Want to to foster a love of learning in your classroom? Get tips from inquiry-based social studies teachers, Melissa Williamson and Jennifer Bell, in our Season 2 finale!

Melissa Williamson and Jennifer Bell in Classroom Conversations

Want to to foster a love of learning in your classroom? Get tips from inquiry-based social studies teachers, Melissa Williamson and Jennifer Bell, in our Season 2 finale!

You can also watch the episode here!


Ashley Mengwasser: Hello there. Welcome back to Classroom Conversations, the platform for Georgia's teachers. Classroom Conversations is presented by the Georgia Department of Education in partnership with Georgia Public Broadcasting. I'm your host, Ashley Mengwasser. Anybody want to join me for some emotional calisthenics? That's what I call crying. Go ahead and cue the tears because this is our final episode of season two. We are committed to ending this season with a grand finale, a real student skill builder. What approach to learning are we examining today? I'll start with the answer if you can identify the question, Jeopardy style. This sort of instruction is known to nurture student passion, empower student voice, deepen understanding beyond rote memorization of facts, increase engagement, foster a love of learning, and teach grit and determination, baby. So what is it? Well, curiosity may have killed the cat, but it's proven to enliven learning. Come along as we investigate inquiry-based learning in K through five social studies. Our guests are rather curious creatures, and very critical thinkers. Jennifer Bell is a fourth grade teacher in her ninth year of teaching, and Melissa Williamson is a kindergarten teacher in her 16th year. Both Jennifer and Melissa teach at Langston Road Elementary School in the Houston County School District, and they are joining me virtually from school. How very apropos. Hi Jennifer and Melissa.

Jennifer Bell: Hi.

Melissa Williamson: Hi.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, you've even coordinated the wave. I love it. How are you doing today?

Jennifer Bell: We're good.

Melissa Williamson: We're good. How are you?

Ashley Mengwasser: I'm excellent. Did your school day go well? I love that you're on the scene right now, as we say in the media.

Jennifer Bell: It did. It was a good day.

Melissa Williamson: It did. Busy but fun.

Ashley Mengwasser: Busy but fun. Sounds like a good day of learning. Before we get too analytical, shall we start with the basics? When did you know you wanted to become a teacher? Jennifer, you go first.

Jennifer Bell: I actually didn't know I wanted to become a teacher as a child. Most kids already know what they want to be when they grow up. I really was not sure what I wanted to do. I've always liked hanging out with kids and working with kids, but when I was in high school, I got a job at a daycare and I fell in love just working with the kids and teaching, and that was when I decided. And so, then I went on to school and now I teach big kids. Fourth graders.

Ashley Mengwasser: The rest is history, right? When did you know, Melissa, that you wanted to become a teacher?

Melissa Williamson: I was the one who knew from early on that I wanted to be a teacher. I was that little girl that was playing school with my sisters, bossing them around, having them play with me. So I knew from early on I wanted to be a teacher. And so as soon as I was able to graduate high school and go to college, that's exactly what I went for, and the rest is history.

Ashley Mengwasser: Can you imagine a different career for yourself? What would you even do instead, if you were going to do something totally different from teaching?

Melissa Williamson: I always say that if I had to do something different, I would be a meteorologist, even though it's so different. When it's hurricane season, I really like watching the news and following and tracking hurricanes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, that's good. Should we call you Hurricane Melissa? That might give the wrong impression. That's a cool nickname though. Can you tell us about the weather in your area today? I bet it you know it. Have you already checked your weather?

Melissa Williamson: Today, it's actually super nice here today. It was a little bit chilly when we woke up this morning and then it was nice and warm this afternoon, but not blistering hot like it's been.

Ashley Mengwasser: You would be such a relatable, friendly voice on the news. I highly endorse this if it doesn't work out. What about you, Jennifer? What would you do if you imagined a completely different career for yourself?

Jennifer Bell: Well, I actually have two. One you're going to find funny. I actually would really love to work in ministry. That's one of my other passions. Especially working with women. But also I would love to be a podcast host. I am a podcast guru. I love podcasts. They're my favorite things. So that would be fun too.

Ashley Mengwasser: I love it. Get yourself a microphone and start tomorrow. Okay? You and Melissa already have an act going here. I love it. Well, tell me about Langston Road Elementary. Who wants to take this one?

Melissa Williamson: Langston Road is such a family atmosphere. That's the one thing that I love about our school is we are such a family. I was fortunate enough to be on the first faculty and staff whenever we opened the school about eight or nine years ago. And so ever since we've been there, we just have created this family culture, not just amongst the staff, but with our families and students as well. We have siblings that have come through the school, and then the next set comes through. We really have gotten to know their families and grandparents. So it's just a family environment where we look out for each other.

Jennifer Bell: Absolutely. I second that. And I say that we really fully invest in our kids. They are not just ours. The year that we have them. We invest from year to year. And we follow them, keep up with him. "How are you doing today? How's this school year going?" And so we are just one big family. We love it.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's special. Do you two work together as part of your jobs there?

Jennifer Bell: We don't ... We're at different grade levels, and so we actually don't get to interact a whole lot during the day, but we do some vertical type conversations.

Ashley Mengwasser: To talk about social studies.

Melissa Williamson: Yes. And we're both in the social studies collaboration team, so that's where we work more together. A PLT is a professional learning team, and it's just where we get together as a team and decide next steps that need to be taken for the kids, what needs to be done as the school, and just what are we going to do next, making an action plan, just to make our teaching more effective.

Ashley Mengwasser: And how about verticals? Describe.

Jennifer Bell: So vertically, we recently just did some work with assessment. So we took as a grade level, our assessments for one standard specifically. And we had vertical conversations from kindergarten, or actually from pre-K all the way to fifth grade, where we really dug in. We looked at the assessments, we looked at the DOK levels, and we decided, are they gradually growing and in a way that makes sense for the grade levels? And we gave feedback to one another on ways that we could change and maybe we can add more rigor, or maybe we should pinpoint a standard in a more specific way. And so just supporting each other across the school, instead of just as a fourth grade team or a kindergarten team in isolation.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's wonderful. So educators, you really are your own community. You build each other up, and to have the best impact on the students it truly does take a village. Inquiring minds will want to know. So here are three inquisitive questions about you. How would you answer these questions about your personal lives? Jennifer, you first. What do you feel is your best trait?

Jennifer Bell: Oh, I think probably I will talk to just about anybody. I actually would consider myself an introvert in the sense that I'm shy, but I'm not. Absolutely. I'm shy and I worry about what people like me, but I'm so interested in other people that I overcome it because I want to meet them. I will talk to random people in the grocery line at the grocery store, and so it opens up doors for relationships a lot in my life, being able to just talk to people.

Ashley Mengwasser: Listen, I've gone to every grocery store in this city, and a good piece of produce can spark any good conversation. I know that firsthand. As do you. Second question, Jennifer, Do you have a hidden talent or surprising skill?

Jennifer Bell: No, not really. I'm not usually very talented in sports or writing, but I think I'm a good friend, if that's a talent.

Ashley Mengwasser: I think your friends would say that that is a talent, 100%. And last question, what is one thing that you need in each day and one thing that you want in each day?

Jennifer Bell: I think one thing that I need every single day to feel accomplish at the end of the day is to know that I've made somebody smile, or that I've made a difference for somebody. My want is certainly coffee. I would like to have coffee every day at some point.

Ashley Mengwasser: Those are good choices. Same questions for you, Melissa. What do you feel is your best trait?

Melissa Williamson: Oh goodness. This is a hard one to answer. I would probably say I try really hard to think about others and how they're feeling. So that can be a little bit of a people pleaser, so it's kind of a bad trait and a negative trait at the same time. But I really try to think about how other people are feeling in a situation and kind of look out for them. That's kind of my first thought in situations is what someone else is feeling and how I can make them feel better.

Ashley Mengwasser: Empathy is a beautiful thing. Do you have a hidden talent or surprising skill?

Melissa Williamson: I used to play the piano.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's impressive.

Melissa Williamson: So, I can read music, but I haven't played in a while, so I wouldn't say that I'm that good at it.

Ashley Mengwasser: Well, we're about to put a piano on that stage behind you. Bring it in, Christie. Just kidding. I wouldn't do that to you. What is one thing that you need in each day and one thing that you want in each day, Melissa?

Melissa Williamson: Well, I would say coffee is a need for me each day. She said it's a want, but I need that to start my day, and to have enough energy to deal with my 20 little five-year-olds all day. A want, I like to end each day with just a little bit of quiet time alone. I have three children, and so sometimes that is just impossible to get, but I love to have just a few minutes to myself at the end of each day.

Ashley Mengwasser: Kids at school, kids at home. You should at least be allotted your quiet time. On to the subject at hand. Let's start by defining inquiry based learning. Jennifer, you've said that it's about noticing, asking questions and seeking answers. So define inquiry based learning for our listeners.

Jennifer Bell: Okay. Inquiry based learning, if you just go to the root inquiry, inquiry means to inquire. We are getting kids to ask questions. That's ultimately what it is. But then we want them to go beyond that. You're not only asking the questions, but your curiosity is driving you to answer the question. And whatever format has been laid out before you that you are going to answer this question, I think that too it's important that inquiry-based learning is defined as authentic learning experiences. It's not read, answer a question. It is authentic. It is driven by that authenticity.

Ashley Mengwasser: I love that. So why did you choose inquiry-based learning for social studies? How did that come about for each of you?

Jennifer Bell: Well, for me it was because I went to a district training. I had actually never heard of inquiry work before. As an early teacher, I was probably my second or third year and I was really having a hard time getting my kids engaged. At fifth grade, they were not very interested in social studies. It was just we read, we answer questions. And I went to this training, and it was phenomenal. I was so engaged the whole time. And I'll tell you a little bit about me. I have a hard time paying attention. I was that kid that squirreled and watched the walls and looked out the window. I was engaged the entire time, and I was excited, and I knew I wanted to bring that back into my classroom.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's when you knew. What about for you, Melissa?

Melissa Williamson: For me, it started out as a district requirement. They said, "This is the kind of teaching that we're going to try." And so of course following the rules, I tried it. And I actually loved it. I saw the engagement in the children and how much learning they were doing without me just sitting and explaining the situation to them. They were really engaged in the learning process. And so once I saw how much engagement the kids had, that really sold me on this inquiry based learning.

Ashley Mengwasser: And that's kids that are kindergartners engaged in the learning process, which I find interesting. How do you know that your students are learning at each of these grade levels? You first, Melissa. For kindergarten, how do you know that they're learning?

Melissa Williamson: For me, it's all about the conversations. Just listening to the things that they're saying with their classmates and the things that they're saying with me, whenever we're having whole group conversations, I can really listen to the kind of learning that they are partaking in just by the conversations that we're having.

Ashley Mengwasser: How about in fourth grade, Jennifer?

Jennifer Bell: It's very similar. It is very informal, observational. A lot of times we're assessing their knowledge through that conversation. We sometimes will hold debates. We can see through debates how much they've held onto. Oftentimes we're looking for that synthesizing. Were they able to take this information and synthesize it into new information? Were they able to retain it and hold onto it? But that assessment format might be more of a debate or listening to partner talks and things like that. But you can assess formally as well. It doesn't have to be though. That's the exciting part about it. You don't have to have a typed up 10 question test. It can be very informal.

Ashley Mengwasser: And that's how you can gauge how much they're retaining. What are your must haves for a successful inquiry based classroom? What do you need to make this happen?

Melissa Williamson: One thing that you need are primary sources, which for us, it's a lot of times photographs and pictures, especially in kindergarten. I know the upper grades, they can use documents and videos and things like that. We use a lot of photographs and objects. You can use those to really teach your standards.

Ashley Mengwasser: What do you use, Jennifer, in your class?

Jennifer Bell: We also use a lot of photographs, but we might take it to the next level and make sure we pay attention to the caption on photograph. And then we might accompany it with primary source where somebody's telling a story through a specific perspective. We might have a map, things like that. We might have a speech recorded from somebody that we're trying to get them to notice some things about. And so it just depends on what our learning target is and what we want them to accomplish, and then we'll choose primary sources from there.

Ashley Mengwasser: Help us understand the fine detail of what this looks like in the elementary setting. Describe maybe the best inquiry based lesson that you've done in your classroom, and why you think it worked. What's your best lesson?

Melissa Williamson: Well, for kindergarten, because our kids are young and they are still learning how to do school, we do a lot of guided inquiry lessons, to where I am helping guide them to meet the standard and to understand the standards that they need to learn. So one of my favorite lessons that are inquiry based is called a globe toss, because in kindergarten we have to teach maps and globes, and I have a globe that's a beach ball. And I'll sit the kids in a circle, and we'll just toss the globe around, and I'll just get them to tell me if their thumb lands on land or water, and we'll make a little chart about it. But I don't tell them anything. I just chart what they land on, and then they are able to come up with the information that the earth is made up of more water than land.

Ashley Mengwasser: Wow.

Melissa Williamson: Just with that activity.

Ashley Mengwasser: Just synthesizing that information

Melissa Williamson: And without any instruction. And they think they're just playing a ball game, because here they are tossing this ball around, when really we're doing some deep learning and understanding of our standards.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's both creative, and you get to have a beach ball in your classroom year-round, which sounds like fun to me.

Melissa Williamson: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Jennifer, what's the best lesson you feel like you've done with fourth graders?

Jennifer Bell: Yeah, absolutely. Okay, so there's a lot of great lessons. So what I want to first say is that our lessons layer in more pieces than maybe kindergarten classroom would. So I'm going to walk you through a couple of the pieces for a lesson that I taught.

Ashley Mengwasser: Please.

Jennifer Bell: So, part of our standard is they have to understand the obstacles that Americans faced as they began moving west on the Oregon Trail. And so instead of just telling them these are the obstacles they were going to face, we let them discover them. And so we go through and kind layer in some documents to help them come to this on their own instead of me telling them. And so maybe my first document is going to be a map. And I'm going to have on this map the natural resources and we're going to look for the Oregon trail and follow it. And we're going to have them begin thinking, "What are some of the stops that they're going to face on the way? What are some of the things you're seeing?" And to just have them notice what's on the map. So that would be step one. And then I would have them look at an image. The image would be a wagon train. And so they're looking at this wagon train, and it specifically has those natural resources in the back. So now they're synthesizing, what did they learn from the map? Now they've looked at this photo that has that natural resource in the back. We want them to start to identify the mountain ranges and the rivers. Those are going to be obstacles. And then from there we will read perspectives of a pioneer, an actual pioneer who has tracked on this trail.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, I love that.

Jennifer Bell: And we see through her story these things that's happening. And one of them is one of her family members gets sick of cholera. And so we read that story, we talk about it. "Oh, what if that was us?" We put that hat on. "If I was Abigail, how would I feel?" And then after all that, we set up a simulation. It's my favorite simulation of the year, and it has stations of different places you would stop at on the Oregon Trail, and now they're using all of this that they've learned from these other documents. And they're remembering that as they're going to these stations where first they're stopping at a mountain range, next they're going across a river, and they roll dice at each station to tell them which one to go to next. By the time they finish this, they've experienced these obstacles. They've seen these obstacles, they've heard a story of them, they remember it. They will tell me every single time what obstacles that they faced amid passing through the Oregon Trail.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes. That's so vivid. And it's engaging all of their senses.

Jennifer Bell: Yeah, it's so interactive.

Ashley Mengwasser: I'm sure they're dreaming about that. It doesn't get more immersive than that. Do you ever run into resistance with this approach? Maybe a teacher says, "Oh, my students can't do that. They're too young for inquiry based learning," or, "This might be too hard for my students." What do you say to that kind of reaction?

Melissa Williamson: I think that is one thing that you will get with a lot of primary teachers, because our kids are young, and they are just now learning how to do school. But I say give it a try. Try a lesson. The Georgia Department of Education has a lot of good resources for inquiry. That's actually where I got the globe toss lesson. If you just give one inquiry lesson a try, I think you'll be hooked from there once you see how well the kids are engaged, and how much authentic learning that they're doing without you just having to stand up and lecture them on whatever standard it is they need to learn.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah. What's your take, Jennifer?

Jennifer Bell: I agree. I say give it a try, but also give yourself grace. It might not feel comfortable at first. Try it out. Have somebody come alongside you and just see. Once you see how engaged the kids are, you're hooked. You can't go back. This year I have a very diverse group of kids. I have kids that receive special education services, ESOL services. These students are not always confident at school, and they feel like reading is oftentimes an area of weakness, but they can look at a picture, and they can look at a map and they can see things, and they can be curious. And so because they're hooked in that way. I just recently yesterday did a lesson, and when I was done with it they were just analyzing pictures. When I got done they could not wait to go back and read, because now they wanted to know what actually happened. I never told them. I wasn't going to tell them. I just wanted them to be hooked. They were going to go back and read to find out what actually happened and they couldn't wait. They were practically running to their seats.

Ashley Mengwasser: Look at that. So in terms of benefits then, that speaks to engagement using inquiry-based learning and social studies. What other benefits do you see in their understanding and their retention of content and their attitudes about social studies? What do you see?

Melissa Williamson: Definitely see the retention of the content. They remember the activities where they were involved, and they don't always see it as learning because they think it's just playtime or something. Social studies can be one of my kids' favorite time of the day because they think we're going to do something super fun and learning at the same time.

Ashley Mengwasser: What benefits do you see, Jennifer?

Jennifer Bell: Absolutely the same. The engagement is the biggest one. And the authentic learning experiences that they will hold onto them. Rote memorization, if they memorize a couple facts, they're not going to hold onto that forever, but they might forever remember their experience traveling along the Oregon Trail, the conversations they had with their friends. They're going to remember the visualization of that picture where they actually saw these things happening. And so I think that just creating lifelong learners to not just, "Oh, I'm going to memorize it, pass a test and move on."

Ashley Mengwasser: It sounds so exciting. I literally have goosebumps, to come into your classroom and do these activities, because they sound like activities. It doesn't feel like just blase learning. You're elevating the learning and elevating the content. So we want to get people on board with this. If you could give just one piece of advice to a teacher who's just getting started with inquiry based learning, what is your piece of advice?

Melissa Williamson: I think for me, my one piece of advice would be think about the next standard that needs to be taught, and find a picture that would match that standard, and then just put it in front of your kids and let the conversation begin. That's my first advice. Just try that.

Ashley Mengwasser: Picture is worth a thousand words, Jennifer.

Melissa Williamson: And you get a lot of conversations from that picture.

Jennifer Bell: Absolutely. And I love what she said. Pick your standard. Pick whatever you it is that you're going to teach next. If you have that starting point, if you know what you want your outcome to be, you're going to be way more comfortable with allowing the inquiry to happen. Oftentimes, I know that teachers feel uncomfortable because they want the yes or no answers. The ones that they know for sure the kids are going to answer the way they want them to. But if you know what you want your end target to be first, you're going to choose documents that are going to get you there. And so that'll just help build your confidence.

Ashley Mengwasser: How about some super simple, fun motivational tips or teaching techniques for inquiry-based learning? Can you think of a couple you use in your classroom every day, beyond pictures? What can you share?

Jennifer Bell: I always say, putting on hats is a big thing in our classroom. They can all tell you what that means to put on a new hat. We like to be in the perspective of whoever it is that we're learning through, whether it's a group, whether it's an individual. So I always say, "Okay, let's take off our hats. We get to be somebody new for a little while. Let's pick up," and I'll say, "George Washington. Put on your George Washington hat. We are looking ..." And I want them to really be able to put themselves into that situation to make it more real to so they can really connect to it.

Ashley Mengwasser: I love that. I also love hats.

Melissa Williamson: I would like to tell teachers to allow your kids to talk, and it might get a little bit loud and a little bit noisy, and everyone might not be sitting crisscross apple sauce quietly but giving them that time to have conversations. So be patient and let the kids have that conversation, even if it gets a little bit louder than what you want it to, it's allowing them to have the conversations that are needed.

Ashley Mengwasser: Okay. So that wild sound is the din of learning, right? It's good talking. It's good sound. Is there a film or TV series out there that you think captures the beauty of IBL? Either of you seen anything lately that sparks your interest?

Jennifer Bell: I actually am a huge fan of When Calls the Heart, Elizabeth Thornton. She's a pioneer teacher, and she is all about authentic learning experiences. And I'm just so impressed by her. But she takes her kids out into the real world, all different age groups, all different learning styles, and they're all accomplishing the same task of learning whatever it is she has planned. And she's fun. I recommend that. She's a fun one to watch.

Ashley Mengwasser: When Calls the Heart. What platform's that on?

Jennifer Bell: I think it's Hallmark, maybe.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, oh, it's a Hallmark special. Oh, then it's full of good feelings, Jennifer. Is that part of why you like it?

Jennifer Bell: It is. Oh, it's so full of good feelings. I feel so happy every time I watch it.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, I love that. You are a TV guide, teacher edition. Can you think of anything, Melissa?

Melissa Williamson: I cannot think of any TV shows really, because at my house we always have it on the kids shows. So I don't get a lot of time to watch TV.

Ashley Mengwasser: You're like, "I haven't watched any content for myself in a long time."

Melissa Williamson: Not in a while.

Ashley Mengwasser: Well, we'll leave it to Jennifer for our recommendations. Thank you both so much. I could play 20 questions with you two all day long talking about inquiry based learning. Thank you, Jennifer and Melissa, for being here today. We appreciate it.

Melissa Williamson: Thank you for having us.

Jennifer Bell: Thank you.

Ashley Mengwasser: Keep up the good work. You're really making a difference. I can feel it in my bones. You listeners may be inquiring about what's next for this podcast community. Goodbyes make me tearful, so we'll say, see you soon. Because it's true. I have a secret. There's more classroom conversations in store. That's right. We will see a season three, and it's coming soon. Signing off. I'm Ashley Mengwasser. It's a privilege to be your host and to bring you teacher voices from around the state of Georgia, like Jennifer's and Melissa's. Until we meet again and every day between today in our return, I hope you'll stand proud and confident in the truth that you're a great teacher. Goodbye for now. Funding for Classroom Conversations is made possible through the School Climate Transformation Grant.