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Water, Water Everywhere. An inquiry-based approach to teaching and Learning Literacy by Yvonne Taylor

Classrooms at Houston Elementary in the Austin Independent School District (AISD) were brimming with eager third graders who were excited to read, write, and report about all things related to water. “The Austin area experienced major flooding over the Memorial Day holiday,” says The University of Texas at Austin College of Education Associate Professor Melissa Wetzel, who helps lead the Master Reading Teacher Institute with Professor Jim Hoffman. “The flood was a topic of interest and immediacy for the kids. They developed their own questions related to water and used a variety of materials—websites, books, videos, and maps—to find their own answers to the questions they formulated.”

The water-themed inquiry approach to teaching reading and writing is part of the Master Reading Teacher (MRT) program offered in cooperation with the Texas Reading Initiative. It prepares K-12 teachers to earn a Master Reading Teacher certificate. Teachers apply in spring, take courses taught by faculty, and engage in an onsite practicum at a local elementary school. The program’s goal is to improve the quality of reading instruction in the state of Texas.

The program benefits not just K-12 students. Program educators at various levels within the College of Education benefit, too. Doctoral students gain valuable experience teaching education theory to K-12 educators, and both groups evaluate the efficacy of knowledge learned in a real-time environment. For example, as the K-12 teachers learn reading methods and assessment, instructional planning, and goal setting, they put each into practice in an actual classroom with elementary school students.

Their efforts culminated in a first-ever exhibit exploration. The third-grade investigators presented what they’d learned via displays and demonstrations that covered topics such as water contamination, the effect of floods on people, tsunamis, and waterfalls.

Curriculum and Instruction graduate student Natalie Svrcek earned the MRT certificate eight years ago. As a graduate student now instructing teachers earning the credential, she is able to focus on observing teachers’ interaction with their students. “It’s a different experience than teaching just adults, and it’s different than teaching kids,” she says. “I am seeing the actual interaction happen, which is something you can’t get from a textbook. I name what I see and witness the teachers changing their plan of action based on my observations.”

It’s this experience that makes the MRT learning environment so rich. Says master’s student Jennifer McMillin, “It’s hard to wrap your head around some of the concepts of teaching reading and writing if you don’t see it in practice. In a program like this, we all get hands-on experience.”

Nicole Bueno, a first-grade teacher at AISD’s Cook Elementary, said the program gave her time to “reflect on my teaching and consider why I teach the different components I do. As a classroom teacher I am the bridge between theory and practice, and this program allowed me to model something I’d learned with students every day.”

Bueno added that she’d very likely use and modify the inquiry process for her classroom in the fall. The inquiry-based model was also a hit with third graders. Elementary student Abel, who chose to focus on marine biology, says, “This is different than how school normally is, because I’m the one who gets to give the problem and ask the questions.”

For more information, contact Professor Jim Hoffman at the Master Reading Teacher Institute.

-Photos by Christina S. Murrey