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“What does inquiry mean?” Maple School Pilot

Water Inquiry Researcher Anna Wysocki ‘21 explores storm drains with first graders.

First grade students in the classrooms of Margaret Betts and Martha Morgan considered this question during a recent pilot of Inquiry Inc. and the Case of the Missing Ducklings at Maple Street School in Easthampton, MA. “Talking about something and seeing what you can do,” one student offered, while others noticed the words “inquire, wonder, investigate” written on a group chart in their classroom. “Can water run out? Is all water the same? Where does water come from? Where does water go?” These guiding questions encouraged students to view an integral resource in new and exciting ways. As they walked around their block to scout for storm drains, first graders were riveted by the facts and mysteries of the everyday wonder that is water, revealing anew the powers of place-based and narrative learning.

These inquisitive scientists were the first in their town to interact with Inquiry Inc. and the Case of the Missing Ducklings story and unit materials, but they will not be the last; we are excited to announce that our unit was officially adopted into the Easthampton public school first-grade science curriculum! In celebration of this achievement, and with reverence for the organic discoveries of collaborative inquiry, we have created a compilation of reflections from members involved in piloting our story.

Water Inquiry Researcher Anna Wysocki ’20 connects the day to her personal experiences with water systems:

“We arrived at Maple Hill Elementary with open minds and eyes and were able to leave with full hearts. The children we worked with were so insightful and full of inquiry, and truly made this adventure so special.

First grader making storm drain observations.

After briefing on the plan for the day with our wonderful host teachers, the students were split into groups of 3 or 4 so that they each had a chance to engage and discuss their observations. Then, we made our way outside with clipboards and pencils and flashlights to see what we could find out about how storm drains work. There were six stations of storm drains to observe, and at each there was something new to ask, to say, and to laugh about for the kids. Funnily enough, in the very beginning, as I was handing a pencil out to a student, it fell down the drain and floated in the water, just as takes place in the story.


“Look! There’s a mushroom!”

There were two moments that really stuck with me from the day. First was in the second group, when the four students were observing the storm drain located in their school playground and found a mushroom growing at the bottom of it. They found this to be hilarious and began making songs about the mushroom in the drain, singing for the rest of the time we were there.

Secondly, was once we were back inside and the teacher began reading the book. They approached a section of the story where the Inquiry Inc. “jingle” was to be said, and the whole class full of kids knew it and screamed it. It was amazing to look back to when we were writing those very lines and then now see them being memorized and cheered by people reading the book. It was really an amazing day. The children we worked with came up with so many brilliant questions and observations. It was a day that was truly benevolent to our research and to brightening our spirits.

For me, the water inquiry project was more than writing stories for children to be entertained by. Having grown up in Hoosick Falls, NY, where recently it was discovered that our very own drinking water supply is polluted by a toxic chemical called PFOA, this story was a chance to inform and make a positive difference on the way that people look at water and all that goes with it. This is just the beginning of our journey to informing kids about water safety, and this adventure is making the future look bright!”

Ruth Neils ’19 examines storm drain with students.

Pilot teacher Margaret Betts discusses her launch of Inquiry Inc. and the Case of the Missing Ducklings:

“The children were so excited to investigate the drains. They immediately took a personal interest in what would be in a drain and what might be good for the drain and bad for the drain. The activity really engaged active looking and wondering. When we returned to the classroom to reflect on our field trip everyone had something to say about what they noticed and wondered. It was a perfect way to engage children into the larger inquiry.”

Margaret Betts (right) shows Ruth Neils ‘19 (left) student diagrams tracing the journey of water from cloud to faucet.


First graders began the pilot by identifying the story’s central problem (“She sees ducklings in a storm drain and they’re trapped”) and imagining real-world solutions:

Students’ ideas included:

  • “Pour more water in the drain until it fills up so much that the ducklings float to the surface.”
  • “Use a screwdriver to get the grate off. Then use a rope to catch the ducklings.”
  • “Go get my dad. He would use a technique to get ducklings out.”
  • “Put an umbrella down in the grate and pull the ducklings up.”

Concluding Reflections from Anna Wysocki ‘20

Our fun out-of-the-classroom adventure resulted in inquiry, creativity, and laughs from all participants. One of our main goals as a group is to allow the readers of our stories to gain new thought processes and techniques to use in real-world applications, encouraging them to realize the amazing impacts that they can have on any problem. As silly as saving ducks from a storm drain may sound in terms of implementation in everyday life, we were able to learn that such problems do happen, and that if you’ve “got a problem that won’t go away”, then a little bit of inquiry can “save the day!” In fact, a first grader brought to school breaking news that in our very own city of Northampton, some baby ducks fell into a storm drain and were trapped, leaving their mom above-ground in a panic. Local firefighters and passers-by used inquiry skills to save the ducks, just as Inquiry Inc. and these curious Maple School students could have done.

You never know when a little bit of inquiry can save the day!

Illustration by Zoe Dong ‘17, from Inquiry Inc. and the Case of the Missing Ducklings.

Written by Brittany Collins and Anna Wysocki on behalf of the Water Inquiry team.

A Rainy Day Adventure: Theory into Practice

Katy Butler reads “Inquiry Inc and the Case of the Missing Ducklings” at the Water Story Teacher Workshop.

A heavy April downpour set the perfect tone for our first Water Inquiry Story Workshop, held in the Design Thinking Lab of Smith College. Skilled educators from four elementary schools cast dripping umbrellas aside before digging into the learning adventures of Inquiry Inc. and the Case of the Missing Ducklings, our newly published storybook. Pilot teacher Katy Butler introduced the interactive text as she did with her first graders, saying: “It’s a picture book story with characters… the kind of story where we will stop and talk, stop and think, stop and go. You will get to do the activities.”

Teachers Jan Szymaszek, 3rd Grade Smith Campus School and Renee Bachman, 3rd Grade Leeds Elementary School, sketch their ideas about where the ducklings will go.

Teachers then had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the student mindset, studying images of storm drains and ducklings, discussing the questions: “Where do you think the water goes?” and “Where will the ducklings go?” before working together to show their ideas about drain design and water pathways. In his new book Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions, James E. Ryan– Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education– writes that, “Inquiry… should always precede advocacy,” and it was, indeed, this sense of participatory engagement that characterized teachers’ efforts to “think… talk… and go” in preparation for doing so with their students.

Illustration by Zoe Dong and Sarah White: story characters investigate how to rescue ducklings from the storm drain.

Opportunities for experimentation and exploration revealed the combined powers of STEM and story. “I love the pauses and premise of the problem” one educator noted, while another shared: “… there is so much that can benefit student writing. It will be powerful for [my students] to have the experience of doing the story activities… it will greatly help their reading and writing.”

Renee Bachman, 3rd grade Leeds Elementary and Margaret Betts, 1st grade Maple Elementary, envision how they will use the story in their classrooms.



The connective power of this Water Inquiry story was revealed, not only through educators’ energetic collaboration, but through the discussion of relational possibilities between the story and math or reading practices, engineering games, field trips– even fundraisers to support organizations that provide clean water in Haiti. Teachers discussed ways to use the story as a complement to inquiries unique to their classrooms, noting interests in environmental activism and the strengthening of connections to their local and global communities.

Allyson Ciccarone (’17), four-year water inquiry researcher, and Jan Szymaszek, share ideas and questions.

Inspired to revise their initial answers about the path of water (and fate of ducklings!), educators left the workshop with answers, ideas, and– most importantly– new questions with which to guide and challenge their students. With copies of the Water Inquiry picture book and activities binder in hand, they left the workshop with a new perspective of the world beneath their rain boots.



If you, too, would like to pilot Inquiry Inc. and the Case of the Missing Ducklings in your classroom, please contact Carol Berner at And, as always, stay tuned for more Water Inquiry updates. The fun has just begun!

Brittany Collins writing for the Water Inquiry Story Group

Problem-solving jingle of Inquiry Inc. characters

Katy Butler
Allyson Ciccarone
Brittany Collins
Zoe Dong
Meghan Johnson
Ruth Neils
Hannah Searles
Sarah White
Anna Wysocki
Carol Berner & Al Rudnitsky


Planning and Piloting: Water Inquiry Update, January 2017


Members of Inquiry Inc. prepare to save ducklings. Illustration courtesy of Zoe Dong ‘18J and Sarah White ‘20

“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.

First-graders explored storm drains on their playground, just like Inquiry Inc!

First-graders explored storm drains on their playground, just like Inquiry Inc!

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.

Katy Butler '12 MAT '18 read our story to her first-grade class.

Katy Butler ’12 MAT ’18 read our story to her first-grade class.

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.


Students worked in groups to create model storm drains during one of our hand-off activities.

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.

Students quickly took to this Inquiry Inc. jingle!

Students quickly took to this Inquiry Inc. jingle!

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!”

img_1605 img_1604Students 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!”


Students then modeled the downhill flow of water through pipes to explain scientific processes to Inquiry Inc.

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.

Making the "ordinary extraordinary" was exemplified by this group's storm drain entitled "Too Many Ideas!"

Making the “ordinary extraordinary” was exemplified by this group’s storm drain entitled “Too Many Ideas!”

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!”


In this illustration created by Zoe Dong ‘18J and Sarah White ‘20, Inquiry Inc. saves the day (and the ducklings)!

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 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

Collaboration and Character Development: Fall 2016 Water Inquiry

As temperatures and leaves begin to change in Western Massachusetts, members of the Water Inquiry project are commencing their time at Smith with awakened fervor. Summer months did not stymie our productivity; in fact, group members collaborated online to work on character development and illustrations for our forthcoming narrative– a compelling account of a duckling rescue that is rife with opportunities for reader engagement and problem solving.


Group members used storyboards like the one pictured above to consider character development. Photo courtesy of

 Just as rivers flow disparately into the ocean, so, too, do we find ourselves in the midst of a greater community this year– a storytelling “ocean” in which the Water Inquiry team is a subset of the overarching Teaching as Storytelling project chaired by professors Carol Berner and Al Rudnitsky. Together, we are joining similar focus groups to share writing, editing, and knowledge building techniques that strengthen our individual stories and allow us to interrogate “story form” thinking.

Our inaugural meeting occurred in Neilson Library’s new Knowledge Lab– a space that simultaneously provides structure and freedom in the pursuit of collaboration. Brightly colored beanbag chairs and large projector screens are just some of the tools that comprise this intellectual “clubhouse,” a space in which think-tanks like ours may refine developed projects or nurture nascent ideas. After sharing our work and listening to others’ stories, we were attuned to the subjectivity and commonality of our narrative research, considering that which is unique to Water Inquiry while engaging with intersecting goals and challenges that span all subsets (or all rivers, if we indulge our previous metaphor) of the Teaching as Storytelling research project.

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Students work alongside Professors Al Rudnitsky, Susan Ethridge, and Carol Berner in the Knowledge Lab.

To ground our creative work together, we have researched the import and efficacy of story form to greater understand the neurobiological and developmental merits of its interdisciplinary presence in classrooms.  Why, in other words, should we care about stories, and what makes them powerful tools for learning?

In doing so, we have found Kieran Egan’s Teaching as Storytelling and Kendall Haven’s Story Proof particularly useful resources in understanding narratology– a field of study that examines stories’ effects on perception– and the role of binarisms, schema theory, and cognitive development in story reception. Haven (2007) writes, “[stories create] context and relevance…evoke prior knowledge, provide details, [and] improve comprehension.” Did you know that the brain releases oxytocin, a neurochemical responsible for empathy and compassion, when one listens to (or reads) a story? Or that babies are born with a neurological predisposition for understanding the world through narrative formats? Our culture has utilized stories for so long, they have become genetically encoded in our species. Sounds like a powerful educational tool, if we do say so ourselves!

Story Proof and Teaching as Storytelling were helpful resources when researching narrative science.

Story Proof and Teaching as Storytelling were helpful resources when researching narrative science.

We approach our work this year with a desire to scaffold scientific thinking and action in our readers; we hope that our stories transcend the page by inviting students to problem-solve, collaborate, and explore the world around them– creating “context and relevance” that excites and ignites. To meet these goals, we are using frequent group meetings to refine our creative methods and challenge our own schemas, rethinking the role of stories in students’ lives so that we may target our readers, not as passive recipients, but as active and engaged scholars who may intertwine their thoughts and ideas with our texts.

The Water Inquiry team gathers to revise its forthcoming duckling rescue story.

The Water Inquiry team gathers to revise its forthcoming duckling rescue story.

The efficacy of our work is best gauged by young readers, and it is with great excitement that we await the piloting of our duckling rescue story in classrooms. In the coming weeks, first grade students will put our newly strengthened characters to the test, and we look forward to a new method of collaboration– the reciprocal exchange between reader, author, and story.

Joining the Water Inquiry team this year are the following student participants:

bio-7Brittany Collins is an English and Education double major from Westhampton, MA. She attended the Smith College Campus School for three years and loves going to college on the same campus she explored as a child. In addition to her Water Inquiry work, she is the Editor in Chief of Voices & Visions, a literary journal sponsored by the Kahn Institute, and she will soon join the Jacobson Center tutoring staff. Outside of the classroom, Brittany enjoys dancing, powerlifting, and hiking; she completed her first 39.3 mile Avon walk after freshman year and has a special affinity for the trails of Northampton since her training process. Distance walking reawakened her love of nature—a love that she hopes to channel into Water Inquiry stories, inspiring young readers to explore books and backyards alike.

bio-1Anna Wysocki is a first year of Smith College who is from a small town called Hoosick Falls in upstate New York. She is undecided right now, but is considering to major in Neuroscience. She is excited to add her own interesting perspective to the water stories. Just this past year, Anna and the rest of the citizens living in her town discovered that their local water supply had been poisoned by a pollutant known as PFOA, which can have serious side effects overtime by accumulating in the blood and causing serious illnesses and cancers. Everyone had to stop drinking, cooking, and even bathing for long periods of time with the water. Anna represented the student body at a local press conference to bring about social change and ease the hysteria. She is excited to use this insight in the stories, and looks forward to what can stem from them!

bio4Sarah White is a first year student at Smith College, and is excited to be working on the Water Inquiry Project. She is planning on majoring in studio art or the Study of Women and Gender. She is from Burlington, Vermont and spent most of her childhood exploring the forests and water around her home with her sisters. Before arriving at Smith she took a year off to road trip around the United States, camping and farming as she went. She is interested in writing and art, and in her free time can usually be found reading, cooking or outside.


bio-2Zoe Dong is a junior Studio Art major at Smith from Akron, Ohio. She’s very excited to be working as the illustrator for this project. You can view some of her work at





To learn more about the characters who create our characters, please visit our About Us page.

Stay tuned for more exciting news from the Water Inquiry Team!


by Brittany Collins on behalf of the Water Inquiry Team