National Writing Project

Inside Inquiry: A Second Look

Date: May 4, 2010

Summary: The Teacher Inquiry Communities Network offers a four-day summer institute to support Writing Project sites that are new to the process of supporting inquiry communities or that want to revitalize their inquiry communities by taking a fresh look at how to work with them.


Take a look "inside" inquiry.

After attending the 2007 Inside Inquiry institute, Darla Lipparelli of the Great Basin Writing Project (NV) and Annie Ortiz of the Oklahoma State Writing Project have a firsthand experience of the professional growth that happens when teachers develop an inquiry-based stance, look at big-picture questions about their classrooms and Writing Project work, and collaboratively seek deep, more informed answers.

Lipparelli and Ortiz also know that participating in an institute like Inside Inquiry is sometimes the first step in the "look and look again" process that powers a local inquiry stance.

The two have come to believe that inquiry communities are strong conduits to connect one teacher to another and channel teacher knowledge about teaching to broader audiences in ways that inform study and action both locally and nationally.

As cofacilitators of the 2009 Inside Inquiry: A Teacher Inquiry Communities Network Institute, held at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, Lipparelli and Ortiz wanted to provide attendees that same experience of "inquiry as stance." They had sat in the participants' seats two years earlier, and understood the attendees' fears, anticipations, and strengths. So they looked at the content and structure of the institute through the eyes of both participants and facilitators to help demystify the idea of inquiry and inquiry communities by:

  • engaging participants in reading, writing, and thinking about inquiry
  • developing inquiry questions
  • gathering and analyzing data
  • thinking about how to go public with teacher research.

Becoming Teacher-Researchers—Together

Twenty-four teacher-consultants from across the nation converged to attend the 2009 institute for two primary reasons: to learn about conducting teacher research and to explore theories of action for creating and facilitating local teacher inquiry communities, such as former Philadelphia Writing Project Director Susan Lytle describes in her article "Practitioner Inquiry and the Practice of Teaching: Some Thoughts on Better."

I now look at everything from an inquiry perspective.

These two thought-provoking tasks helped participants look closely at what it means to be teacher-learners, teacher-leaders, and teacher-researchers—a valuable opportunity, as participant Bill Kirby, a teacher-consultant with the South Mississippi Writing Project, noted.

"Very seldom are teachers afforded the luxury of carefully and systematically thinking through what they want to explore about their instruction; more often it's a reflexive or defensive process."

Often the image of a teacher-researcher is of one who is inquiring into his or her classroom practices alone, but that's hardly what participants learned at Inside Inquiry—in fact, the opposite was true.

"I am reminded, by listening to others' ideas and having them hear mine, of how important collaboration is in understanding and making meaning," one participant reflected in an exit evaluation slip. "This collaboration allows each of us to arrive at a much richer understanding of why teacher inquiry matters."

"I found teachers from across the nation who are interested in inquiry and who offer support and resources for my classroom research," said Torrey Palmer, a teacher-consultant from Northern Nevada Writing Project. "They challenge me to be better."

Bringing Inquiry Back to the Site and School

It was exciting for Lipparelli and Ortiz to see how inquiry evolves, takes hold, grows strong, threads itself into the lives of teacher-researchers, and takes root at the local site level and in local schools as a result. That spirit of collaboration is at the heart of Inside Inquiry.

In fact, the growing consensus among some Inside Inquiry alumni is that by looking at the way they create and engage in local teacher inquiry communities, they can nurture an inquiry stance or a culture of inquiry at their Writing Project sites.

If so, Inside Inquiry's focus on helping teachers look inward at their instructional practices may be a first step toward supporting Writing Project practices that look out across local educational landscapes and respond with programs that are informed by local teacher research. The potential for improved instruction seems endless when educators and Writing Project sites tap into the power of teacher inquiry.

Participants of the 2009 Inside Inquiry institute left with a variety of plans that allowed their sites to begin or deepen their work with teacher inquiry.

Take Valerie Combie, a participant from the Virgin Islands Writing Project, who created a four-year plan for building teacher inquiry communities at her local site. "We are now focusing on inquiry-based teacher demonstration lessons for our 2010 invitational summer institute," said Combie. "And our Writing Project site will be partnering with the Department of Education in a project where teachers will be examining their own practice as a form of self-evaluation."

The foundation of knowledge and confidence that the institute provided helps participants step up to be teacher-leaders in their schools.

"I now have the confidence to promote inquiry for and with other educators at my school," said Palmer. "More opportunities are needed to grow teacher leadership and to gain a deeper understanding of the power of inquiry to change classroom instruction for the better. Inside Inquiry gave me the platform and foundation to be a leader at my school."

Once the seeds of inquiry are planted, after all, they grow in multifarious ways—and keep on growing.

"I now look at everything from an inquiry perspective–my professional life, the school curriculum, and my personal life," says Wendy Wilson, a 2007 participant from the Great Basin Writing Project in Nevada. "I question what I am doing. What changes do I need to make in my teaching so that learning becomes more relevant for students?"

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