Community of Inquiry Code of Conduct: Language Arts “Lesson”

I recently finished a five-week unit on My Side of the Mountain in my grade four classroom, in which I incorporated philosophical inquiry into each week of study. My Side of the Mountain, for those who don’t know, is Jean Craighead George’s 1959 novel about a boy (we never find out for certain his age, a subject of much contention among my students!) who runs away from home to live in the Catskill Mountains. All the lessons I teach this semester are aligned to the United States Common Core Standards. Happily, the skills practiced in Community of Inquiry fit neatly into the English Language Arts standards. Below is my lesson plan for day two of the unit, the day I introduced philosophy. My first observation was during this lesson, and it went quite well. There is an emphasis on student autonomy and inquiry. Students are held to high standards and expected to participate fully. There are multiple ways to participate, and students are encouraged to help each other feel safe sharing half-formed thoughts as part of the learning process for everyone. I’d love constructive feedback on my work and would love other educators to share their experiences supporting Community of Inquiry in ELA. 

Lesson Plan: My Side of the Mountain Week One, Day Two

Objectives:

  • Students develop a working definition of philosophy and philosophical inquiry that includes heightened respect for diverse perspectives and a sense of wonder/intellectual curiosity.
  • Students work together to develop their own Community of Inquiry Code of Conduct – a set of guidelines for philosophical inquiry stressing civil discourse, respect for community members, and critical thinking.

Common Core Standards:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.4.1.B: Follow agreed-upon rules for discussions and carry out assigned roles.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.4.1.C: Pose and respond to specific questions to clarify or follow up on information, and make comments that contribute to the discussion and link to the remarks of others.

Student Engagement/Timeline: 

1. Students convene in a circle on carpet. Introduce philosophy: I majored in philosophy in college largely because I think it is one of the most fun things to do. You get to think really hard about questions you care about with people you care about, and learn from each other – wow. Philosophical questions are special in four ways:

  • You can’t look up the answer in a book or encyclopaedia.  You can’t just ask a grown-up either! Philosophical questions take debate and careful reasoning to decide what we think.
  • You need to be able to disagree. There isn’t just one right answer. In this way, philosophy is a lot like poetry and literary interpretation. Different perspectives can be valid even if they come to different conclusions.
  • You can change someone’s mind using reasons. Some questions we may never agree on, like “what’s the tastiest flavour of ice cream?” If I really love chocolate, and you really love vanilla, there isn’t something you can say to convince me that I’m wrong. But if I really think that homework on the weekends is important, and you disagree, you might be able to convince me that you’re right. A philosophical question is not just a matter of opinion. 

2. Philosophy isn’t just something you study; it’s something you do. Sometimes philosophical questions come out of a story. I’ll give you an example. Who here has read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein? [take hands, take one person to paraphrase for those who haven’t read] So raise your hand if you think the boy in the story did something wrong. [briefly discuss different perspectives – even people who agree that the boy went wrong at some point tend to disagree on when he went wrong. Most people agree that playing with the tree and eating just a few apples was okay.]

Post-lesson note: I had expected almost everyone in a small town, middle-class New England community school to have heard this story at some point. I was mistaken, or at least many had not heard it in years. It ended up taking a while longer than I’d planned to explain the story, so I would suggest referring to a story the class had recently read together.

These kinds of philosophical questions are ethical questions – they are questions about how we should behave. There are lots of different areas of philosophy, and we’re going to get to talk about them this semester. In our Wednesday book groups for the next few weeks, we’re going to get to do philosophy with Sam Gribley in My Side of the Mountain. In order to be successful, we’re going to create a Code of Conduct to help us.

3. Code of Conduct: What is a code? [different types, students throw out a few ideas] → here we are talking about a contract. Our Code of Conduct is an agreement about how we are going to treat each other and how we are going to do our best thinking.

What does our community want to include? Think/pair/share time here so everyone gets a chance to contribute. Stress everyone’s ideas are valuable and actually essential to community development. Then come back to large group to create final list.

{{I try to encourage some version of the following in order to have a successful CI, but all in students’ own words. Usually students come up with a variation on these themselves; if they don’t, I just ask questions – e.g. “Do you think we should have anything about what we do while someone is talking?”

  1. One person speaks at a time.
  2. Listen to the person who is speaking.
  3. When it is my turn to speak, I say whether I agree or disagree and why OR I ask a question about what has just been said.
  4. Everyone’s ideas are valuable. }}

These are some strategies my fourth graders had already been practicing before I joined their classroom that we’ve incorporated effectively into our Community of Inquiry:

    1. Agree/disagree with the idea, not the person.
    2. Everyone gets a chance to speak → “name tokens” to show everyone’s spoken already at least twice, no one dominates
    3. Use body language to communicate focus. Eyes on the speaker, body still, no side conversation.
    4. After you finish speaking, call on the next person. Look for someone who hasn’t spoken yet.

A communication tool I learned at Eurekamp that my fourth graders have made great use of: If you have a build on to what’s just been said, put in two fingers. If you have something brand new to say, put in one finger. Try to first call on people who have a “build on” so that we can go really deep into each question before we move on.

4. The role of dialogue, discourse, and collaboration – “good talk:”

 

  • Is dialogue teacher led?  Does it include the teacher?  How are groups structured?

Discussion occurs in circle on the floor – no one at the “front.” At first, teacher calls on students. When we move to creating Code of Conduct, students call on each other.

 

5. What is the (expected) range of challenges for your learners and what supports are you building in for them? This is something for each educator considers for themself.

In general, students tend to range from very talkative to very quiet, and from very confident to very wary. We build in time for students to speak in pairs in addition to the large group discussion that makes up the majority of the lesson. When asking questions to the large group, we give enough wait time to allow all students the time they need to process and decide whether or not they would like to contribute. By using talking tokens in the large group and combining large group discussion with pair/shares, we ensure that every student will have the opportunity to share ideas with peers and will feel a responsibility to do so.

6. What evidence of learning are you looking for (to guide your teaching)?

Students are practicing the skills of sharing ideas and listening to other people’s ideas.

Engaged students will…

  • listen attentively to peers.
  • contribute original thoughts of their own that connect to the questions raised.
  • provide reasons and/or evidence to back up their claims.

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Hey check out this fun graphic I found about collaboration. It’s a Venn diagram! How philosophy-relevant!