My grade 5/6 class is researching Canadian endangered species.
Breaking down the research process into manageable pieces has been challenging. I’ve divided my steps into steps so many times, it feels like I’m running the Fermilab. The Higgs boson has not only been discovered; it’s now known as The Higgs and The boson. (Disclaimer: Any analogies dealing with particle physics should not be scrutinized closely.)
Teaching research skills takes time. Students are impatient. They want to jump in, start immediately. How hard can it be? Print off a few articles, change a few words, throw in a few pictures—what more do you want?
For those new to teaching research at this level, let me break it down (and down) for you.
First off–the bad news: you’ll need to get organized. And getting organized can take a little time. So if you’re looking for tomorrow’s lesson, stop now. This is like one of those recipes that require a week of marinating.
Here’s how I got organized.
My first stop was the school library. I checked available resources and then did some research online, looking for materials at my students’ level (I have many students with low reading abilities). Because these students have not done much previous research, I decided to prepare packages of information on 18 animals (was that a groan?). That way, we could focus on reading, taking notes, arranging notes, and writing.
- Why go to all that work? Isn’t finding resources an important part of research? Absolutely—just not at this level. Finding appropriate resources is one of the most difficult and time-consuming aspects of research. I know from previous experience that these students cannot gauge their reading level accurately. They will print out a 32-page scientific paper on the Beluga whale—and then come to me for help. The other extreme–they will copy out another kid’s report they’ve found somewhere online. Again, not an appropriate source of information.
- Why 18 animals when you have 27 students? Some students feel more confident working with someone else. I decided that up to two students could work on one animal, sharing the info folder. However, I also knew that some students would prefer to work by themselves.
- How did you organize the information? I stapled together the edges of old legal-sized folders and wrote the animal name on the tab. I put information and books in each pocket and stored the folders in a plastic box.
Although this might seem like a lot of work, your first attempt at research will go much more smoothly. Plus, you can reuse these packages. (I’m thinking of having students repeat the process with a different partner and animal.)
After I prepared these packages, I created a very specific outline of what information I wanted the students to find:
Endangered Species: Our Outline
II. Description: What does this creature look like?
- A. Colour
- B. Size
- C. Weight
- D. Unique features: paws, fins, claws, fur
- E. Babies: what do their babies look like?
- F. For birds, describe eggs
III. Habitat: Where does this creature live?
- A. Provinces and territories
- B. Natural Environment: what kind of home does it prefer (forests, fields, marshes, oceans)?
- C. Plants and animals that share this environment
- D. Climate of habitat
IV. Adaptations: How does this creature survive?
- A. Body (sharp teeth, long claws, thick fur)
- B. Diet (What does it eat? What do babies eat? Who hunts?)
- C. Home (What is it? Where would you find it? Any interesting details?)
- D. Enemies (Who are they? How does your creature fight them? Are humans an enemy? How?)
- A. Why this creature is endangered?
- B. What is being done to protect it?
- C. What else can we do?
You’ll notice: clear, simple, specific. No surprises.
I also needed to decide on a note-taking format. Yes, I know, this is my year to embrace technology, but the technology at my school is not reliable, nor is it available whenever I want it. So—I went old school. I created folders where students could organize post-it notes:
This folder’s four categories are taken directly from the outline: Description, Habitat, Adaptations, and Bibliography.
Then I needed to determine a way to have students choose animals. If you are doing this for the first time in an elementary classroom—beware! Riots can occur if students don’t get “their” animal. Here’s one way that has worked well for me.
- Have Popsicle sticks labeled with the students’ names. Prepare a chart with the animals listed.
- Pull out sticks one by one. Allow children, in order, to choose an animal. Once a child has chosen, allow that child to invite another student to work with him/her on the same animal. The invited child can accept or decline the invitation. (Before we start the process, I explain how everything works and why I think this system is fair. I allow them to ask questions. I explain that they are not obligated to work with anyone.)
OPTIONAL: Over the years, I have found that creating a booklet for students to keep their research materials together has been very successful. Students are more motivated—they really want to complete their booklets. For this particular project, I folded four legal sheets in half and included the following elements:
- Page one: Title page with name and due date
- Page two (inside front cover): Mind map of outline
- Page three: Outline
- Page four: What I know/ don’t know about description and habitat
- Page five: What I know/don’t know about adaptations
- Page six: How to take notes
- Page seven: How to turn Post-its into a report
- Page eight: Space for a hand-drawn, labelled picture of animal
- Page nine: Introduction (glue in final copies for pages nine-fourteen)
- Page ten: Description
- Page eleven: Habitat
- Page twelve: Map of Canada (draw in range of animal)
- Page thirteen: Adaptations
- Page fourteen: Conclusion and Bibliography
- Page fifteen: Research journal (each day, write down what you did)
- Page sixteen: Assessment
Preparing a research booklet is simply putting all the pieces in one place. For storage, place red folder into research booklet and throw both into a page protector.
And now it’s your turn. How do you break down the research process into manageable steps?