Inquiring, Sharing, and Igniting Idea Sparks with 5 Corners

On our third and final day of our Lanier Schools Academy Institute, we participated in a fun and engaging activity that reminded me of the Harvey Daniels written conversation strategies.   Lanier High teacher Brooke Webb and LSTC Rhonda Stroud led us through a variation of the Four Corners learning activity, dubbing ours Five Corners because we had five questions to contemplate in small groups about our district LMS platform, Desire2Learn.  Our essential question was “How can eClass (Desire2Learn) help my students with PBL?”

Brooke and Rhonda ensured we were in mixed groups of grade levels and subject areas by giving each teacher a sticky note numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5.  We then went to our assigned table (1, 2, 3, 4, or 5) so that each group has an established starting point.  Each table had a question for the group to consider; the basic protocol was that you wrote your individual response, and then the group discussed and shared the responses.  We spent roughly 5 minutes at each table before rotating to the next “station’ or table with question.   You could also place a check mark next to responses from your peers that reflected your own practice or experiences.

As we moved through the stations, we could see what other groups had written and shared.  After we added our own responses and placed a check mark next to all answers that applied to our own practice/experience, we discussed the ideas shared from the other groups.  We rotated through all stations until we returned to our station that was our starting point.

We then looked at the responses shared by all groups at our initial station and grouped the responses into categories and tabulated our response to collect data to look for trends and patterns in the responses.  Some groups created simple bar graphs or charts by hand; we had a teacher in our group who was an Excel expert, so she created a beautiful graph for our group.

We then did a large group share out; this part of the activity was especially meaningful as fellow teachers not only shared the data, but teachers had the opportunity to talk about specific responses.  This small and large group work gave us ideas and strategies for using Desire2Learn in our classrooms and was a terrific springboard for the mini-lesson on Desire2Learn presented after the activity by Brooke Webb.  The learning experience and subsequent mini-lesson left me feeling energized and excited about incorporating Desire2Learn into my daily classroom instruction as well as PBL experiences for my students.

After we finished the activity and mini-lesson, Brooke and Rhonda hung up our work as a gallery on the ends of bookcases in the library (our beautiful learning space for the week) so that we could browse the work more closely during our collaborative work time and breaks.

This is another great variation on written conversation strategies that can encourage inquiry and crowdsourcing of ideas and knowledge.  I’m already thinking about how I can use this with my 11th and 12th grade readers and writers come August!  Kudos to Brooke and Rhonda for leading us through a rich and meaningful learning experience!

On a side note, the learning space also facilitated this learning activity.  I felt right at home in our beautiful media center because the Artcobell tables and chairs on wheels supported this kind of learning activity that involved movement as well as small group to large group work.  Over the last three years, I’ve been lucky to work in a library or classroom space where I had this kind of furniture; the one year I did not, I was absolutely miserable and felt stymied by immobile heavy tables and chairs.  These kinds of learning experiences are much easier to facilitate when you have a learning space that supports the design drivers of the kind of learner experience you’re trying to create.  As more schools incorporate inquiry driven and active learning activities, I think it is more important than ever for schools to closely examine their learning spaces and determine what they need to change in common learning areas as well as classrooms to support the vision for learning.

Formulating Research Questions with Birds of Feather Collaboration and Writable Surfaces


We’ve been partnering with Language Arts teacher Sean O’Connor the last few weeks as his students have been engaged in presearch around topics that students identified and developed around motifs and themes of To Kill a Mockingbird.  After participating in the reading frenzy activity, students left with a topic of interest that they wanted to explore further and refine through presearch.  After several days of gathering information and sources to build background knowledge, the students were ready to think about focusing their topics even more by developing a refining research question.    After some conversation, Sean and I thought it would be meaningful for students to collaborate and use the question lenses activity that my friend Heather Hersey shared with me last fall and that I piloted with Sarah Rust’s students.   We felt the question lenses would give our students a way of looking at their presearch information with fresh eyes and alternate perspectives.  Inspired by both Heather and Sarah Ludwig’s adaptation of the activity, Sean and I decided to do our own variation on Sarah’s version of writing around question lenses using our new dry erase tables (we purchased the Expanse and Nebula tables with dry erase surfaces).

We began by introducing the question lenses and activity procedures to Sean’s students:

After showing and discussing the five question lenses and examples [see slides above], we asked students to form “birds of feather” groups around like or similar topics at the dry erase tables. Once students had formed their groups, we asked them to write their topic(s) on the table and to get a variety of dry erase markers we had available.  We gave them about 10-12 minutes to talk and draft at least two questions per question lens for a minimum of ten.   We encouraged them to keep a tally on their pink sheets (every student received one to have as a guide and to record questions they liked for personal keeping) as their groups composed their questions.










Some groups were initially a little quiet and needed some encouragement/nudging from us to help them get their conversations and group thinking going.  Sean is especially gifted at helping students communicate and helping students tap into their cognitive processes as he circulates about and engages in discussions with the students without giving them answers or leading them to a response.

After the question incubation period, we asked each group to look at their questions and come to a consensus about which question they felt was the best one and to be able to articulate why it was the best question.  They then composed their top question on one of our Verb whiteboards.  Next, we did a large group share out of questions and rationales.   As each group finished their brief presentation, they placed their Verb Steelcase whiteboard onto the Verb easel.





Students then had an opportunity to vote for best question of the period by placing a checkmark on the easel with their favorite question.  As we voted, students also finished recording favorite questions on their pink sheets; other students also used this time to photograph their group table.   We asked students to reflect on the questions they had seen both in their groups and from the other groups as we thought about what makes a good research question; this activity was our springboard for helping students either draft their own question or to use one of the questions from their birds of feather topic group  that resonated with them as their focus question for moving further into search. They are now doing additional search and are starting to think about multigenre element products they’ll craft to represent their key understandings and insights.

Two aspects of this activity that we loved are reflected in many of the inquiry driven activities we’ve done this year in helping students move begin or move through presearch:

1.  Writing is a medium for processing ideas and thinking in a visible way.

2.  We move through a continuum of individual, pair/small group, and large group work that ultimately helps students experience learning in a social and collaborative way and that will inform their individual work.

We are always happy to provide students these kinds of learning opportunities for our students, especially for those who may not have had many of these learning experiences prior to high school and/or during their previous high school research/inquiry experiences.  If you don’t have access to dry erase surfaces, you can easily adapt this activity with butcher/bulletin board paper or oversized sticky notes.  While I know there are virtual mediums for doing this activity, I increasingly feel that being “unplugged” and having students do this work in a tactile and physically present way makes the thinking more concrete and gives students chances to interact socially in an academic context that would not happen through a virtual tool.   This face to face modeling and opportunity to practice these skills and grow these cultural, social, and cognitive dimensions of academic literacy is especially important for students whose opportunities to do so have previously been limited (Kiili, Mäkinen, and Coiro).

We’d love to hear from others how you are either helping students develop and refine research questions, using writable surfaces for thinking and learning, or other collaborative work during presearch.  For more photos of the activity with our two classes, please visit the photoset.


Kiili, Carita, Marita Mäkinen, and Julie Coiro. “Rethinking Academic Literacies.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 57.3 (2013): 223- 32. Professional Development Collection [EBSCO]. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.