How to Set Up a Week of Free Inquiry for Anywhere, Anytime Learning

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When I was just a first year teacher, I placed a lot of value on my ability to control student behaviors. While students were quiet and well-behaved to the passing observer, I could sense that I was not facilitating the kind of learning experiences that I wanted from my teachers during my own education. The relationship between the teacher, the students, and the learning was traditional and strained, and everyday felt like a battle for points and rewards. I felt like I was part drill sergeant, part cheerleader, part disciplinarian, but not at all a teacher.

As my teaching became more and more inquiry based, and more and more student-focused instead of teacher-driven, I began to see that the increased trust that I had for my students did not result in a dramatic increase in unwanted behaviors. In fact, quite the opposite. This year, for the first time, I felt that I had finally built up the structure necessary to facilitate a Week of Free Inquiry, aka a Week Without Walls, or, as my students put it, “College”. For the first time in my career, I had to give up control of movement and control of content as students pursued their own interests wherever and whenever they wanted. Here’s how I did it:

Related: 5 Ways to Give Your Class Back to Your Students

I Organized a Legit Online Learning Environment

When I say legit, I mean legit. There’s no way that you are going to get students to perform at the highest levels in a wall-less physical environment without a dynamic and organized online environment. When my students started the week, they knew how to contact me (e-mail, instant messaging, commenting on assignments) and they knew where and when to find me (in the cafeteria, by online appointment). For weeks I had to build up a wealth of knowledge and skill surrounding the apps on their devices, and I had to foster IT-specific problem-solving skills so that students were able to figure out their IT issues on their own.

I am sure that any robust LMS could be used for a project like this, but I used my class Moodle page (See Moodle in elementary), and students were working on their own school issued iPad throughout the week. Assignments were turned in for review onto their online portfolio (we use Seesaw) and students had their own e-mail addresses. I wish that I had added instant messaging, like WhatsApp or something, to their iPads before the week began, but we communicated fine with just e-mail, Seesaw (see Using Seesaw to Teach Social Media), and the class chat activity on Moodle.

Students Put Together a Game Plan


As the above sketchnote by @trev_mackenzie suggests, there is indeed a lot of autonomy and independence that comes from true free inquiry. However, even in the illustration we see that there isn’t total, complete freedom. To continue with the pool analogy, the above students may have increased freedom of movement, but they do have to remain in the pool at all times; they are not free to leave the complex without permission. Similarly, they are not allowed to make choices that put others’ safety at risk, or ruin the experience for themselves or others. At all times there is a “guide on the side”, but this guide is much more hands-off than during Guided Inquiry.


To structure the inquiry I used both of these sketchnotes by @trev_mackenzie. The goal setting (#4) and the calendar (#6) were particularly important in organizing the project.

As students neared their final days of preparation, I had a litany of questions from students to go through, but the main question that kept coming up from my 10 year olds was: Can we do whatever we want? 

I tried to answer this question about the same way every time: This school is a learning space. You can learn whatever you want, however you want, and with whom you want, but you may not choose NO learning. You may take a break whenever you want, but in the end, this project is all about what we can accomplish in one week when we put our minds to it. I think you’ll realize quickly that you’ll need and want every minute that you are given during this special week. 

I Started the Year with a Plan for Gradual Release of Responsibility

There’s no way that a form of learning like this can be possible the first day of school. There are a lot of discussions, mini-lessons and student reflections about how we learn that must take place before a class is ready to embark on a solo journey of this magnitude. Gradual release does ultimately mean giving up the responsibility to the students. I knew my class was ready to take on this project when I felt that they had proven mastery of certain skills at least a few times before in a variety of guided inquiry sequences.


This one pic says it all about how my class has developed. Idea wall and green screen in the back, flexible seating, blended learning, conferencing, and engagement, engagement, engagement. The students pursuing their own learning is at the center of every experience, not me.

You also have to accept that some students may take longer during the year to get to a point of independence where they will get anything out of a week of free inquiry. For those students, I put them with partners that I knew I could trust to move them along, and I checked in on them more frequently than I did other students. I tried to make sure that their failures at the end were limited to the product rather than the process, i.e. a bad final project, but abundant learning nonetheless.

I Proceeded with the Mantra of “Never Work Harder than Your Students”

After taking attending a workshop at the 2016 Africa Ed Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa by Karen Boyes called Never Work Harder Than Your Students, Let Them Do the Thinking, I began to see how the onus has to be on the student to take responsibility for their learning. When my teaching was teacher-directed, I was doing all of the work, and the students were merely passive consumers of information.


Why do a song and dance and waste all of your energy while students passively watch the show? Let them do the thinking. Let them plan their path forward. We teachers sometimes just need to get out of the way.

After the workshop, I was very clear with my students about my new expectations: I should never be working harder than any of you! And if I am, then you’re not doing your job right and I’m not doing my job right. This idea of never working harder than your students was critical when I began the Week of Free Inquiry because I had to come to grips with what it meant to release all responsibility to the students as I sat back with a cup of coffee while waiting for my next appointment with a student group.

I Trusted and They Pulled Through


Our class culture is built around mutual admiration and respect between learning partners. The traditional top-down relationship between teacher and student is virtually gone, replaced with a “learning partnership” model.

In the end of the day, building relationships with students to make them better people is why I became a teacher. I wouldn’t expect a teacher that feels differently and puts less of a value on relationship building to be able to pull off the Week of Free Inquiry. It takes really getting to know your students’ strengths and weaknesses, and really building a culture of trust and a love of learning. Because I trusted them, and they respect me to the point that they will go to the ends of the earth to impress me, they were able to accomplish amazing things during this highly unstructured time.

What do you think? Could your kids pull off a Week of Free Inquiry? Are you ready to tear down the walls and let them be free? Be sure to follow me on Twitter and check out @SGroshell’s Teachers Pay Teachers account.

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How can Moodle be used in Elementary?

My current international school is an extremely forward thinking institution with its heavy emphasis on C21 learning, including blended and personalized learning concepts and ideas. While there are many adopted technologies in our school, such as Seesaw for portfolio and social media use, our school-wide LMS is a Moodle-based platform called KICSLearns. While most people are familiar with Moodle as a learning platform used in universities, there isn’t much out there on using this open-source LMS in elementary schools.

I created a video tour for teachers and parents alike to get a better idea of how Moodle can be used in elementary. I hope you enjoy!

Would this work for your school? As always, thanks for the visit and please keep coming back to! Also, check out our TPT.

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A Letter to My Student About Goal Setting, Body Image, and Healthy Living

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Students set their goals this year by creating sketchnotes and then recoding them as stop motion videos with audio.

I’ve talked about goal-setting before on, including the SMART model. As my school nears Student Led Conferences, using Seesaw as our digital portfolio, my students have all set goals to achieve during the remainder of their time under my care. While most of my students chose goals centered on improving in a particular academic subject or skill, one athletic student set the goal to completely eliminate unhealthy foods from his diet. The following is a letter I sent to to this student and his family after he had just resisted the temptation to eat junk food during a class party. 



March 28, 2017

Dear S,

I’m writing you tonight to tell you how proud I was when I saw you pass up the opportunity for sweets and junk food during the class party. It was your first big test that you faced since you set the ambitious goal to completely eliminate unhealthy foods from your diet. I was even more amazed when you looked ahead to your birthday and considered not having any sweets at your own birthday party! Since we are partners in this goal-setting process, I thought I’d e-mail you to talk more about the subject of body image and healthy living before student-led conferences.

The most important message that I want to communicate is that you must make sure that you are choosing to eat healthier not because you want to “lose weight”, but because you truly want to lead a healthier lifestyle. Losing weight and healthy living are two different things. There is no reason that you should be thinking about weight loss at your age. As you grow, sometimes you may gain weight because you are gaining muscle, or because you are growing taller, or for reasons that have nothing to do with being healthy. As small changes in weight happen throughout your life, you must always remember that you have an amazing body that is unique and special. Healthy living means maintaining positive feelings towards your body. You are perfectly YOU, and you should be proud of the body you were given.

As you go forward, I also want to make sure that you are taking care of yourself. As you continue your regimen, remember that eating less is not your goal. You still need to consume the amount of calories necessary to keep your body active and healthy. This will require plenty of fruits and vegetables, and reasonable portions of whole grains, meat, and dairy. When you are playing sports, monitor your energy. If you are feeling light headed and dizzy, it might mean that you need to be eating more healthy foods and drinking more water to make up for the lost calories in your diet.

I look forward to hearing how it goes throughout this year!


Mr. Zach

If you would like to give me some tips or just your reaction, please feel free to leave a comment. For more about teaching and learning, keep coming back to, follow me on Twitter, and check out @SGroshell’s resources on Teacher’s Pay Teachers.

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Kids should read a book and build a freaking fort

Motivating kids to become lifelong readers is every teacher’s goal, but I’ll be the first to admit to having to resort to crummy prizes and rewards, including candy and toys, to get kids to read a book. In this short post, I want to offer a fun alternative: The blanket fort.

Set a goal with your readers to read a certain amount, and if they do, they can build a freaking fort.

The blanket fort is an incentive that links closely to reading (when they build it, they will read in it), and it costs you no money. Just send home a letter and collect blankets and sheets for a week. Once they design it and build it, have them read in it.

If your maintenance team is cool, have them string up some wires or ropes or something to hang the blankets and sheets. Push the desks together and make tunnels. During breaks, invite other classes in for a tour and read them a story. Who cares? It’s a fort!

At the end of the day, what students need from their teacher is someone that models their love of reading. Don’t take reading so seriously in elementary that you disenfranchise your base. Inject a shot of adrenaline into your reading program and let kids build a freaking fort.

C21 Pen Pals: The Global Classroom Project

Every year of teaching I’ve done a version of pen pals. Here is the evolution up until this year:

v.1.0 Handwritten letters sent by post

v.2.0 Grainy pictures of handwritten letters sent by e-mail as PDF

v.3.0 Typed letters collected on Google Docs and sent by e-mail

v.4.0 Typed letters sent directly to pen pals by e-mail

While all of these were valuable experiences in their own right, they were missing the spontaneity and the social media element of “anyone, anywhere” learning that I have been aiming for in my C21 minded classroom. Stephanie’s last post was about the value of using connected blogs to link classes within a school. I wanted the focus of this article to be on the potential that exists in connecting classrooms around the world with most any blogging tool.

C21 Pen Pals (Pen Pals 5.0!)

This year, my class in Sudan has become pen pals with a class from Minnesota through their Seesaw Blogs.  Every week or so, our classes take turns sharing multimedia posts about our unique experiences as members of separate communities. Students comment on learning activities and post letters, pictures and videos. This is a screenshot of a video one student made explaining what tea ladies do in Sudan during Celebrate Sudan Week.

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While my class is only connected with this one class, there is so much potential for learning if this model is improved upon or expanded to include more classes around the world. What if every book that we read could lead to a pen pal experience with members of that particular community? What if every social studies unit could be made real by connecting students to other kids from specific geographic locations?

Take a look at this guy’s post, aka the dream:

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Have you connected your class in similar ways before? Looking to connect with a class in Sudan via Seesaw? Follow me on Twitter and keep coming back to 

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Connected Blogs Redefine Learning

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This week my class did their final assessment for our archaeology unit. They picked an artifact, researched it, replicated it, wrote a description of it, translated that description into their home language, and presented everything at a classroom museum for parents and other classes to come see.

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Amazing learning took place, but that’s where it stopped for my students last year. This year, we decided to continue the learning after the museum via our Seesaw class blog.

Seesaw Class Blog

The Seesaw Class Blog (see: Using Seesaw to Teach Students Social Media) in itself is very simple and easy to use. Any items students or teachers put on the regular Seesaw feed can be moved to the blog with a single click. Once on the blog, the item can be seen by all parents (on the Seesaw feed, parents can only see items their child is tagged on) as well as students in any connected blogs.

To connect a blog is simple.

  1. Go to Manage Class: Class Blog: Connected Blogs: +Connect to Blog
  2. Enter the blog URL of the class you want to connect with
  3. Now all of your students can see the class blog that you are connected with

How Can the Blog Extend Learning?

Before our classroom museum opened, I took a picture of each group of students with their artifacts and posted it to the blog. After visiting our classroom museum, teachers from the other classes gave their students a few minutes to go to our blog to comment and ask questions.

The next day, my students were absolutely ecstatic to find that other students had liked and cared enough about their work to post something. We did a quick lesson on how to answer questions and they were off.

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My students worked diligently to answer the questions – way more so than they would have had I asked the same ones. They went back to check facts about dates, wrote out each step they took making their replicas, and worked hard to have correct punctuation that might impress the older students.

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The Blog Was Accessible to Non-Readers

One of the reasons Seesaw is able to work for young kids is their feature that allows comments to be made with a voice recording (See also: 5 Ways to Get the Most Out of Seesaw). Many of the younger students asked their questions with their voices and one even asked my students to answer with a recording or video (which they did). This made it so that young students could actually ask questions themselves instead of needing the help of a teacher.

The Global Classroom Project

In addition to connecting blogs within our own school, it’s also possible to connect with classrooms around the world via Seesaw blogs. Zach’s class became pen pals with a class form Minnesota through theirs. Students comment on learning activities and post letters, pictures and videos. This is a screenshot of a video one student made explaining what tea ladies do in Sudan.

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Have you used Connected Blogs to extend student learning? Please comment below and let us know what you’ve tried!

By @SGroshell

For more posts about Seesaw, check out Teacher Tool Kit For Seesaw. Keep coming back to!