fly swatter pictured above is actually used to catch leaves. Of their project, kids said: “I think people could really make a drain like ours with a scooper. So maybe we can share our ideas and they will build it. Cause we know a lot about drains now. And ducklings!”
Adaptability is another great feature of our Teaching as Storytelling text. While we encourage educators to delve into the projects and discussions prompted by our book, our story is equally enjoyable when read cover-to-cover in traditional read-aloud format. Teachers may also choose to institute new “hand-offs” where they see fit, continuing our tradition of collaboration. Though our final product is artfully packaged, we hope that it serves as an invitation for adaptation, evolving with each student encounter, turn of the page, and eager hand stretched into the air.
This emphasis on adaptation allows for seamless implementation in multiple educational contexts, too. Most notably, our field investigations, engineering design challenges, and emphasis on group discourse and theory-building, align perfectly with updated standards for Next Generation Science and Engineering Practice. These guidelines mandate that students ask questions and define problems; develop and use models; plan and carry out investigations; analyze and interpret data; construct explanations, design solutions, and engage in argument from evidence. Students’ reactions aligned with the goals of NGSS; one first-grader shared: “My favorite part was when we found out how to make the water go through the pipe so it could go from one drain to the other. My group even figured out you can hold the straw down and then let it up and more water goes through!”
What better way to meet new standards and promote holistic, interdisciplinary thinking than to conduct scientific inquiry through the affective mode of story? Narrative theorists discuss the prospect of making the “ordinary extraordinary” by way of story-form, and we concur given our readers’ enthusiasm.
Our story encourages students to be aware of the world around them, fostering inquisitive participation rather than passive reception. Regardless of topic or academic discipline, we care about students’ habits of mind, and we were thrilled to hear one student say: “I never thought so much about drains! Now I see them and wonder what is down there.” Katy Butler noted, too, that students’ discussions “extended beyond our water study times,” which affirms our contention that stories have a way of deepening students’ responsiveness to, not only academic material, but the people and communities around them. One student even announced, “Guess what? That half dollar I brought in yesterday fell down into a storm drain before school. I was wishing Inquiry Inc. was there to help!”
As we look towards 2017, the Water Inquiry team eagerly awaits the opportunity to share our story with teachers. If you would like to pilot our illustrated story and its accompanying unit materials in your classroom, please contact Carol Berner at email@example.com for more information. Our first grade pilot teacher and group member Katy Butler will lead a professional development workshop this winter in which educators may learn about her experience teaching our scientific story unit. Stay tuned for more details, and we will see you next semester—Inquiry Inc. is ready to solve their next problem, and we will soon set to work drafting a new story (with pencils in hand, kept carefully away from storm drains)!
Best wishes to you, readers, for a wonderful year ahead! May it be filled with exploration, teaching, and learning.
The Water Inquiry Team
Written and published by Brittany Collins on behalf of the Water Inquiry Team