Inquiry-Based Learning Troubleshooting Tips

Inquiry-based learning exercises require careful planning by the teacher, so students can use their time efficiently. As the onus for learning is placed on the students’ shoulders, students require a certain degree of familiarity with the concepts and procedures behind inquiry-based learning. In my practice, I found it best not to assume which skills students may or may not already know. For certain students, basic research abilities will need to be taught, so they may synthesize information on their own.

Research projects fit the inquiry-based learning model, and can be found in many teachers’ science classes. These projects require students to use a certain amount of critical thinking to determine which information is useful. For younger students, the teacher should guide them to appropriate resources, as many will be unable to differentiate the validity of one source of information from the next. I found it particularly useful to model the kinds of questions that would yield the best search results, and then review the students’ questions prior to them collecting their data. When studying first contact between Canada’s indigenous peoples and Europeans, my grade five students had trouble understanding why typing “why did they take the land?” into Google did not give them results pertaining to Canadian history. Teaching students how to be more specific with their questions allows them to be more efficient when searching for information.

It is not uncommon for classes to lose internet access, or not secure enough technology to make use of the internet for inquiry-based learning. To circumvent this, I would create little information packets for the units I taught. These would allow the students to find basic pieces of information that would clarify things, and give them something they could later refer to. This strategy also allowed me to properly vet the information the students would digest. My grade five students were unable to determine why certain websites were better sources of information than others. When doing their own research, they would often come across websites with suspect information and could not tell how they were unreliable. To prevent valuable chromebook time from being wasted on fake science websites, I would give them a list of trusted sites to use beforehand.

As far as I am able to tell, the skills on how to properly search for information online is not part of any curriculum in Ontario. While many of us take this skill for granted, and believe most students possess it inherently, thanks to computers and smart devices, that is not always the case. My students did not realize at first that they had to click on links, after typing into Google, to get the information they needed. They thought the results page would have the answers, and this led to frustration. Modeling basic research procedures beforehand would have prevented this.

Inquiry-based learning is certainly a powerful tool, and my students enjoyed using it in their science and social studies classes. It does come with a few caveats though, and the teacher needs to be certain basic skills are in place before proceeding. Preparing for different contingencies will make for smoother student learning.

Canadian Comics for Canadian Classrooms

It isn’t uncommon to find comic books in school libraries. Teachers have been using them to increase literacy rates in their classes, and many of my students gravitated towards them as their go-to reading material. With so many superhero comics on the market, it’s difficult for the uninitiated to find suitable content for their classes. The English comic book market is still dominated by American content, and not everything published is suitable for the ages being taught.

Thankfully, modern publishing services have caught up with creative talents, and many gems have made their way into the marketplace. Canadian talent is now turning to crowd-sourced funding methods to bring their comics to light. Independent publishers have also made an impact too, although they don’t share the clout Marvel and DC bring with them.

As an avid reader of comics for much of my life, and having tried making my own from time to time, I’m always looking for new comics to bring to the classroom. If you’re a Canadian educator, here are some recommendations!

As always, you should preview all material before handing it to your students, to make sure it is suitable. I have included links to so you can purchase the products yourself, or see other people’s reviews [and if you make a purchase, some of the proceeds will help run this site!].

This isn’t meant to be a complete list, as it’s from comics I own and have read. If you would like to get in contact with the creators, I have linked their Twitter profiles. Many are very approachable, and would love to hear from educators using their books in the classroom.

Brok Windsor
By Jon Stables [Edited by Hope Nicholson]

A science-fiction series from the 1940s, Brok Windsor was Canadian doctor caught up in different supernatural adventures. Teachers will need to be aware of indigenous representation in these stories. Brok Windsor is a fairly obscure character, even by this list’s standards. It’s chock-full of cheesy 40s sci-fi. Students can try their hand at creating their own Canadian science-fiction heroes, or examine how Canadian nature featured in the series.

Essex County
By Jeff Lemire

Essex County is a masterpiece of storytelling. It deals with mature content, like substance abuse, difficult childhoods, and the depths of despair. It would fit in a literature class with older students. There is a lot to unpack, and it’s a very large book. It also touches upon different Canadian experiences, and how they influence the elusive Canadian identity. This is a book that would lend itself well to reading circles, as discussions could go on for a very long time.

Hark a Vagrant Collections
By Kate Beaton

The various strips in Beaton’s collections touch upon different subject matters, but the ones where she pokes fun at history are my favourite. The entire collection wouldn’t be suitable in most classes, due to language and content, but there are enough comics to draw upon to kickstart a conversation. Having students create their own comics based on historical events is an obvious application. A lot of Beaton’s content is also freely made available on her website.

Johnny Canuck
By Leo Bachle [Edited by Rachel Richey]

Reprints from WW2 comics, Johnny Canuck is a product of a bygone era. Students can explore themes of patriotism and nationalism. Deeper discussions can examine racism and sexism found within these comics from the 1940s. Students could deconstruct the role of comics in forming a national identity, and if that identity was an inclusive one. If they are aware of American war comics at the time, they can compare and contrast them with Canadian comics.

Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography
By Chester Brown

I’ve referenced this work in my undergrad at Dalhousie, as well as during my history teachable class at uOttawa. I am always surprised by how few people are aware of this book. It is pretty much set the standard for Canadian history in a comic book. The exhaustive list of references and footnotes at the end are a great way to show students how to backup their assertions when writing papers. There is violence, cursing, and substance use, so this book would be better suited for older students. Chester Brown’s other works are very adult-oriented, so that is something to be aware of too. I have seen this comic in the library of a k-8 school, however, so it is out there.


Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection
Edited by Hope Nicholson

An anthology of collected works, focusing on indigenous talent. The artwork is gorgeous, and the stories are timeless. Stories can be selected for suitability, and used in Social Studies classes. Discussing the themes can be a useful exercise in Language classes as well. This work is a great balance to the colonial depictions of Canada’s indigenous peoples in the other titles on this list. Excellent piece of literature.

Nelvana of the Northern Lights
By Adrian Dingle [Edited by Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey]

Nelvana hails back to the golden age of comics (World War Two). While it’s fairly significant Canada had super-powered heroines, the stories in this collection need to be handled with care. Racist sentiments from the time are very evident, as are colonialist attitudes. I would therefore use these stories with older students, aware of these issues, and have them deconstruct these themes. Perhaps have them compare indigenous representation in Nelvana to that in Moonshot.

Northwest Passage
By Scott Chantler

Set in the 1700s, in what would become Canada, this graphic novels follows a band of fur traders. While it looks geared towards younger readers, I wouldn’t advise it. The language and violence in it would be better suited for older students.

The Three Thieves Series
By Scott Chantler 

Not featuring Canada (but created by a Canadian), this swashbuckling fantasy series features a female protagonist (a rare feature on this list). It’s PG in nature, so there isn’t much content that would offend. It’s a great fantasy series younger students would be comfortable reading. This is a series I would like to see in more graphic novel sections of school libraries, but unfortunately not enough people are aware of it.

The Two Generals
By Scott Chantler

Inspired by the stories of Chantler’s grandfather during the Second World War, this graphic novel (self-contained, novel-length, comic book) is ripe for Remembrance Day. Due to the graphic nature of some the violence, it would probably be suitable for intermediate students, or above. I know certain schools in Ontario have been using this book in November, to commemorate Remembrance Day.

Reflection on Teaching English Language Learners

From 2007 to 2015, I had the privilege of teaching English as a foreign language in two different South Korean cities, Daegu and Gangneung. In the first three years, I taught at a private academy in Daegu and had students ranging from kindergarten age to senior citizens. In my final four years, I taught in a public middle school with grades seven to nine. For this reflection, I will focus on the experience I had in the Gangneung middle school.

This middle school had nine different classes in each grade, and the students had varying English abilities. This made instruction quite challenging as each class had students who were still mastering basic reading, with students who had studied overseas in English-speaking countries. This disparity in skill levels forced me to create lessons that were as flexible as possible to not exclude anyone. I encouraged group work when possible to make scaffolding easier for the students. Unlike most other native English teachers, I went from classroom to classroom, so the students were organized in rows of desks. Restructuring the learning environment to better suit the students’ needs was always a high priority.

The curriculum I was to teach was of questionable quality. There was an English textbook for each grade, and each chapter acted as a unit, with three lessons per chapter. Korea’s education system is still very much entrenched into the notion of standardized tests (such tests have been important there for millennia). What I included within my lessons was fairly open-ended, as long as I hit upon all the main topics for my section of the chapter. As long as the students were in good position for their midterms and final exams, I was given a wide berth to teach what I wanted.

Generally, my lesson would open with a five-minute review of the previous week’s lesson. Then I would introduce new content, and model its use. When the students were comfortable enough, they would use the content in a group activity of some sort that would often involve moving around to gather information (elements of total physical response). Once enough time had passed, I would call the class together, and go through the students’ responses to the activity. I would then add more detail to a previous point, or introduce a new point, and have an activity set up for the latter. The consolidation of the class would be students presenting their work on the final activity. I would also include extension type activities for students who finished the main activities quickly, and they could do these independently, or help each other out without distracting the others.

The years I spent in Gangneung made it apparent how important it was to build an inclusive atmosphere where students did not need to feel uncomfortable in asking for help. It also taught me how to balance my desire to assist my students, and knowing when to let them try to figure things out on their own. I often had very high expectations for my students, and I was always exceedingly proud when I saw their progress grow by leaps and bounds.

Teaching ELL students in Ottawa presents a different set of challenges. Students in my practicum lessons benefited from my ability to clearly speak in terms they would understand. However, for lower level ELL students, I was not able to use the crutch of speaking their native tongue to deliver clearer instructions (something I could do in Korea). While I could get the students to understand the activity in the end, it would have been more expedient if I had an exemplar to model. My lessons in Korea were highly-visual, but my lessons during practicum lacked this component. Going forward, if I do not have enough time to create my own presentations for each lesson, I will be sure to at least have visuals for key points, so ELL students can better follow along.

I believe every second language learner has the potential to succeed in school if they are given the appropriate support. The many ESL students in my practicum were fortunate enough to have LRTs during science and math lessons. Their comprehension was greatly enhanced with the increased attention, and the smaller student-teacher ratio. Being able to incorporate staff properly, so their time is not wasted, will require differentiation within my lessons to better serve ELL students. It is also imperative that I place students strategically with each other, so that ELL students are with someone they trust enough to ask for help when it is needed.