How a Master Teacher Began Her Inquiry Journey

Brian Brinkley, Director of the Betty Holden Stike Education Lab in the Watson College of Education, UNC Wilmington.

Dorian Barnes, Murrayville Elementary School in Wilmington, NC,  Master Teacher with the Watson College Professional Development System.


Picture it – fifth grade American history projects. The teacher assigns topics, and students write a one page, five paragraph essay about their assigned topic. Now picture the alternative – students are inspired to connect in personally meaningful ways to an event, individual or issue in American history. The latter is exactly what happened this past January as Dorian Barnes, a teacher at Murrayville Elementary in New Hanover County, North Carolina, changed the way her class approached American history.

The University of North Carolina Wilmington maintains powerful partnerships with several school districts and partner schools in southeastern North Carolina. One initiative, the PDS Master Teacher Program, pairs teacher leaders with university faculty to initiate curriculum change projects or conduct research within their schools and classrooms.

Selected as a Master Teacher in the fall of 2015, Mrs. Barnes teamed up with Watson College’s Ed Lab Director, Brian Brinkley, to change the way her class approached American history. She wanted to change from project-based to inquiry-based teaching, constructing opportunities for, students to ask and answer their own questions and create products of their own design to share what they learned.

After conversations with Mr. Brinkley and after reading about the promise of inquiry-based instruction, Mrs. Barnes opened the world of American history to her students with a series of introductory videos and high interest reading. Students consulted with their teacher, parents and other students to decide what to investigate. Through a three week process, Mrs. Barnes taught students about asking good questions, using primary and secondary sources, taking notes, and presenting in ways that made sense.

The results were undeniable: Every student in Mrs. Barnes classroom was deeply engaged in learning. Mrs. Barnes’ teaching was reenergized, as were her fifth grade colleagues. When the other teachers saw what was happening with her students, they decided to change their American history project to an American history inquiry. The fifth grade Learning Expo was planned to last a few hours on one day. It turned out that the fifth grade classes had to present over three days because of the interest of other grade levels in their school.

On a personal level, the inquiry experience was impactful, as well. Michael, one of Mrs. Barnes’ African American students, decided to find out what he could about Harriet Tubman. He learned that

she was an abolitionist, that she helped with the Underground Railroad, and that she had been born into slavery before she escaped. After sharing his brief presentation on a digital tablet, Michael reached behind him and revealed a pair of slave shackles – an artifacts of his inquiry study. Realizing the deep symbolic importance of what Michael held in his hands, Mrs. Barnes asked, “Where did you get those, Michael?” “Me and my dad made them,” he answered.

Like Michael, each student’s inquiry experience was both personal and meaningful. Even with the obstacles and pitfalls she experienced, Mrs. Barnes knew she could trust her faculty colleague, Mr. Brinkley, to support her every step of the way. Because of the partnership made through PDS, she is committed to helping students grow even more with asking and answer their own questions, next time in their studies during Black History Month. She summed it up this way, Perhaps one of the most beautiful outcomes of this project was that students were actually listening to one another and everyone felt equally smart! Now picture that!