One of the highlights of this school year has been the funding of my Donors Choose project. The previous year’s request for four digital cameras didn’t even come close to being fulfilled. This year, when I applied for two digital cameras, our goal was reached. Add the digital camera acquired through Arts Educator 2.0 last year to the generous donations from Donors Choose this year, and my classes now have the technology to learn the basics of digital photography. Since I was faced with writing a new lesson plan from scratch for this content, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to use inquiry learning strategies.
And, the result has been successful. Students worked in pre-determined small groups with the goals of producing well-composed images. The unit was broken down into “staged” photos and “candid” photos. For their staged photos, students focused on the elements they could control, like: lighting, staging, orientation, and angle. A box of crayons became their subject matter, and – oh, the ideas they came up with! Each student was charged with taking 5 staged photos (of a single composition or of 5 different compositions – many chose the latter). Of those 5 photos, they selected the best using the grading rubric as a guide. I set the due date for the following day so that they had some time to “forget” what their photos looked like and had a “fresh set of eyes” with which to see their artwork.


They did the same thing with candid photos. Only this time, student photographers were unable to control certain elements, like: lighting and movement. Each student took 5 candid photos of a model (or models) in dynamic compositions. Having completed the staged photos first, the students were setting up their shots to catch the action in the frame. One student (who was particularly critical of the way I taught 7th grade) said to me: “I really like this photography stuff.” I’m glad. I liked the way it turned out, too. The students came up with really interesting shots! Another student said: “I can see myself doing this as a career – taking photos – maybe, even being in front of the camera.”

So, how did I use inquiry? To me, the entire struggle of inquiry is how to allow students as much freedom as possible while still setting a precedent for their success (an end result). What kinds of things could I predict from an unknown outcome? How can I word the objectives and assessment criteria to promote this freedom? I think this is something I can really wrap my head around. It’s like a “what if” game. I try to think about the most unusual idea a student might develop at one end of the spectrum, but also what a student without much interest / motivation would come up with. I write the objective to be as general as possible to accommodate all learning abilities and creativity levels while maintaining a challenging goal for students to attain. Each grading rubric is tied directly to the objectives of the unit. I read over the rubric at the beginning of each lesson so students know what is expected of them, and I urge them to use their own style. I try to impress upon students that I want them to be free to create within the boundaries of the lesson.
This unit seems to be more successful in comparison to my other Arts Educator 2.0 lessons because I pushed myself outside my comfort zone – allowing for more unstructured learning.
At this stage of the game (my third year of teaching at the middle school level), I think I’ve settled on writing inquiry lessons that are built this way. They need to have structure. They need to have a jumping off point and a conclusion – at least to suit my personal teaching style. But, in-between, they can have so many possibilities for learning.
I may have found the balance between teacher-directed and inquiry-based learning for my classroom.