Magic happens when students choose what they want to learn.
That’s what I saw today in my classroom.
My students have been on a quest to reach beyond the typical research topic. And when we reach beyond the typical we reach to uncharted territories. Places where we might not understand. Where it might get confusing. Places where we will have to turn around and start over again.
I started students out by thinking about a topic that met certain criteria.
First, it had to be something they wanted to learn about. And secondly, it had to be something student needed to learn. This second test was necessary to move my fifth graders away from the “all about” type of informational writing towards informational research writing.
The nudge towards learning got many to dolphins and endangered animals. One student boldly chose politics. That was good. But could it get better? To give them more food for thought, I showed students Jessica Lifshitz’s beautifully crafted slide presentation on that shared images that lead us to think about problems we want to learn more about.
From that exposure, their ideas moved from butterflies to Black Lives Matter, girls educational opportunities around the world, and war. They were thrilled. Groups formed. But. Wait. We have to think about how to study these bold, big topics.
To get them to think and to test their issue, I asked them to gather and write down as many questions as they could about the topic.
I coached in with question starters such as who, what, when, and how.
They were on fire.Personalities of the groups reflected the topics.
The girl’s education group sat around their table. Notebooks open. Pens ready. Each girl politely sharing their thinking as others listened attentively, jotting notes.
The Black Lives Matter group in the corner. All talking simultaneously. Chanting and fist pumping.
The bottle flipping group, a rag-tag bunch of students, worked diligently to come up with questions about around their favorite activity.
I was pleased. But this morning, when the research was to begin, I was worried. It felt sticky before we even started. Perhaps I should have set limits. Given specific choices. What the heck will the group researching war do?
For the day’s lesson, I shared my topic: water. Pretty big. Kinda like war. I started by Googling my question:
We talked about reliable websites: .org, .com, “reliable” news organizations. We scrolled down the page and considered what might be the best choice to look at first.
The National Geographic site sounded like one that was trustworthy and familiar, so I clicked and found this concept:.
That led us to investigate another site, where we found this:
That idea focused me from the big idea of water to the topic of unsafe drinking water.
I hoped this whole group exploration would help students dig into their own topics and focus in on a do-able research idea.
Off they went with notebooks and lots of energy.
The Black Lives Matter group had diminished in size from a group of ten to six, partnered up and talking. There were lots of ideas and some tension. The “r-word” came up. And questions: What started the movement? Where is it now? The once vocal group were quiet and intent.
Midway through the workshop, Jake* approached me and said, “I really don’t understand this issue. Can I change my topic?”
What a great discovery. I told him, that’s exactly what you need to do. And I shared his decision with the class. Perfect student-made mid-workshop interruption.
After that, Elise* in the Girls in Education group asked me, “Can I switch topics?”
They were self-selecting based on what fit their abilities and interests.
I walked over to Jake*. “What topic are you looking into?”
“Human rights.” He looked up from his Chromebook and added, “You know what? Human rights issues exist outside of America.”
Jake* may run into another snag in his understanding and others like Elise* are choosing topics like hummingbirds and jaguars. But that is fine. Jake* has learned something tremendous. He’s the kind of kid who won’t forget it, no matter what his end product looks like.
This is why I love informational research. This is why choice matters. This is why I love teaching.