Last week the fifth grade began research on the American Colonies. The lesson was promising. The social studies teachers collaborated with the language arts teachers, and me, to plan the unit. It was up to me to kick it all off. We had two sessions scheduled that day. Things were going amazingly well. The students and teachers had a conversation about research, choices, and reliable sources. We moved on to using text features to find specific information with the text. Every hand was in the air as the students begged to be able to contribute to our list of text features. Three teachers beamed at each other proudly from different corners of the room.
The classes were scheduled to come back in the afternoon to use the non-fiction books, and their text features, to find information that would help them better understand various aspects of life in their assigned colony (general information, government, education, industry, climate and geography, and religion.) The plan in the afternoon was to group the students at tables by colony. Three or four students would then each select a different book and examine the various text features of their book to determine how that particular book could be helpful for their research on one of the subtopics. They would then find a paragraph to read about the subtopic and read for understanding. In the last 15 minutes of class they would share what they learned about their books as well as what they learned about their subtopic.
Before the classes left in the morning, as an afterthought, I explained to the teachers that I felt the students would benefit from a scaffold to help them as they used the books. In between my duties and my other classes I scrambled to have a scaffold ready for the afternoon session.
As I read this now, its so obvious to me that they were getting way too much at once. Even writing about it is way too much at once… but hindsight is 20/20.
The students came back in the afternoon. I’ve never seen so much, go so wrong, so quickly! The students were completely confused and frustrated. There was a steady chorus of teachers (myself included) saying, “We told you this already!”; “You’re not listening to directions!”; “No.. you can’t look at you text features until you’ve decided as a group which subtopic going to be your focus!”; “You should be reading with your pencil down…” There were books and papers and pencils and more papers everywhere… and many teachers and students with their heads in their hands. It was a train wreck. Truly.
I did what I always do in these situations. I reflected. Tomorrow I would have another group coming in for the same lesson and I knew things couldn’t stay the same. I decided that I had made two big mistakes with my presentation. First, I didn’t model the strategies for evaluating text features. I had given the students a list of questions on which to focus but hadn’t shown them how to do it. Second, my scaffold wasn’t clear. There were too many sections and too much text. I decided that I would use a slide on the projector to keep the students on track and make the sequence of the tasks more clear.
The next morning when the groups arrived (different teachers than the day before) the morning went much then same as it had the day before. I had already talked to these teachers about how I was going to revise the lesson and try to learn from the day before. I spent part of the morning modeling some of the strategies that I wanted the students to use. My instructions were more clear and concise. As I anticipated the afternoon, I felt much better and knew that these students would be much more successful. The students came back in the afternoon and I went over directions one last time. I had my slide on the projector outlining the tasks for the afternoon. I sent them to their table with their heads nodding… yes… they knew what had to be done… they got it!
…until they actually sat down and started to work.
I watched as the whole train wreck repeated itself. These kids were just as confused as the others! “What am I looking for?”… “Should I be taking notes?”… “There’s nothing in this book [titled The Virginia Colony] about the government of the Virginia colony.” How could I have gotten it so wrong two days in a row?
After school I went to those teachers and we discussed the lessons. The comment that struck me most was from one of the social studies teachers who said, “I’ve been teaching research for 13 years and today is the first time that I realized that when I tell them to use the table of contents to find something to read, they may not know how to do that.”
Here’s what we learned from two train wrecks:
- The students might be able to identify text features, but using them in a variety of real-life situations is another matter.
- We need to teach the students to use inference when working with text features, especially when the authors of non-fiction texts get creative with chapter titles
- Our students need practice with creating synonyms and related words when using the index
- Our students need to practice problem-solving strategies when they hit a road block and they need to develop research stamina
- We need to chunk these research experiences into smaller tasks
- We need to provide direct instruction on how to research, and we need to do it at an earlier age
- We need to slow down and take our time when teaching research
I love teaching research. I literally get butterflies in my stomach when I begin a research lesson with my classes. I love the moment when they read something and make a connection. I love seeing their eyes light up because they get it! I’m so thankful for this train wreck because it will provide me with an example for other teachers, who don’t yet see teaching research the way that we do. Teaching research is more than handing a student a book and saying “Go.” What these teachers and I know is that teaching research is an active process. It’s slow and deliberate and messy. It’s a lot of work!
So… “Thank you!” to my colleagues for sticking with me and with the process. Although we were all feeling some pain, we all came out understanding more about how our students learn. I’m so grateful that you have the energy and determination to see this process through. I’m so glad that you are not taking the easy way out.
What a great mess!