It is no secret that in my classroom we try to keep it real. Once the authenticity is gone from the work my students and I do together, my students know it. They can tell when something is done because “we have to,” like state- and districtwide tests. When we read, we do so as real readers. When we write, we do so as real writers. When we research it is no different. To get students thinking about how writers use research in their own writing process, I began with a story that is rife with researchable topics: Verdi, by Janell Cannon. As a quick aside, Verdi is a playful and plucky young python who doesn’t want to grow up to be big, boring, and green.
I show the book to my students and tell them that Janell Cannon must have spent some time doing research in order to write this story, and together we are going to infer what her research entailed. I model an anchor chart in the front of the room, and each student creates the same in his or her reader’s notebook. Then we settle into our reading spot. I plop into the rocking chair (garbage-picked for me a few years ago as a surprise from our amazing custodian) and my students settle in around me. Some have attached their collaged composition notebooks to clipboards, others balance them on a knee: all are poised with pens or pencils ready. Reading is thinking, after all.
“The goal today, as you may have guessed by the chart we made, is to jot down as many ideas or topics as we can that we think Ms. Cannon may have researched as she wrote this story of Verdi. We will share our ideas at the end of the reading, inferring the specific questions that may have been researched, and finally, we will generate questions that we are still curious about based on the reading.” Many students nod to show their understanding.
“Let’s do one quick example of what I mean, just based on the cover of this book alone. Take a good look.” I show the cover to the class, making a slow arc in front of the crowd at my feet. “What do you think she might have researched?” Hands shoot up. “Everyone, go ahead: shout it out.”
“Snakes!” most students reply, since there is a picture of a bright green, curled-up snake dripping off a tree branch spanning the whole cover of the book.
“Right on. I’m betting she did some research on snakes. Write that down under ‘Topic/Big Idea,’ and as we read, let’s see if we can narrow that big idea down to some more specific things she may have researched.”
As I read the book aloud to the students, I take my time between pages to allow them to write. Occasionally I stop and call on a random student to share a snippet that he or she has written down and encourage others to add to their lists as I add it to our anchor chart. When the story has come to an end, I ask my students to turn and talk with whoever is beside them and share ideas. They are encouraged to not only listen, but to add new ideas to their list of topics. After a few moments of sharing, I ask students to call out the big topics they have written down. I add those to our anchor chart.
“Now, as researchers, if we went to the computer and typed ‘snakes’ into Google, what would happen?” I ask.
“We would get like, a ton of links,” Mikey pipes up—eyes wide to emphasize how overwhelming that might be.
“I agree. It is way too broad, as are a lot of these topics. So, with a partner, see if you can’t narrow the focus a bit. Ask a specific research question that may help whittle down the number of links and the amount of information a researcher may have to sift through. Write those questions in the second column. When we go to do some research, we can analyze which searches yield the best results. As an example, we had ‘snakes’ listed. How can we narrow that focus?”
“Pythons,” Amy chirps.
“Young pythons,” Miranda adds.
“Python hatchlings,” Luis inserts, using specific language from the text.
“Good. Those topics are more specific than just snakes. If I were writing a story about a python hatchling, that might be a good place to start. I’m sure I would learn a lot. Now let’s get even more specific. What do you think Janell Cannon wanted to know about python hatchlings?” It is quiet. “Turn and talk with a partner. See what you come up with.” Students chitchat and I listen in. They are coming up with good ideas, making connections, and inferring possible questions.
“Anka, what did you and Izzy come up with?” I ask.
“Maybe a specific question could be How long do python hatchlings stay with their mother? or something like that.”
“What do the rest of you think? Is that a specific question?” Students nod and murmur in agreement. “Other specific questions about hatchlings? Mikal, what did you and Andrew come up with?”
“Well, we thought we could research python hatchling behavior.” Mikal grins. He is always grinning, which makes the rest of us smile too.
“I think that’s a great topic as well. Okay, you guys get the idea. Come up with a few more ideas narrowing the research topics a bit.” Students work with their partners for five more minutes and determine a few more ideas. When they are finished, I ask them to share again, and we add to our anchor chart.
From Demonstration to Practice
“Now that we have thought hard about how this author may have done some research for this book, I would like to practice doing a little research of our own. We are going to try to keep our topics and questions somewhat specific and small so as not to get too lost in the massive expanse of the Internet, only to forget where we started.” I distribute copies of a template I’ve created. “So, thinking about Verdi, what are some things that have piqued your interest? What are some questions that you are wondering after having read this? You can think on your own or work with a partner, but I would like you to come up with at least two topics or questions that you would really like to know about. Write those topics and questions in the third column.”
As the children think about their further questions, I move across the crowded floor, squatting and listening in. Not surprisingly, most of the students are curious about python behavior. Many are asking, “Can pythons really do figure eights in the air?” and “Do pythons really launch themselves from trees?” There are several aspects of learning here. For one, I want my students to realize that research has a place in much of their writing, and it is a necessary and useful skill to have. And also, in doing research, the types of questions and search terms we use can offer us very different results in our search. This entire lesson is layered in a way to help students realize these ideas. When it is time to delve into the computers to do some searching, I address this with my students.
“You all now have a lot of topics and questions written in your notebooks. Some are very broad, like snakes.” I point to our anchor chart. “And some are much more specific, like Do python hatchlings spring from trees. Part of your goal, aside from getting answers to your inquiries, is to determine which search terms and questions bring you the most useful research.”
As my students dig into researching, some of them are working alone and some are working with partners or in groups of three, but they are all digging into the web. The room is humming with activity as they get down to business. They are each armed with sticky notes to write down the URL and webpage on which they find the answers to their questions, which they then can stick to their chart. But more important than finding answers is that my students engage in some good practice to understand what research is really like. And they do. Later on, we debrief how the research went, and the responses are illuminating. Many students say that, for this topic, broad search terms yielded better results about pythons in general, but narrowing the topic a little, for example, using python habitat, helped get to information sooner. Most students thought that the specific questions were actually too narrow and the links tended to “have, like nothing to do with pythons,” as Mikey put it, incredulous at the discovery.
When I asked for a show of hands, all of my students thought they had a better understanding of researching and how to avoid frustration by being thoughtful about search terms and trying out different ones. These students felt better prepared to do research in the future, and thought they had a better grasp of how to research efficiently. Also, as a bonus, most students thought they had learned some interesting things about pythons, and several said it was fun investigating those curiosities that had sprung up because of the book. This despite the fact that no one found any evidence or information about a python’s ability to spring from trees and make figure eights in the air.