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Inquiring into the digital inquiry project

Driving home from a weekend Writing Project retreat with my colleagues, Cindy and Lacy, I didn’t have much to say. Even though for the first time all weekend the conversation had nothing to do with the intense professional work we were doing, I was too tired and too frustrated to talk.

The purpose of the retreat was to give us all time and a supportive environment to work on developing a collection of resources to be published on the National Writing Project’s Digital Is website.

Long before the retreat, I had an idea for what my resource would be. I would focus upon a project that I undertook with my students last year, which came to be known as the Digital Inquiry Project. The format of the project was simple: students would generate questions about a topic of personal interest to them, turn to the web to seek out answers, then integrate the knowledge they gained into writing pieces of any genre that they posted to their blog. We would take time to read and respond to one another's ideas, self-assess our own growth as thinkers, learners, and writers, then begin the process again (a more in-depth explanation of the rational and structure of the project can be found here, in a blog post that I wrote last year).

The plan for my resource was to take a closer look at the work that had occurred through the Digital Inquiry Project. I would peel back its layers to show just how the project facilitated learning and explain the implications that my inquiry into this project would have on my future approach to teaching. It seemed like a project worthy of Digital Is, and it fit in perfectly with the Urban Sites work our local Writing Project was doing. And what made it even better was that I didn’t think it would be too hard for me to create. All I would need to do was talk about what I had already created and add a bit of reflection.

I figured at the very least, I would be able to create a draft by the end of the retreat. Instead, all I had were a bunch of failed ideas in my daybook: an essay on technology and learning that sounded to preachy, my narrative explaining my own development as a digital learner that felt too much about me, an explanation of how the Digital Inquiry project contrasted with the dominant narrative of school that I couldn’t seem to get organized. Nothing I did felt right. At one point, I even revisited the writing of a couple of my students and began writing the story of their involvement in the process. This didn’t turn out too bad, but I still didn’t feel like it tied in well to what I had hoped to do.

And sitting in the back of Lacy’s car on the way home from the retreat, I was frustrated at being nowhere close in my writing to where I had expected to be. Overwhelmed, I shut down and stopped thinking about it altogether. I turned my attention to Lacy and Cindy’s conversation in the front seat, listening to them talk about their families, their doctoral work, the stress they were feeling, and their tentative plans for the future.

I wasn’t part of the conversation, just a spectator, and as I listened I began thinking about how their lives intersected and crossed through the words they exchanged. I thought about how in these intersections existed something significant, something that would shift the perception each woman had on her own life. I was hardly through this idea when my thoughts began to shift back to my resource.

My thinking about Lacy and Cindy’s conversation took me back to the writing I did on Erin and Cristian, two students in my first period Language Arts class. I thought back to the writing that I did on these two students during the retreat, and as I did, I also began to realize that within their journeys was exactly where I needed to look in order to uncover the work of the Digital Inquiry project and create an important Digital Is resource.