Category Archives: Inquiry

On the path of life-long learning, I believe we are motivated by curiosity and empowered by creativity. Thus inquiry and creative problem solving are at the heart of my teaching practice.

Through structured inquiry, my students engage in meaningful and transdisciplinary learning experiences. Students explore science and social studies in depth and in a child-centered manner, usually spending five or six weeks on each topic.

Our units of inquiry are often project-based and usually involve service-learning. As they work toward a common goal (summative assessment), the kids and I study the art of compassion, cultivating a culture of conversation and tolerance. Creative conflict is encouraged as individuals learn to express themselves in a safe and accepting environment.

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Ms. M Teaches Inquiry from Erin Mahollitz on Vimeo.

What is this Maker Movement?

I am a maker.  At least I think I am.  I sew. I blog. I cook. I bind books. I built a deck with my dad. Is that what people mean when they talk about ‘making?’

When I hear people talking about Making in schools, it sounds like hands-on learning.  It’s constructivism, right?  That’s essentially what Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager write in their book, Invent to Learn.

Learning by making, tinkering, and engineering is consistent with Piagetian theories.
– Martinez and Stager

Piaget said, basically, the best kind of learning is experiential, active, kinesthetic.

Ok, I can do that.

But, it’s more than just experiential learning.  Martinez and Stager introduced me to another educator, Seymour Papert, who is a tech guy.  He is all about using the computer as a tool to make stuff.  Papert was into coding, and his ideas will later lead to Scratch.

The idea is this: make stuff, and add the computer to your toolkit.

This is the beginning of an investigation. How does the Maker Movement fit with educational goals and best practices? How is making learning? How are schools increasing experiential learning? What tools and expertise do schools need to facilitate making? How are classroom teachers participating?


Studying Systems

SYSTEM: a set of connected things or parts that form a complex whole.

The Magical Minds are investigating different kinds of systems.  We started by looking at smaller systems, things we could find in the classroom.

We began to expand our understanding of systems by looking at more complex systems, recognizing that systems can be connected, creating more complex systems.  We looked for systems around school, identifying connected systems.  For example Liz, the lizard, is part of a larger system – her habitat.  With plants, crickets, heat lamp and glass…the entire terrarium can be seen as a more complex system.


Today we discussed even larger, more complex systems.  We reflected on our trip to the zoo and considered how animals can be connected in an ecosystem.  Tram lines and bus routes can be connected in a transportation system. Garbage trucks, recycling bins, compost piles and landfills are connected parts of our waste management system.
The Magical Minds then split into teams of three or four people to create posters that represented and explained one of these systems.  Through this project I was able to assess how well each child understands systems.  I was also looking for evidence of teamwork: kind words, effective sharing and supportive language.

Roman Numerals, Invisible Ink and Chemical Reactions

The best part about Roman Numerals? Its like a code.  Codes are cool. You know what else is cool?  Invisible ink.  Even better…chemical reactions.

It all began with a math puzzle.  During snack, each Magical Mind was give a number, written out.  For example, nine hundred and nine.  Their task was to figure out how to write the number with digits. For example, 909.

There were four numbers, and after snack I asked the kids with the same numbers to form teams.  They worked together to write their numbers, and then I gave them a challenge.  “Work with your team to write the Roman Numeral for your number.”

Now for the invisible ink.  I wet a paintbrush in some brown liquid and painted a white piece of paper.  The liquid turned the paper a shade of bluish-purple, except where I had secretly written a Roman Numeral.

Each team received a small vial of “mystery liquid” to write/paint their Roman Numerals.  They worked with each other to share materials and write their numbers.

After setting our hidden messages aside to dry, we took a short break to clear our minds. I needed them to shift their minds from thinking mathematically to thinking scientifically.

The invisible ink works because of a chemical reaction.  In order to help the Magical Minds understand what a chemical reaction is, I invited them to participate in a science experiment with Alka-Seltzer and baking soda.

Each team got a set of four test tubes filled with clear liquid.  I informed them there were only two different kinds of liquids and asked them to use their senses to determine what the liquids were.

With some investigation the Magical Minds quickly discovered the test tubes held either water (“pool water” was the most common response) or vinegar.

Each team was given a small piece of Alka-Seltzer and instructed to place half of the tablet in each liquid and observe the reaction, if there is one. I let them know that if they see a change in the liquid or a change in the Alka-Seltzer they would know it was a chemical reaction.  After watching the bubbling and fizzing, the kids agreed that the Alka-Seltzer reacted with both liquids, but it had a stronger reaction in the water.

Next, each team was given a small vial with baking soda.  I asked them to test 1/8 tsp in each remaining test tubes and look for chemical reactions.  As you may have predicted the Magical Minds detected no chemical reaction when they added baking soda to water, but were giggly and excited when they witnessed the foaming reaction between baking soda and vinegar.

Armed with a burgeoning understanding of chemical reactions, the Magical Minds returned to the invisible ink.  I demonstrated how I added iodine to water to create the brown-ish liquid.  “Paint the iodine water on top of the invisible ink and look for a chemical reaction.”

What do you think?  Does the iodine react with the lemon juice?

Finding Systems

The Magical Minds have been investigating systems.  First we looked in our classroom and found scales, an old drill, books and computers.  We know they are systems because they have multiple parts that make the whole work.  Here are some systems we have found around school:


A stereo has buttons, a cord, a handle, speakers and more.
A printers has paper, buttons, a tray, a paper feed, a display…


A Rube Goldberg machine has many different parts that make up the whole.
Tonight’s homework is to look around the house, store, etc… for systems.  The Magical Minds have a reflection sheet to help guide their thinking.

Density Experiment & Home Extension

Today was a most exciting day.  We had our first science experiment: “Observing Density.”  Our Director came and helped us explore how temperature effects the density of water.  We use food coloring to help us observe what happens when you add hot or cold water to room temperature water.

I invited the Magical Minds to extend their learning and do a science experiment at home. Below are the two possible experiments we discussed in class, using the Smart Board to keep track of our thinking.


3rd Grade Inventors Solve Problems Creatively

It all began with a group brainstorming session.  We sat around tables with sticky notes.  Inspired by, the Klutz Book of Brilliant Ridiculous Inventions, we agreed to a few basic rules:

  • all ideas are welcome
  • more is better (go for quantity not quality)
  • sugar is helpful to maintain good spirits and energy
  • sticky notes + permanent markers = easy to write & read

Our first two sessions we spent thinking of all the things that nag and bug us in our daily lives.

  • brushing our teeth when we’re tired
  • not able to stay up late and read/write
  • when our moms yell at us
  • annoying sibling…

Once we had spent a significant amount of mental power on problems, we switched our brains to think up solutions. 
Once the Magical Minds had chosen one solution/invention to pursue, their task was to create a diagram.  The goal was to create an image that would explain the different parts and pieces of their invention.

Nathan researching the size of different electronic devices for his "Huge Wallet"


The last week of our unit on Inventions was spent building models/prototypes of our inventions.  We used materials that were available to us, cardboard, fabric, old bottles, cushions and toys.    The final products were astoundingly creative.  Most impressive were the number of adjustments and changes each child made to his or her invention.  There were many challenges, and like true inventors, the Magical Minds dealt with each one as part of the process.  In the end, we had a magical collection of inventions.
Back Row: Henry’s Pencil Lamp, Josephine’s Learning Ball, Alexandra’s Pencil Ball, Klara’s Brother BeGone Spray, Viola’s Pencil Lamp.
Front Row: Sophie’s Pencil Pillow, Nathan’s Huge Wallet.
For more information about these inventions and more, check out their Invention Book.

Independent Study Leads to Stop Motion Film

Independent Study time is a favorite among the Magical Minds and myself. It is a time when the third graders can work on projects of their choice. We have created a list of activities they can choose from, but most of the third graders spend their independent study time writing. They write comics, stories, poems and diary entries. When we are the middle of an inquiry project, the kids will often choose to use that time to finish up keynotes, popplets, prezis, etc…

But, every once in a while something completely unexpected happens. The other day Nathan asked to use the camera to make a stop motion film. I hesitated, but then agreed. “But, I am busy helping the others finish up their projects. Do you think you will be alright on your own?” He nodded and bounced off with confidence.

Fifteen minutes later, he came back with this… Well, not exactly. I added the music and uploaded it, but he shot the stills. Amazing! I don’t know how he figured out the basic idea of how to make a stop motion film…but he did.

If you give a kid a camera, you might just get this: