Transporting a Classroom Towards Inquiry

I could almost hear a chorus of silent groans coming from the teachers sitting around the table in the staff room at P.S. 10 in Brooklyn. It was March 17th, 2005, my first day working as a consultant at the school. The new principal, Jett Ritorto, wanted me to introduce inquiry projects and investigative Choice Time to the kindergarten teachers. But it was mid-March and this was just one more new addition to their already over-programmed day. I wasn’t welcomed with open arms!

“We can’t do an inquiry project. This is when we start our transportation unit.”
I recognized this plea from my own not-so-long-ago days in the classroom. I had my theme, my materials, and my time-schedule all set up and then, in would walk a new staff developer with her own agenda, turning all of my plans upside down.

I assured them that we would not be dropping the transportation unit. Instead we would see what happened if we approached it in a new way. I suggested that they each go on a neighborhood walk with their class that week, with a focus on exploring the different ways that people could travel, to, from, and around their neighborhood. After the walk, they should encourage children to share their observations. This would give the teachers a sense of what the students already know and also what form of transportation seemed to interest them the most. That would allow them to narrow the focus of the class’s transportation study.

When I came back to the school the next week, I met with each teacher individually. The inclusion team, Dana Roth and Karen Byrnes, were excited and eager to share their experience with me. Their children had lots of questions about the subway and that was where they wanted to focus their study. The three of us spent the rest of the period preparing an anticipatory web, plotting out the many possibilities for a subway study. All seemed well.

Later in the week they contacted me and sadly told me that a subway study was out of the question. One of the students was confined to a wheelchair and would have to be excluded from all subway trips. They decided to switch to a bus study. I suggested, however, that they first bring the problem to the class and see what kind of solution the children came up with.

The children were outraged! “That’s not fair! Saim should be able to go on the subway just like us!” Here began a most unusual transportation study – The Wheelchair Project.

The class decided to find out more about Saim’s wheelchair and what it was like for him to move around the school and neighborhood. Saim was pleased as punch to be the center of attention (Dana said that she would not have pursued this route if the child was sensitive about being singled out).

They began the study by interviewing Saim. After the interview, they all sat around him in a circle, observing and drawing. The teachers began webbing what children already knew about wheelchairs and also collecting their “wonderings” on post-its and adding these to the web. From these activities, they decided to focus their study on movement and accessibility. These were the two areas where the children had the most interest.

News about this unusual transportation study traveled around the school like hotcakes. When the school’s physical therapist heard about the investigation, she provided the class with an unused wheelchair. This became a very popular wheelchair observation center. Children used magnifying glasses, tape measures, and detail finders (a square of black paper with a peek-hole cut in the center) to look closely at the different parts of wheelchair. They drew the wheels, the brakes, and the gears. Then they shared their drawings and ‘recordings’ with the children in the block center who were constructing their own version of a wheelchair. This chair took many days to construct. It sometimes fell over and was rebuilt often and eventually was held together with yards of masking tape!



The class visited the school bus that brought Saim to school to see how the lift helped children with walkers and wheelchairs get on and off. They interviewed the driver and also met Manny, a very affable upper-grade child who used a walker to help him move about. Manny was invited to the classroom where he was interviewed. He then gave each child an opportunity to try out his walker.

After this experience, a lift-bus was built in the block center. After a few days, it was deconstructed and the children built “a better lift bus.”

They walked took neighborhood walks, checking to see which stores and sidewalks were “wheelchair friendly.” Then they walked around the school to find out if their school was wheelchair accessible. The front of the school had lots of steps! How did Saim get into school? In an exciting moment of discovery, they found the symbol that they saw on the lift bus, along with an arrow. The class followed the arrows until they came to the ramp entrance. Problem solved!

They visited a neighborhood house that had been altered to make it wheelchair accessible and they interviewed the owner of the building.

This study certainly held the interest of the class and raised a new awareness of the challenges in Saim’s daily life. The children developed a feeling of respect for Saim and for the other children in the school who used wheelchairs, walkers and crutches.

Over the years, I have returned to the school to visit Dana Roth and I’ve always been intrigued by the variety of studies taking place in her classroom. On one visit, the children were investigating colors – inventing colors, exploring the various names of Crayola crayons and coming up with their own inventive names for their newly mixed colors. On another visit, the children were building a school in their dramatic play center, reflecting their investigation of their own school. Dana still does some thematic studies but she also listens closely to her children and develops inquiry projects based on their interests and wonderings.

I haven’t worked at the school for the past five years, but I’m going back in the fall to, as Laura Scott, the new principal, says, “Give a refresher course” in inquiry studies to keep it alive and well at the school. Let’s see what happens.

3 thoughts on “Transporting a Classroom Towards Inquiry

  1. Constance Foland

    Wow! I love this story! I can’t wait to meet you on the Reggio trip. I’m so interested in inquiry projects and learning more about how you do your work with teachers. As an aside, the first novel I wrote was about a boy who had Muscular Dystrophy and was confined to a wheelchair, so your story touched me on many levels. Constance

    1. Renee Post author

      Constance, I’m really looking forward to meeting you too. I think that the trip will be so wonderful. I can’t get over how many interesting people are coming! I’m also eager to check out your blog!

  2. Suzanne Axelsson

    this is so much the approach I am luckiy enough to be able to use in preschools is Sweden – there children are aged between 1 and 6 – so children do have a long time to learn through play. The first year at school is called preschool class and is when the child is 6-7 yrs old and then will start to formally learn to read and write at age 7 in first grade.

    I have made comments on the Fb page – where we started a little discussion – but I have lifted them here too – as maybe it will allow others to see another insight into preschools and schools in other countries. I have completed my masters in ECE a year ago and it really allowed me to look and focus on ECE around the world – my focus areas were – RE, language development, documentation to support memory and learning and quality (what is world class) in ECE with the focus being on Stockholm but using what is available globally to give it perspective…

    here is the FB copy
    … for me I am happy that my children do get to do maths outside in the forest a few times a year (I guess it would be more if it hadn’t been such a cold place for such a long winter here in Sweden) and a few other things that allow the children to be seen as an individual – but yet, there is suddenly a change of learning style – from project base inquiry to sitting at desks and learning. I have identical girls aged 11, for one of them sitting, reading and listening works fine, the other fidgets a little more – but for my 8 year old son its a catastrophe – school is all wrong for him – learning to read and write is not meaningful – its just something he HAS to do – and HAVING to do something is the exact words that make him dig in his heels and not want to do it. BUT give him a project and suddenly its meaningful – and he will sit down and write (in Sweden they start school at age 7 – thank goodness, if my son had started earlier he would have been socially unready and he would not have been able to behave in the classroom in the appropriate manner – which is sad – because all its saying is that the school has not adapted to his learning style). Up until children in Sweden start school they learn maths at lunch, outside, during art in the construction room etc – not as a separate lesson – in fact all learning is in that manner – and its meaningful because it comes from the children – and then there are photos all over the walls of what the children have done and learnt so we can revisit and deepen our learning together – enriching their language and their self esteem – suddenly at school there are no photos anymore to show their learning – I questioned this – and the fact that the school (with over 600 pupils) did not have a colour printer was one of the main factors for not documenting in this manner – I mean in schools the teachers actually get more planning time than we do in preschools – so it would be perfect to use the camera to see the learning – to actually have time without thinking “OMG now I am leaving my colleagues with the children instead of me being out there with them too” – when school teachers have planning the children are at afterschool activity club with other pedagogues that take care of them. When I try to find a RE approach SCHOOL in Sweden it is STILL preschools that pop up – and of the 30-40 sites I checked only ONE School actually profiled itself as an RE school – it is a private preschool and school and goes up to year 3. This made me think why are most REA schools around the world that we see private (especially the ones with the really amazing environments that make you feel green with envy). Coming from the UK I know what its like to start school early – I went to a fantastic school, though, where I remember the teachers allowed us to work on things that interested us as they knew we would learn better that way – and also inspire each other – in this manner I made a TV from a cardboardbox at the age of 5-6 creating a story, involving lots of others in my class, and then we put on a performance for the other classes in school – similar things happened right through my school years (until I was 11) – I LOVED my school – and this is something I want to share with all children – that they too get to experience some of that joy of meaningful learning, of projects, of steering your own projects of inspiring friends and peers (I will NEVER forget that forest of hands of other children who wanted to help me in my project…). Sadly the fact the school HAS to teach reading and writing and math etc has them and the governments focussing on that rather than on making it meaningful. The blog above shows meaningful learning – shows how the children engage when they need to solve a dilemma for one of their friends – and become so aware and learn so much in the process – it becomes the teacher who focuses on the learning (observing what the children are doing, the skills they are acquiring during the process etc) while the children are involved in the project they are not aware of their learning (ie they do not know when they are learning to write or when it is maths or when it is science – the teacher can see that but the children are too involved) – they are getting on with their project – the documentation is then there to make that leaning visible when the time is right – to help the children (and the parents – as I think its the adults in the beginning that need the most support when the learning is not structured as separate lessons) to see what they have learned and also to encourage the children to wonder where they can deepen their knowledge, skills the need to acquire to improve their project…


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