After having the investigation of museum items that I wrote about in my last post, I gave the students time to explore in a variety of sources to see what happened during the time period about which they are learning, Europe from 1400-1600. They looked through both textbooks and online sources. This step was initially very hard for them. They wanted me to tell them what was important and on what they should focus. I resisted the impulse to jump in and name my favorite artists, thinkers and explorers. I just let them wander through the sources for awhile, getting their own initial impression of the time.
“Wow! A lot happened!”
“Didn’t the Muslims do this before? Didn’t we learn about that earlier?”
“I wonder where he got the idea for that?”
I told them to just skim over the information, looking for patterns and topics that might interest them. I suggested that they think about people and activities that interest them in general. Do they like to ride horses or paint? Do they want to be an architect or politician? I suggested that they let those interests guide their search. For the students who continued to struggle with the breadth of the investigation, I had created a list of 40 or so important people and places. I quietly gave it to the students who had gotten stuck, simply unable to enjoy the process or to connect with any of the aspects of the time period. For them, it provided a scaffold that they needed.
The next step was to have the school librarian come in and give a lesson on how to develop effective research questions. She taught them about “inch, foot and yard” questions, as a way of identifying if they had a broad enough topic for their research. Inch questions are ones that can be answered with a single fact and usually can be found in a single source. Foot questions require more investigation and are answered with a combination of facts. Yard questions require the gathering of facts and then synthesizing them to develop an deeper understanding. They practiced labeling questions and then developing their own.
Now it was time to identify what areas they were interested in investigating for their research. Each student identified three topics on which they wanted to focus. They then wrote 3-5 sentences about why each topic was of interest to her. Then she wrote three research questions for each topic. I told them to present a clear argument for why she should be given a specific topic to investigate. I wanted to try and build their connections with the topics. Luckily, they had all found different aspects of Europe from 1400-1600 that were of interest to them, and I was able to give each one their first choice by dividing up some of the most popular topics, such as I split da Vinci into his scientific work and his art.
I divided them into groups of 8 or 9, larger than I have ever done before, to create the final museum store together. I wanted to have them work on larger collaboration skills. I had created a group in Edmodo, and divided it into two sections, one for each group. Since they were doing independent work for the first part of the project, researching their topics, I wanted to begin to build a sense of connection between them, sharing interesting facts and their ideas about the project. For their first post, I had them blog about why they were interested in their topic and the research questions that were of interest to them. I created a schedule for commenting, so that each student received a comment for each post. I then went through and left comments after the students commented.
At this point, it felt like we were truly launched! The students were engaged and excited. They felt in control of their work and ready to start their research. Since they had already done two research projects this year, they simply created a new project in NoodleTools and began their investigations. They were off!
I love the part about “quietly” providing a list of 40 or so topics for students that have gotten stuck. That’s the part with which I always struggle. I despise worksheets and study guides, but I sometimes (read: always) go overboard the other way in insisting that students construct their own knowledge much to my students’ frustration.
I am working on figuring out how to more effectively support the ones who are challenged without slowing down the ones who aren’t! Ongoing challenge!
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