Today’s post is written Chris Butts, one of the co-authors of Planning Powerful Instruction, a book (actually two books, as it is broken into two levels: elementary and secondary) that introduces the EMPOWER model of inquiry through apprenticeship. I had never heard of inquiry through apprenticeship or EMPOWER until I attended a session by Jeffrey Wilhelm at last year’s National Council of Teachers of English conference, but I have been using both ever since when designing my lessons, as they are fabulous tools for thinking about lesson design. In today’s blog post, Chris Butts explores the role that one piece of the framework–priming–is playing in making his classroom a more culturally responsive place this year.


The author exploring his quieter neighborhood at the start of the pandemic.

Like many people, the major events of 2020 shifted my focus to some under-explored aspects of my life. My son and I walked the less familiar streets of my neighborhood, and I joined a group chat with college friends that I lost touch with.

Within my classroom, I’m teaching US History to high schoolers for the first time this year and exploring how to incorporate culturally responsive pedagogy and anti-bias teaching into these new classes. Like my neighborhood streets and friendships, these ideas and theories of action are not new to me, but I’m reexamining them through a new lens.

In particular, I’m thinking about the culturally responsive elements of inquiry through apprenticeship, which I recently wrote about in Planning Powerful Instruction: Seven Must Make Moves to Transform how we Teach–and how Students Learn by Wilhelm, Miller, Butts and Fachler.

Inquiry through apprenticeship positions students as future experts in the content area. The perspectives of teachers and students are honored when they co-inquire into the controversies and questions that experts examine outside of the schoolhouse. In service of that work, students learn and practice the models and skills that experts use, while teachers provide support with a gradual release of responsibility. 

Since it is near the start of the school year, much of my focus now is on the priming stage of the model, where community building and preparing students to learn sets the stage for critical conversations later in the school year.

In a school year where I feel pressure to catch up on what was missed last spring, it’s tempting to cut these types of activities, but I’ve learned from experience that when that groundwork isn’t laid, hard conversations become harder, or avoided altogether.

At the outset of the year, I typically design community building activities that bring students’ funds of knowledge to the surface; for example, there’s a circle map where we share what types of expertise we bring to the room.

Chris’s Circle Map

Instead of the circle map this year though, I’m going to ask my students to create primary sources with screenshots of (school-appropriate) images from their phones, work schedules, music playlists, vlogs, etc. and paste them into a Google Doc, myself included. Then we’re going to analyze these documents as primary sources. I hope an activity like this makes my classroom more culturally responsive by:

  • Featuring the lives of students in the curriculum.
  • Sharing our funds of knowledge.
  • Hearing stories that build the classroom community.
  • Apprenticing students within a community of practice by doing the same types of things that historians do.

Maybe this type of dovetailing sounds easy in a history classroom, but it can be done in any class, if we reframe our classroom as a community of practice, a crux move in inquiry known as cognitive apprenticeship. To do this, start by asking yourself questions like these:

  • What are the artifacts that experts in my field create? 
  • What are the artifacts that experts in my field consume?
  • How do experts in my field describe their world?
  • What are low-threshold ways for my students to do the same types of things?
  • How can students showcase and share their interests and strengths in this task?

In an English class it could be a letter or postcard. In a math class it could be a series of graphs that tell their life story. In a music class it could be a playlist, or lyrics to a particular song. The list could go on, and if you’re not sure, it’s time to get in touch with your inner expert and reexamine your community of practice. By apprenticing students into my content area with their stories, I’m creating an expectation for academic success that embraces their cultures and identities and connects them with the community of practice. 

Priming with a Purpose

After I encourage students to buy into one another, it’s time to prime their interest by convincing them that whatever we’re studying is worth their time and energy. One of my favorite ways to elicit their interest is to position them as an expert at the outset of the unit. One thing that experts do is rank teams, books, and products of all kinds, and I want to apprentice my students into that type of thinking. Thus, when I approach the American Revolution this year I plan to ask my students to rank the factors of a successful revolution from most to least important:

__ Strong leaders

__ Coalition building

__ Oppressiveness of the government

__ Large numbers of people

__Shared cultural heritage

Once I have these rankings, I can then introduce a social element, which Zarretta Hammond recommends to make lessons more culturally responsive. One way to do that is through a Four Corners discussion or by having students join a virtual breakout room, according to their rankings. For example, everyone that ranked “oppressiveness of the government” as the leading factor for successful revolutions could briefly share with one another the reasons for that ranking. Then, after discussion with like minded classmates, the students could discuss their positions as a whole class and try to convince peers to move to their part of the “room” if they agree. 

In addition to caring more about the topic, this lays the groundwork for conversations that address race, power, and identity by providing practice with constructive critiques of viewpoints and sharing background knowledge to support their responses.

I can also expand these statements into paragraph-long scenarios, if I want to provide more material for them to discuss. When drafting such statements or scenarios to rank, I ask myself:

  • What are the things that experts on this topic argue about? 
  • What are the major misconceptions that students are likely to have? 
  • What values do we want to discuss throughout this unit? 

Among other things, the spring 2020 forced me to reexamine the priorities in my life, and the pressure to cover the same amount of content online is forcing me to examine the priorities in my teaching. And right now I only have time for the most important things–things like getting to know my students and what is important in their lives, activities that serve as rehearsals for more challenging conversations, and preparing them to participate in a community of practice outside of school.

Chris Butts has been an educator since 2003. He taught for ten years at the elementary level and is starting his fifth year at Frank Church High School in Boise, Idaho. He’s one of the co-authors of the grades 2-5 edition of Planning Powerful Instruction: Seven Must Make Moves to Transform how we Teach–and how Students Learn. You can find him on Twitter @cbutts9980

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