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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.

Following the success of our foray into installation art this year, I continued the project with the second 9 weeks students. The students saw the same artist examples and were introduced to installation art concepts via the same power point presentation. But, these groups had already seen what the first 9 weeks groups did. This time, I wanted to really focus on the “interactive” nature of installation art. I stressed this by continually asking student groups how their viewers would potentially interact with the space / piece. I viewed my role as “facilitator.” I tried to guide students towards an answer without giving it to them. At times I provided suggestions. But, mostly, they were self-reliant. This is what I really wanted to study this year. How much freedom do I give them to learn and create in an inquiry environment while getting to a solid conclusion (meeting standards, objectives, and / or goals)?

Now that I’ve taught this lesson multiple times multiple ways, I can say that there is a comfortable (and, of course, I refer to just what’s comfortable to me) balance. I want students to have as much freedom within the lesson as possible to be creative, but it has to provide some critical initial content, structure, and / or restrictions. There also may need to be a point at which the facilitator steps in and kind of “pulls it back together.” The students may need to be reminded of the time constraints, limitation of materials, or (in this example) group management. Are all members of the group participating fully? Has anyone finished their task and are they free to help in other areas? Is the group leader role being fulfilled? When dealing with individual inquiry, it may look like this: “Is the student on task?” “Do they need direction / motivation?” or “Are they reaching the goals?”

2nd period stood out among the rest of the installation art groups because of their approach. They chose to mimic Yayoi Kusama’s style, but put their own twist on it. This group worked well as a team. They covered the walls and floor of a small nook in a high traffic area with white paper. Then, they traced and cut out hundreds of circles in varying sizes and colors. One person was delegated to paint “m” or “s” on the circles. One person painted faces on them. One person created a vote tallying poster for students to interact with. Others covered the walls and floor with the paper cut-out skittles and m&ms. The installation begged to be interacted with. In fact, this group invited that interaction. Everyone who walked through that hallway noticed. Most students voted (Skittles won if you were wondering). And, it lasted the longest out of all the installations due to its location – and maybe its popularity.




Other group ideas included: a space-y mural with hanging stars, a sea curtain – – installed in the same hallway as the “why is the hallway blue?” installation, and a stained glass piece I was also rather fond of.



Some of the key factors for success in this lesson were due to the way it was structured. Students experienced an introduction. Then, they planned their installation by way of a loosely guided worksheet (ex. where will you place your installation, what materials will you need, etc.). And, finally, they learned through inquiry. They were making choices as they went: “Will this work? No? Then we have to find another way to make it work. Do we have this available? Yes? Good. Let’s use that.” They were dependent on the group’s success, but also had a great deal of individual creativity and freedom. Frequently, I noticed students going to the leader and asking for his opinion on things to add, change, or remove. In fact, the leader would often get the group’s attention so they could decide as a team. It definitely had a real-world feel. How would the boss of a company accept ideas from his team? How can you make all members feel valued? And, how can you welcome that input while deciding not all ideas are the best ones?

The 7th grade students who participated in the installation art lesson in my classroom recently went on a tour of the Mattress Factory museum as a part of “The Space I’m In” experience. And, this is really the best part: I have clear evidence of their learning! I heard, first hand, the responses they were giving to the tour guides. I read written responses they provided in sketchbooks they carried around with them. And, I know that what they experienced made an impact on them based on their bus-ride-home conversations.

Last year, I didn’t plan to teach installation art in my classroom as a part of “The Space I’m In.” And, yes, the students had a great time using the materials from the mattress factory. But, I didn’t see that they “got it” like this year’s group of students did. I mean, it was all over their faces!
I want students to EXPERIENCE learning art this way. I want to see how many lessons I can adapt to a similar format. I think that inquiry is possible, relevant, and even crucial to student success. I just need to find my own balance within it. Where’d that tightrope go?

Why is the Hall Blue?

Everyone in school was asking!
Why is the hall blue? Who did it? Why did they do it? It’s so cool!

Well, THIS is what happened when I took my first big leap into inquiry this year. Just as last year, I have the opportunity to work with IU1’s “The Space I’m In” project. “The Space I’m In” is an interdisciplinary collaboration between a visual arts and a core content teacher. My partner and I had a lot more time to plan and a lot more experience to go on this year. We had known that the time frame within which to work was way too crunched last year. In addition, I noticed that the visual art content needed to be “beefed up.” I leapt at the chance to teach installation art in (and out of) my classroom using inquiry strategies! From the beginning I knew I wanted to treat this as a student-lead learning experience with minimal input from me. But, as this year’s question poses… where do I find the balance between what the students do and what I do?

I started off with a Power Point presentation featuring artists who were known for installation art. We looked at examples of installation art and discussed the experience of viewing it through multi-sensory perception. From there, students formed groups to plan out their own installation art project in our school. They loved the idea of “taking art out of the classroom.” I have to say that when I went to my principal for permission, I had a lot of doubt. All I could really tell her was that we would be using materials found in the school in an unconventional way. I promised that we would not disrupt the flow of traffic and would not cause damage to the school in any way.

I’ll come back to the “traffic flow” condition in a moment. Because, you’re going to come to a point as you read where you’ll say to yourself: “Gee, that MIGHT disrupt the flow of traffic.”

Four sections of 7th grade, 2 days, and a chaos circus later, my students pulled off some really cool installations! The first group planned to create a Mario Merz-inspired neon-like school logo. They wrapped LED lights around paper rolled letters forming the BF in Ben Franklin. The second section was very large and they had been broken into two groups. One group wanted to create a Skittles rainbow that hung in the hallway, but had to abandon ship when they realized how labor intensive it would be for the time allotted. The other group in that section planned to create a jungle in the hallway outside of my room. Many students were on task, but I spent a lot of time dealing with the behavior problems of students who weren’t interested. I’d say that the size of that class contributed to the disturbances. The third section’s idea involved another school program – the Olweus Anti-Bullying Campaign. Students in this class created stars to stick to the floor, not unlike the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The stars had words on them that you read as you walked. Each phrase was 5 words and at the end of the “walk,” a poster spelled out the inspirational message. One example was: “Be Bully Free at BF.” The teachers liked the idea so much the posters are still hanging up. The stars didn’t last long as students walked over them constantly. Next time we’ll laminate them!

As for the final section, the last period of the day… these students came up with an idea that was truly inspired from the start. They were so enthralled with the work of James Turrell, Christo, and Jeanne-Claude that they wanted to recreate the experience of being immersed in color. They wanted to mimic the effect of walking through James Turrell’s “The Light Inside.” The students planned to “wrap” the entire hallway with blue paper, just like Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped buildings. And, they wanted to get started right away! They took roll paper downstairs into the basement leading to the music room and began measuring out the floor. The plan was to cover the floor, ceiling, and both walls to surround viewers. I helped students cover the floor that day. They had planned on completing the walls on the next day and then tackle the ceiling on the third.

This is the part where you, smart reader, say: “Wait… isn’t that going to disrupt the flow of traffic?”

Ah, yes. Yes, it did. But, I thought students who traveled that hallway would be much more courteous than they were. By the time the dismissal bell rang at the end of the day, our beautifully laid blue floor looked like this:

And, it was dangerous (slippery) to walk on.

What followed could only be described as a teachable moment. A lot of the students had noticed the floor was demolished when they came in for breakfast the next morning. I told them we’d talk about it in class and maybe alter our plans, a little. When class time came around, I sat them down (eager as they were to continue their massive undertaking), and talked about the temporary nature of this project and how sometimes we have to take a detour from our original idea to accommodate things we may not have expected. The students were disappointed, but decided to continue by just doing the walls. After the walls were covered, the students decided to get more people involved! They wanted to turn the blue walls into a “fishbowl” type experience. They began by drawing fish, seaweed, treasure chests, etc. And, then they invited anyone who was walking in the hall to add to it.



The result was still a great accomplishment and garnered a lot of attention from students who had no idea what it was all about. That was the greatest part about the whole experience. Students who were not in 7th grade saw these things happening around the school and didn’t know why. I allowed the participating students to really explain what it was and why they did it. In that way, they were learning by teaching others, too!

It was a really great opportunity to have students make choices, lead their learning, and discover the process themselves. There was richness to the learning that I had hoped would happen. They still talk about this project when I see them! In fact, other students still talk about this project – – the ones who just viewed it. The teachers still talk about it. And, the students who will be doing this project next semester are already asking about it.

Student: “Miss Capuzzi, can we watch the Wizard of Oz?”

Me: “No.”*


“Wait… why?”

Student: “Because I want to watch it. We can watch it while we work.”

Me: “Hmm… I’ll think about it.”

When I came to IU1 for our CIG meeting Monday, December 19, 2011, I had this conversation in the back of my head. Because I am still a relatively new teacher, I rarely stray from my collection of lesson plans. They are like a security blanket for me. But, I realize that some of my lessons are too cut-and-dry. So, allowing for student suggestions became one of the personal goals I had set for myself this year.

We were about to start our unit on monochromatic painting in 7th grade and usually I set up a holiday-themed still life for students to study value from. I had taught the “Monochromatic Still Life” lesson in the previous semester with average results.

Since a student had showed interest in the movie, The Wizard of Oz, I was trying to make a connection between the black and white world of Dorothy’s bedroom and a monochromatic painting of the student’s bedroom.

David Berlin sat down with our collaborative inquiry group (CIG) and I brought up the idea of incorporating the movie into my class. David proposed a multi-part project where students used their creativity to develop a fantasy world of their own. We talked about only showing the clip where Dorothy leaves her bedroom and enters Munchkinland. Students would create a monochromatic replica of their bedroom (meeting the value objectives I was aiming for) and place a door (separate sheet of paper) that opened to a full color world of wonder.

I loved that idea! For this project, the concept had to be original and we discussed symbolism in class. The students titled the project “My Oz.” And, they really got into it! There was an Oz made entirely of chocolate, one where Christmas lasted all year long, and others filled with student’s favorite things.

[student art coming soon]

I feel that changing this project to suit student interest made a huge difference in the students’ desire to learn something new. They took pride in their work, made important connections with what they were learning, and wanted to share their ideas with the class. They almost didn’t complain about having to paint the “black and white part” because it was so personal for them. I will definitely keep teaching the monochromatic painting lesson this way in the future. Providing more opportunities for choice-based learning is part of the balance I am seeking with this year’s research.

*Note that my immediate response was to say “No.” (I’m trying to change that about myself!) And, in this instance, I’m really glad I didn’t stick with my first answer!!!

When deciding how to approach this year’s course, the main thing I was struggling with was how to manage the technical aspects of performing research with a variety of factors like: ability levels, background, class size, etc. I asked the members of my collaborative inquiry group (CIG) as well as an attending facilitator, James Ritchey, for advice during our Skype meeting on Thursday, December 1, 2011.

My question:
Do I conduct research using scientific methodology for comparing the results between direct instruction and inquiry based strategies – meaning the use of a control group versus an experimental group with same-age students?

James’ response:
We can consider this type of study “action research.” Since you’ve already taught a particular lesson one way, you don’t need a control group. You can just teach using inquiry-based strategies and compare it to previous experience. Also, there are many different approaches and direct-instruction is not necessarily the opposite of inquiry-based. You can have a materials-based, skills-based, or any other myriad approaches based on content, ideas, facts, emotional expression, history, etc. If you are thinking you are already comfortable with inquiry, then what is the next direction or challenge?

This conversation really made me look at what I was trying to accomplish. I want to figure out which teaching strategies work best for certain skills. Finding the balance between giving instruction and not giving instruction (or when to do so) is the biggest struggle for me.

I specifically remember one CIG meeting where Mary Elizabeth shared a chart that visually depicted the stages of inquiry. On one side, you could see that a clear direct approach was taken. And, on the other side, an full inquiry approach was used. There were in-between stages that described some of the strategies I tried. That give-and-take was what really the basis of what I wanted to research this year. Where is the balance between the two approaches and when is it appropriate to use one or the other or a combination of the two? MEM, if you are reading this and have it available, can you post that chart for our CIG (or anyone who is interested) to look at?

I think at this point, I can still say that teaching entirely to one modality is not necessarily the best practice and probably not what I envisioned aiming for. I think the best practice is to use a variety of teaching strategies, just like using a variety of assessment strategies reaches more learners. I need to find that balance.

Moving forward, how can I plan for the best uses of inquiry?

The last two sentences in the article: Allowing Artistic Agency in the Elementary Classroom by David Rufo, are particularly insightful and I will use these notions to inform further exploration of inquiry in my classroom this year.

Rufo states: “Children need time to create unfettered by systems, institutional expectations, and government-directed assessments.  Art does not conveniently fit into, and should not be forced to adhere to, the ways in which other curricula are designed and put into practice.”  Rufo provided Open Studio and Read Aloud time for his classes.  He found that during these times, students felt more comfortable creating without the confines of a predetermined lesson.  Through observation, Rufo realized that the process was more important than the product.  I believe this to be true.  However, I feel as though I am expected to produce “take-home” artwork.  This expectation comes from parents, other teachers, and administration.  Even though I want to stress creativity and experiential learning, parents want to see an end result.

One of the things I do when planning a lesson is decide what process or skill I want to teach and figure out which project suits that need best. Students can then take home a project and explain what they learned, or more importantly, how they learned it.  Some of the lessons I have presented as inquiry-based lessons needed more structure than others.  What would happen if I didn’t structure as much?  Would it take longer?  Would the students learn more or become frustrated without a result?

When I think about inquiry, I think about the process of learning.  How do students come about finding new information or have an experience?  How can I set up an environment or an opportunity to allow for that discovery?  The word: inquire means to question.  Becky Gartley told me she always starts with a question.  What is that question?  What question will ignite those creative thoughts?  What will spark critical thinking?  Is it an experience?  How can I plan for and provide an experience that will allow students freedom in their learning choices?

David Rufo was interested in allowing for more latitude, in giving students more freedom to choose their learning experiences.  He uses the term self-governance.  I am concerned with how to meet the expectations of teaching my discipline (meeting standards, adopting anchors, planning interdisciplinary lessons, etc) while allowing for as much student self-governance as possible.  As a facilitator of inquiry, the teacher needs to make a decision when something is or is not working.  That’s the balance I attempt to seek out.

Quote #2: “Collaborative inquiry typically involves an ongoing cycle of reflection, inquiry, and action specific to participants’ immediate contexts. Built on the belief that learning is active, social, and constructed, collaborative inquiry groups create dialogic and relational learning environments that challenge the traditional model of professional development where “experts” provide teachers with episodic updates” (Gates, 2010, p. 11).

Discussion question: How is your Arts Educator 2.0 collaborative inquiry group reflecting on themes that are relevant to the unique teaching contexts belonging to members of the group?


Our Collaborative Inquiry Group (CIG), “The Balancing Act,” will reflect on the theme of balance.  Based on prior experiences with ArtsEducator2.0, the members or our CIG individually and collectively agreed that we wanted to balance out what we had previously studied with regards to collaborative inquiry in our classrooms.

The members of our group can find similarities and differences within our individual teaching philosophies and methods, positions, experience, content areas, and in many other ways large or small we have yet to discover.  We have only one music teacher.  But, this teacher has the same age-level students as other members of the group.  We only have two high school teachers.  But those members teach the same content area as other members.  We have two teachers that work together in the same school.  But, through AE2.0, we can collaborate across several schools and districts.  We have four members who have worked together in the same CIG as last year.  But, we feel like we are an entirely new group with new members, a new focus, and new opportunities to share, learn, and grow.  This diversity makes for a well-rounded grouping of professional educators.  While we each have unique circumstances, we plan on bringing them together to form rich collaborative learning experiences.

Our individual research will fall under the general theme, but have individual purpose.  For example, some members felt like inquiry based teaching strategies were too “freeform” for their production expectations.  Others felt that they needed to create a more student-centered learning environment.  And still others plan to study balance from a different perspective.

My take on our theme has to do with how much “freedom” I should allow within the context of inquiry based learning with younger students.  This wondering is similar to some members of the group, yet differs from those who teach older students.  I find that I need to teach procedures for using stations and consider the physical classroom environment.  I need to give students instructions on how to work within the format of inquiry.  It needs to be centered on questioning techniques, research, discovery, and reflection.  I need to provide many more opportunities for this type of learning.  So, this year, I would like to work towards finding the balance between structure and freedom.  While I believe inquiry-based learning is a rich and fulfilling way for students to discover information on their own, I struggle with the idea that some concepts are concrete and require other instructional strategies.  I guess the essential sub-questions (for me) will end up being: When should I use inquiry-based learning strategies?, How do I decide what content is best suited for these strategies?, and In what ways can I teach technique, skill, or process using these strategies?  I look forward to researching our topic, implementing fresh ideas, and collaborating with my fellow arts colleagues.  What are your thoughts on these topics?  Do these same “problems” come up in your classrooms?


Just as a side note, I want to say that this quote very eloquently sums up how I feel about inquiry.

September 2020

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