Inspiring inquiry through picture books.

"The bridge will only take you halfway there, to those mysterious lands you long to see. Through gypsy camps and swirling Arab fair, and moonlit woods where unicorns run free. So come and walk awhile with me and share the twisting trails and wondrous worlds I've known. But this bridge will only take you halfway there. The last few steps you have to take alone."

—    Shel Silverstein

Well before I became interested in inquiry-based learning, I was passionate about the role of literature – particularly picture books – in the classroom.  I will never forget a lecture given by Walter McVitty when I was in my first year of study at teacher’s college here in Melbourne. I think he planted the seed for what would be a life-long love affair with children’s books.  In one gentle, poignant moment in the lecture he modeled the way one might read to a baby, snuggled on its parent's lap, having its head softly stroked while the book was read aloud.  Years later, when I found myself doing that exact thing with my own babies - I was grateful to McVitty for the fire he sparked in me as a wide-eyed, young student teacher.  There is a magic in books that remains unsurpassed by any other medium. Story is one of the most powerful ways we can find out about the world - and the best stories leave us with more questions than answers.  To be honest, I think not a day should go by without the joy of sharing literature as a class.  A great book is hard to beat as a vehicle for building community.

So I am always taken aback when teachers with whom I work struggle to name a picture book or novel they have recently shared with their children – let alone how they plan to use literature to help students make deeper connections within an inquiry .   Perhaps we are simply overwhelmed by the volume and diversity of available texts (youtube clips, memes, infographics, slideshows, images…) so it becomes harder for the humble picture book to find its way into our planning and teaching.   Or perhaps we place too great an emphasis on gathering ‘information’ in order to answer questions - which naturally leads to a stronger focus on non fiction texts.

The inquiry classroom needs to be a habitat for story.  The compelling pull of narrative can often lead us to understanding the world more deeply than any ‘data’ ever can.  I think literature serves 3 key purposes for the inquiry teacher:

As ‘mentor texts’ for inquiry thinking itself…there are so many beautiful books that are structured around questions or whose central characters ask questions and demonstrate an inquiry stance. 

To PROVOKE inquiry - stories that confront our thinking, that introduce us to ideas we had never considered, books that are so delightfully complex or ambiguous that we just want to keep asking and delving deeper.

To contribute to students’ understanding of key CONCEPTS being explored.   Fiction itself is, of course, born of life-experience.   Using literature to help children make connections to themselves and to the data being gathered across the whole inquiry can be a very powerful way of deepening understanding. This is a far cry from the days of simply reading any old books about the 'topic'... stories need to be carefully selected for their resonance with the key concepts underpinning the inquiry.

Here are just a few favourites that reflect these purposes - with an emphasis on modelling and inspiring the act of inquiry itself.  I would love to hear yours!

For many years, the "Stella" books have been my go-to for activating wonderings.  Marie-Louise Gay's books beautifully illustrate the child as inquirer - and theoriser about the way the world works.  This one, in particular, is a beautiful example of the different ways we can think and wonder about the world. Check out Gay's newer book "Any Questions" as another essential text for your inquiry classroom. This book explores the relationship between questions and the way writers work.

I Wonder
By Annaka Harris

Another beautiful text to share with children and to inspire conversations about the mysteries of the world. The 'big ideas' are explored as a mother and daughter walk together - wondering about life-cycles, gravity, the phases of the moon, the universe itself. 

This book is a recent discovery for me and I adore it!   Yamada tells the story of a young child with an idea - one he is initially reluctant to embrace but then, as his confidence in it grows, the idea is fed and nurtured until it takes him to place he had never imagined. This is a wonderful 'mentor text' for Itime or genius hour - and for encouraging children to believe in their ideas.

'If' is one of those books that helps 'loosen the lid or grease the wheel of inquiry in the classroom. It is a book about possibility and creative thinking. The art work and surreal propositions instantly provoke questions: What if frogs ate rainbows? (what might they say? what might they look like?). Whenever I use this book, children immediately want to create their own and pose new possibilities, new inquiries.

Zoom (Picture Puffins)
By Istvan Banyai

I have used this book a lot this year.- with all ages. It is the perfect metaphor for an inquiry journey.  The book begins with a magified section of a much bigger picture.  The fact that there is no text to accompany the images instantly encourages children to predict and share their thinking. Each page provides new information and new perspectives meaning the reader is continually re-thinking their idea of what the 'big picture' really is. I love using this to build students' metacognitive understanding of the way our thinking chances through the act of inquiry.

Going Places
By Paul A. Reynolds

No classroom library should be without Peter Reynolds' books!  In 'Going Places" Peter and his brother have created a story about what it means to take a risk and think differently. This is a story about taking time, reflecting, challenging compliance and collaborating. A wonderful way to help children think about the way they approach learning tasks and the power of having an inquiry mindset.  Also a great one to read to a team that has become too fixated on 'cookie cutter' assessment tasks!

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick
By Chris Van Allsburg

Published in 1984, Chris Van Allsburg's classic book remains a powerful way to provoke thinking and to illustrate the nature of investigative thinking. Each of his stunning black and white drawings is a provocation in itself. the accompanying minimal text is just enough to get students considering possibilities and asking questions: "What happened here? Who might this be? Why do that? ..."

So many of Shaun Tan's books provoke inquiry thinking.  So much is ambiguous, mysterious and open to interpretation which makes his work ideal for generating and exploring questions.

Imagine a Place
By Sarah L. Thomson

Having an inquiry mindset is all about developing a disposition of 'awe and wonder' and a sense of possibility. Sarah Thompson's books help do just that.  The words and art works work beautifully in tandem to celebrate the power of imagination. "Imagine a place where your ship holds all you once knew and the horizon offers all you will ever need" ...

The Heart and the Bottle
By Oliver Jeffers

This is a current favourite of mine - heart wrenchingly sad though it is!  The story itself is really about grief. It's about the challenges of dealing with the pain of loss and our desire to distance ourselves from feeling that pain. So at one level, the book belongs in an inquiry into how we relate to ourselves and others. But it is also a book about curiosity - and that being an inquirer...delighting in finding new our life force.  When we gently use this book with children, we invite them to share ways in which their wonders about the world can be nurtured and sustained. It is also a book that reminds us as teachers - to keep curiosity alive in the hearts and minds of our students and ourselves.

To say this selection is the tip of the iceberg would be a massive understatement.  I have only shared a small slice of my own collection- let alone the ocean of extraordinary literature available to us. In this post, I have concentrated on those texts that provoke wonder, questioning and an inquiry disposition but literature itself needs to be considered as a source of 'information' within any inquiry.  What inquiry into family life would be complete without exploring the quirky, nuanced depictions of family in the Australian author Bob Graham's award winning books?  How could we explore the journeys of immigration and cultural without using Allan Sey's stories? Any inquiry into our interaction with the animals and the natural environment can be greatly enhanced by an exploration of the work of Michael Morpurgo or Jeannie Baker. Colin Thompson's work so often helps students think more deeply about some of the most fundamental concepts of equity, identity and justice.

Whether you are using literature to inspire wonder, provoke curiosity or deepen conceptual understanding, the act of sharing literature is always an opportunity to adopt an inquiry stance as a teacher.  Inviting questions, thinking aloud, making connections, noticing the way our thinking changes as we read...these techniques are part of the repertoire of an inquiry pedagogy and help make the most of what can be a profound, shared experience.

What role does literature play in the inquiry-life of your classroom? Have you considered books as a way of 'mentoring' an inquiry disposition? Do you include conversations about conceptual connections through literature in your collaborative planning? Do you read aloud to your students with an inquiry stance? What are YOUR favourite texts to use as an inquiry teacher?

Just wondering.....