On Display: Jocelyn Schmidt and Heidi Theis' Inspiring Cloud Inquiry

Happy Friday!  I hope that you are finding ways to stay cool during this scorching summer heat wave... Maybe this "On Display" feature about a Cloud Inquiry might bring us some showers and lower the temperature a little!

I'm excited to introduce you to Jocelyn Schmidt and Heidi Theis, another dynamic duo from the York Region District School Board. Jocelyn and Heidi are teaching partners in a Full-Day Kindergarten classroom at Lorna Jackson Public School.  They both have a gift and passion for early learning, process based visual arts, and technology (among MANY other things!).

I would like to highlight some of their exceptional work through our interview (below) and by inviting you to also visit their detailed blog post about their inspiring Cloud Inquiry:

Thank you kindly to Jocelyn and Heidi for sharing their thinking and making it visible on the blog! Please consider leaving them a message within the comment section.

Co-Constructed Cloud that Hangs within
their Classroom

Jocelyn and Heidi planning the next steps for their
Cloud Inquiry

The Group of Seven inspired cloud art
created by Kindergarten children

Isn't the detail so impressive?
Our students are all capable of this!

Jocelyn and Heidi celebrated the end of their
inquiry by hosting a "Cloud Gallery"
for parents and students

For more great ideas and inspiration please visit their blog:

Our Cloud Inquiry Interview:

1.    Describe for us how your Cloud Inquiry began and how the learning unfolded. What were the questions that you investigated?

Questions we investigated:
1. Where do clouds come from?
2. How do clouds change?
3. How are clouds made?
4. Where do clouds go when they are not in the sky?

During a Nature Walk at the beginning of the school year, one student (E.S.) used his listening tube (which was a cardboard paper towel roll) as a telescope and began to notice the clouds in the sky and how one in particular looked like a dinosaur. Once back in the classroom and during a Sharing Circle, we talked about what we saw and heard outside, and the conversation around clouds came up once E.S. shared his observation. Other children began to make their own connections to E.S.‘s comment and to clouds they’ve seen that also looked like different shapes, letters, animals, etc both during our Nature Walk and throughout their other experiences.

Since the whole class became engaged and intrigued in this discussion, as a teaching team, we decided to jump on this opportunity to explore their new found curiousity further. In doing so, we started off by finding some read-alouds (e.g. Little Cloud by Eric Carle, Cloudland by John Burningham, Cloud Dance by Thomas Locker, etc) that could elicit more dialogue around the topic and give us a lens into what our students already knew about clouds and some of their wonderings. Once we read “Cloudette” by Tom Lichtenheld, our students began to ask questions related to the main character in the story (a cloud) which drew wonderful connections to their prior knowledge and wonderments about clouds (e.g. How does she grow bigger and bigger? How does she change colour? Why? How come she is so small and the other clouds are so big?). That being said, we didn’t waste anytime planning another outdoor excursion where we could use our own sky as a canvas for our learning. Once outside, we had our students lie down in the middle of our soccer field and gaze up at the clouds in the sky. It was incredible to hear them shout out what they saw, what they were thinking and wondering about. We couldn’t keep up with writing down all of the amazing insights, ideas and thinking that was being shared by our students. Many were able to use their imagination to find different shapes, letters and animals in the sky which caused great excitement as we watched the clouds change shape in the wind - they were amazed! In short, many theories emerged from this one experience and it definitely got the momentum rolling for what was the start to an incredible inquiry! From this moment onwards, we worked as a team to plan out our proposed learning experiences that could come from this inquiry that focuses on the questions our students wanted to investigate and their proposed theories.

2.    What were your curricular foci? Did you integrate the learning from other subject areas?

During the proposed planning process, we tried to tie in the expectations that best fit our students‘ theories and where the learning might go. Inquiry-based learning is wonderful for clustering expectations underneath an “umbrella” topic and we were surprised with how many expectations this one inquiry could cover. There were many opportunities to extend our students’ learning into other content areas as well. By using the “Big Ideas” in the Full Day Kindergarten curriculum, we were able to select the best holistic expectations for the inquiry and it helped set the tone for the learning and our goals for what we wanted our students to walk away knowing and being able to do. The following curricular foci was used as a starting point and we were not limited to these expectations:

Emotional Development:
1.1: Recognize personal interests, strengths, and accomplishments
1.3: Express their thoughts and share experiences

Language Arts:
1.2: Listen and respond to others for a variety of purposes and in a variety of contexts
1.5: Use language in various contexts to connect new experiences with what they already know
1.6: Use language to talk about their thinking, to reflect, and to solve problems
1.8: Ask questions for a variety of purposes and in different contexts
2.10: Retell information from non-fiction materials that have been read by and with the EL-K team in a variety of contexts

1.1: Ask questions about and describe some natural occurrences, using their own observations and representations
1.3: Explore patterns in the natural and build environment
2.1: State problems and pose questions before and during investigations

Visual Arts:
V1.1: Demonstrate an awareness of personal interests and a sense of accomplishment in visual arts
V2.2: Explore different elements of design in visual arts
V5.1: Communicate their understanding of something by representing their ideas and feelings through visual art

3. How did you celebrate the learning from the Cloud Inquiry?

Throughout our inquiry, we had many moments worth celebrating and they often occurred collaboratively with our students and throughout the learning:
- To celebrate our learning and understanding of the water cycle, we conducted a science experiment that had our “student scientists” test their theories around how clouds make rain. This was a wonderful hands-on learning experience for them whereby each student had a role and was held accountable for their learning space. Similarly, each small group of 2-4 students worked collaboratively to record their predictions and findings on a giant 4-quadrant map (e.g. What did you see? What materials did you use? What steps did you do? How many rain drops?). 
- To celebrate our understanding of rain clouds, we decided to create a collaborative cloud installation that involved our students in making a plan for what it should look like, helping select the materials used and taking part in the process of making the final product. Each student also made a rain drop that hangs on the cloud to symbolize our learning about where rain comes from. This was a wonderful fine motor task that encapsulated Math expectations (e.g. patterning, measurement, number sense) and students truly enjoyed making their raindrop unique. 
- To celebrate our inquiry as a learning process, we created a display/documentation wall outside the classroom that highlighted our learning journey, student quotes and learning moments, as well as pictures from our learning inside and outside the classroom. This helped to make our thinking and learning visible for other students and classes in the school as well as for our own students so they could see how far we’ve gone with our inquiry!
- In a general sense, celebrations also occurred naturally by our students as they truly enjoyed sharing their theories, findings, and discoveries at daily meeting times in front of an audience (peers) during or once completed an open-ended investigation. 
- To conclude our inquiry and act as a final celebration, we created a Cloud Gallery that showcased their acrylic cloud paintings in the form of a gallery. By inviting our students‘ families into our gallery in the morning as well as other classes in the afternoon, made for a wonderful interactive experience whereby our students‘ truly felt like artists and enjoyed every minute celebrating their masterpieces at the end of the school year! For the parents, this opportunity gave them the chance to learn about the art technique and process from their child while at the same time take part in celebrating their accomplishments. For the other students from K-8 that visited out Cloud Gallery, our students became ambassadors and assisted them through their scavenger hunts (K-3) and art critiques (4-8) which gave them a huge sense of pride as they took full ownership over their masterpieces and those of their peers.

4. Do you have any suggestions for educator teams about ways to begin an inquiry?

            Knowing how to begin an inquiry is still an area of exploration for us and we are always learning from each other, colleagues in our professional learning network and from our students. From our experiences as a team these past two years, we have developed a strong, open, and honest relationship when it comes to dialoguing around our own observations of the students, what their interests are and how we can possibly use them to create a student-led inquiry. A challenge that we face but continue to work through, is whether or not to provoke an inquiry ourselves, or whether or not to follow an idea/interest from our students and if so, how to know when an idea/interest area will capture all or a small group of learners and thus make for a “successful” inquiry. Given that an inquiry can be as small or as big as you and your students want, the learning opportunities are endless and we have found that by dialoguing around proposed learning experiences and possible outcomes has really helped us when planning before, during and after an inquiry.
            As a teaching team, we are still learning how to integrate all students into some form of a class inquiry while also honouring their interests in small group settings. Some examples: when some students during the winter months became intrigued with snowflakes, a small group only participated voluntarily with creating windows displays, a small group of students participated when creating our collaborative cloud, only a handful of students were intrigued with the process of making the installation but everybody took interest in creating their own raindrop for the cloud. Even though our Cloud Inquiry began with one comment made by a student, it led to a whole class involvement which we didn’t anticipate. Students were able to participate and share their own observations, understandings and wonderings when outside and connect them to their experiences which was incredible and helped this inquiry take off! Inquiry-based learning not only is engaging and meaningful for the students, it is also as meaningful and intriguing for the educators involved. As a teaching team, we learned with our students and honoured the process by stepping away from knowing all the answers (e.g. investigating elements of clouds and measuring at the airport).

Some pointers:
1. Flexibility is key -- sometimes your inquiry takes you places you didn’t expect but that’s ok! It can end up going above and beyond what you “planned” for but that’s the beauty of it! The learning then becomes incredibly meaningful since it has come FROM your students and you co-learn together. For example, from the cloud inquiry, two other inquiries were formed throughout the year both of which we never anticipated and both were also huge highlights: the airplane/airport inquiry (e.g. provocation: when airplanes fly through the clouds) and our ice inquiry (e.g. provocation: after making connections to snow and how it’s frozen water from the clouds). By running with your students’ interests may mean that your day plans don’t always pan out, but we encourage any educator teams to embrace each learning opportunity since it may lead you to an exciting, engaging, and thought-provoking outcome!
2. Assessment -- As a teaching team, we had a mutual understanding and appreciation for each other’s assessment strengths and weaknesses. With this understanding, we developed a “sharing” system whereby we would send our documentation notes, transcriptions, photos, videos, etc to each other and in the process, discuss what we observed, the learning that occurred, and areas of strength/needs/next steps for our students. These files were stored on both of our computers so that when it came time to report on our students‘ learning, they were easily accessible and used as a backbone for our conversations.
3. It’s ok to “let go” of control -- This is something that we have grown to appreciate together as a teaching team. As educators, we often feel the need to “know” what’s planned for a particular day/time/period, etc. A “structured” environment provides comfort since we know what to expect throughout the day and from our students. However, inquiry-based learning has flipped this mentality around for us because sometimes the learning does not go according to “plan” and we have learned to adapt, react, and “roll with it.” To our surprise, stamina and student engagement has improved, conversations have become more rich and robust, and the learning becomes more meaningful and student-centered. That being said, and as hard as it is to do, letting go of control does not mean letting go of routine/expectations/classroom management, etc, it just means shifting your mentality around how the learning occurs in your classroom.

- Provocations can start with a book, real life events, photos ,videos etc.
- Questioning: Posing open-ended questions to students to see what they know, what they wonder about and what they want to investigate – sets the tone for future learning and can help craft the knowledge within the beginning of an inquiry
- Facilitate activities and learning opportunities based on their responses to these documented questions but also propose a “plan” as a team for where the learning might go and how you’d plan to support it (e.g. eventually incorporating the Group of Seven with the possibility of painting canvases outside). 
- Field trips to start an inquiry – who said a field trip has to be at the end of the learning? It could be done to spark an inquiry or also be done in the middle to create new interests and wonderings about a particular topic and help keep the momentum in the learning.
- Talk between the educators – What did you observe? What did you hear the children saying? What were the children doing? – helps to gauge the new learning that may occur based on seen observations and what they children know.

5. All children are artists and I have come to understand that The Arts are powerful tools for inquiry-based learning. What advice do you have around visual arts integration and art techniques for our youngest learners? How have you found success as educators?

As a teaching team, we truly believe that you cannot underestimate a student’s capabilities as an artist no matter what age. Each year, we acknowledge, appreciate, and celebrate each students’ potential, talents and capabilities through The Arts and we have come up with several important points that help us create a Community of Artists within our classroom:

- Students ALWAYS have the option to express themselves in art at anytime and for any subject
- GIVE THEM TIME – We never encourage our students to “rush” when it comes to any type of work, especially art. We honour the process behind the products and often have our students create pieces of art in stages. In this process, students are developing vocabulary around what is a background, how to start with the background and build on from there with different techniques, materials, etc. They can often use this time to also revise or add to their masterpieces.
- Using professional artist tools (e.g. canvases, water colours, water colour brushes, palette knives, acrylic paints, water colour paints, sheet materials, etc) will set the tone for your students to feel like artists. This helps send the message that “your work is important” and it fosters respect and proper use of high quality materials. Moreover, it inspires the children to work more carefully and slowly and their work deserves high quality materials.
 - Model the use of the materials and set expectations for their use (e.g. how not to clean brushes after each use).
- Model the technique or use of new art medium for students (e.g. only the technique and not the product – this is to honour their unique abilities, ideas and problem solving skills when creating their own representations).
- To support an art exploration, and when speaking to observational drawing, using a model (e.g. a pumpkin, flowers, etc) can be helpful and a point of reference for this technique. References of real life objects can also be photographs in a book or on the iPad, or if possible 3D objects.
- Set up the learning/art-making environment in a way that makes it aesthetically pleasing. Just like you would set up a display, it feels inviting and captivates the students’ senses, and it makes it easy for them to engage in the art experience. Students will also respect the environment and that reflects in them when working carefully and slowly.
-  Playing music in the background while exploring art is often a nice touch and can help set the tone for the practiced technique or medium being used.
- At times, there are more guided art activities that are facilitated by us, however these still occur at various points throughout day (e.g. usually the afternoons). The technique is what is GUIDED and nothing else. Ensuring that the students are using the materials appropriately, and executing the technique is what’s important to documenting the process and their learning, not the final product.
- We value student ownership and in doing so, we have our students create a title for each piece of work that they create thus, honouring their work and taking pride in their accomplishments as artists.
- Displaying their artwork in frames around the classroom, outside in the hallway and giving each piece of frame, a name tag, etc, is another way we honour their work in a “gallery” framework.

As educators, we have been finding much success in creating a Community of Artists by embracing the following points mentioned above. These points have come from our experiences in the classroom over the past two years and have co-developed over time as a teaching team. We have also been proud of developing a culture of critique in our classroom by focusing more on peer feedback. These learning and reflective moments often occur throughout the process of creating a masterpiece so that students feel confident when revising their work and acknowledging the work of their peers. We have noticed that it also improves their work since students have often taken their peers view into consideration and felt motivated to be the best they can be. Critiques are often done in small groups or when students approach the artists while they are working. With this set-up, we have found success in the fact that critique, questioning, inspiration and knowledge is being obtained and celebrated on a daily basis and has allowed our students to grow as young artists and as individuals. Furthermore, in small groups, we also try to showcase work made by their peers to inspire other students. Whether it is showing the process or final product from a peer, hallway displays, etc we try to inspire inside and outside the walls of our classroom on a daily basis.

Simply stated, this interview was both insightful and inspirational!

Share your thoughts :

  1. Thank you for sharing this! I love your points about using professional artist materials and titles for their artwork. I also can relate to the issue of having some students who don't get as interested in the inquiry and how to get them involved more. And the point that students need lots of time!

    I'd like to know more about how you use peer feedback. How do you get started with that and encourage it? What kinds of feedback do students give each other? I love doing inquiry with my K students ( half day program at the moment) and this would be an interesting element to include in my planning.

  2. Wow. Joanne, I have been following your blog and learning from you for a few years now, and because of the constant inspiration I would be hard-pressed to pick a favourite post. They all give so much...
    That said, this is another to bookmark/pin, and read again and again. This might just be my favourite. The thoughtful responses to all, but to Q4 in particular, are such good indicators of reflective practitioners. Jocelyn and Heidi, this project in whole is a masterpiece. I was thinking about your Gallery when we took my daughter to the McMichael Gallery this week, and gazed at the familiar favourites of the group of seven painters and their contemporaries such as David Milne and Emily Carr. To see the students' work again was even more powerful this time, as I made the connections to the works that had inspired those magnificent cloud paintings.
    Congratulations to all of you for such a wonderful collaboration. This felt like a small version of a story, one I can see expanding into a book someday. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Thank you Joanne for sharing this brilliant and inspirational learning journey. Congratulations and kudos to Jocelyn and Heidi, two very dedicated and passionate teachers. It is because of your passion and your image of the child that this inquiry is a "masterpiece" (Laurel's choice of word says it all.) It is evident that you listened and observed the children , and honoured the learning process by providing the children the time to explore, discover , disseminate and create their understandings, theories and ideas. Your documentation, "an act of caring and an act of love", Carlina Rinaldi, made the learning for others visible. I would like to share the following quote with you as I believe this project and journey so eloquently echo the words of Carol Anne Wien and Sam Gardner.
    "The fundamental belief underpinning the Reggio experience with young children is that learning occurs through the development of relations, with networks of relations that expand and interconnect into meaning as children co-construct with others their social, intellectual, and affective worlds of experience."