The Having of Wonderful Ideas

I am shamelessly borrowing the title of Eleanor Duckworth’s inspiring 1973 essay, “The Having of Wonderful Ideas,” which you can find by googling the title. I encourage you to do so, and then, run, don’t walk, to read it.

But rather than being about the wonderful ideas that children are more likely to have when they are given the opportunity to explore the material world around them and to delve deeply into stuff, which is fundamental to the philosophy of Golden Apple’s Inquiry Science Institute and also the topic of Duckworth’s essay, I want to talk a little about some of the wonderful ideas that our iTEAM teachers have been having as we’ve been meeting over the past several months, since they participated in our summer program at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Their ideas cover a range of subjects, so I will pick and choose.  Some ideas are about how to develop the essential skills of science in their students.  Others are about how to manage the extra preparation that running an inquiry classroom entails for a teacher.  And a third cluster of ideas has begun forming around how to introduce colleagues at their school to the inquiry process, which is one of the goals of our program, and one of the responsibilities these teachers have taken on.

All of this is against a backdrop of an ever increasing emphasis on testing, with testing starting earlier in the year and happening more frequently, a general increase in class sizes, the reassignment of teachers to new grade levels or to multigrade classrooms and the general increase in the workload and decrease in resources, both human and material, that our cash strapped, accountability driven schools are faced with daily.

Nonetheless, wonderful ideas are being had by some very smart, very committed teachers.  Here are some examples:

Teachers Calvin Burns and Michelle Smith at Shoop Elementary on Chicago’s south side have discovered that using Creature Cards as a classroom warmup hones their students’ observation skills.  The kids can’t get enough of them, the Gligs and Wibbles and Snorps oh my!, and astonish their teachers with the precision of their observations.  But what takes this resource from being simply a good mental warm-up to actually having an impact on kids’ science learning, is the fact that, as Michelle Smith observed, this year’s students who have used Creature Cards have been making more detailed drawings of what they’ve observed under the microscope than students in previous years, sans Creature Cards.  No more amorphous blobs and circles.  These kids have learned how to see!

Creature Cards are relatively easy to set up and take down . . . all you need is a projection device and one of the cards. But doing inquiry science activities on a regular basis, which we encourage teachers to do, requires lots of stuff and multiples of everything counted and organized, so that  groups of students can work together all around the classroom or science lab, using time as efficiently as possible.  Enter the expectation that teachers spend a lot of the precious little time they have doing all this organizing, so that they can hit the ground running when it’s time for science.

Christine Garcia of Bright Elementary, also on Chicago’s south side, had a student approach her after the first inquiry science lesson of the year.  The girl said, “Can we do this again?”  When Chrissy said, “Yes,” the girl volunteered to come before and after school to help Chrissy set up the inquiry activities so that she could have more science.  And this isn’t an isolated case.  Teachers at several other of our ISI partner schools have found students very willing to volunteer with all the set up and take down, and at a number of our partner schools, teachers are brainstorming ways to create a Science Aide’s program, to tap both those interested in science and those who have that “extra energy” better put toward constructive purposes.  Kids want to do authentic work that has value to others. What better way to honor that than by forming such a group of students, distinguishing them in some way (job application? lab coats? official name tags for the lab coats? an award at the end of the year?), and letting them provide the extra hands to help manage the inquiry activities, freeing the teacher for things that only the teacher can do?

Other wonderful ideas concern how to share inquiry strategies, activities and classroom management practices with their colleagues.  Whole school professional development days are often over-booked with mandated programs, and they may not necessarily be the most effective way to share professional learning.  Several iTEAMs are exploring something we’re calling Inquiry in Action.   Because they’ve had the benefit of the intensive summer program and have activities and materials from it that they are using with their students, iTEAM teachers are inviting colleagues to come into their classrooms to see inquiry in action.  They are being creative with schedules, and finding ways that other colleagues can substitute in the observing teacher’s class while he or she visits the inquiry classroom.

As Eleanor Duckworth said, “Except for the rare teacher who will take this leap all on his or her own on the basis of a single course and some written teachers’ guides, most teachers need the support of at least some nearby co-workers who are trying to do the same thing, and with whom they can share notes.”  Our iTEAMs are finding ways to make this happen!

A related idea is to have older students learn an activity and then present it to younger ones.  In the process, the students who are teaching are reenforcing their own learning and teaching the teacher of the younger students what inquiry is all about.

There have been other wonderful ideas . . . but I’ll save them for another post.   And I’ll let you know how these ideas develop over the year.  Please share your own in comments.

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple’s Inquiry Science Institute here:


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One response to “The Having of Wonderful Ideas

  1. It sounds like the iTeam teachers are coming up with some great ideas. I love the idea of having “Science Aides” or “Lab Assistants.” I used that when I was teaching and the students who were interested were willing to come before and after school and even on their lunch hour. One group named themselves the “Fish Girls” because they took care of the aquariums!


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