Doing research in the content areas, taking notes, and writing a research report are skills typically honed in grades 4–8. For teachers of these middle grades, it is always helpful to have a broad range of research activities at your disposal—from traditional research reports involving secondary sources to innovative approaches in which students pursue primary sources and ask original questions. Here are some of the best.
Digging into the Past
How does picking through garbage relate to the study of Ancient Sumer? Get fifth-grade students to understand how archaeologists use artifacts for research with this simple classroom activity. You can connect this first archaeological experience to students' own lives by starting with the contents of a kindergarten class garbage can. Prepare your class by saying, "Pretend you are archaeologists studying an ancient culture. Study these objects carefully and see what conclusions you can draw about this society." Then have small groups of students don plastic gloves, and (after a few exclamations of "gross" and "disgusting") invite them to dig in. Their first job is to objectively record what they find. Can they determine that the society it came from was literate (if they find words on chart paper) and civilized (from the presence of forks and knives)? Finally, bring in a replica or model of Sumerian jewelry or a tool. Using the now-familiar framework, tell students: "You are scientists studying Ancient Sumer. What can you tell about the society from this object?" Together, have students brainstorm possible categories of information: What materials did Sumerians have? What was important to them? How did they spend their time?
Where Are We?
Another way to introduce the study of Sumer is through an atlas. Begin by handing out atlases and pointing out where Sumer was located. Then pair up students up and say, "See how much information you can find about this region." To egg them on, add something like, "When I did this I was able to find 20 facts." Encourage the students to use all the different maps in the atlas, including political, population density, and climate maps. After 20 minutes, gather the students in a circle to share. When discrepancies arise, use them as opportunities to delve back into the atlas. Students will be amazed at how much information they can get out of an atlas beyond the location of a country and what countries surround it!
Tried and True — Together!
When introducing students to the traditional research report, do a model report together as a class. After several weeks of studying Ancient Greece, for example, have students choose a research topic, such as the Olympics. Have the class brainstorm questions about the topic. Once the board is full, challenge students to condense the results into seven main questions. Ask each student to choose a classroom resource and, using the seven main questions as a guide, note corresponding facts — one per index card. Sort and categorize the notecards as a class. Then assign each pair of students one stack of notecards and ask them to write at least two paragraphs. Post all the write-ups on the board and ask the class, "How can we organize these?" Together, decide on the best way to outline the class report. By doing these first few stages together, students will gain a better understanding the challenges of research, and will likely have fewer problems when they move on to their own work.
Reports with a Twist
For a research report on an unfamiliar culture, build on students' storytelling skills (while making sure they don´t just copy out of encyclopedias) with this unique approach. Ask them to research an animal that is important to the culture; for example, the Inuit and Arctic animals. Together, brainstorm important topics about these animals such as how they live, how they get food, their family life, and their connection to the people. Once students have collected information to cover all the categories, ask them to create a fictional story that includes at least 40 facts. As models, share parts of books related to that culture (for the Inuit, try Incident at Hawk´s Hill by Allan Eckert and Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George.) Working on their own stories — whether in folktale, first-person, or other narrative form — gives students an opportunity to carefully review and integrate their research.
From Inquiry to Original Research
Want another teacher-tested approach? Invite students to embark on projects that grow out of their own interests. For example, during a study of colonial times, some students may become very interested in the Salem witch trials. Have such students meet separately to discuss books and ideas. Then, after reviewing historical fiction, trade, and nonfiction books, encouarge them to brainstorm creative new ways to find an answer, such as looking to people in the community. Students can interview local experts such as lawyers, a history teacher, a police officer, and a judge. By the end of the interviews, students may well be asking new questions they had never thought of before, such as, "In Salem, if the nine girls were boys, what would have happened?" and "If nine kids went around accusing adults now, would people listen to them and arrest the adults?" These inquiry results will lend a personal touch when your students sit down to write their reports. Challenge students, too, to write their reports from different points of view, or write out their own process of inquiry as a report topic.
Six Tips for Research Projects
Have students take notes in a double entry journal. On the right side, they write bibliographic information along with impressions, ideas, and questions about each book. On the left, they jot down page numbers of pictures, diagrams, or parcticular quotes to back up their right-column views. This material can then be integrated into reports.
- Before they start writing, have students interview each other about their subject before they start writing. After they´ve been interviewed, students write down everything they know about their subject. Later students can review these drafts and look for ways to organize and expand them into chapters.
- Let students who are working on similar topics work in groups so they can learn from each other.
- When sharing historical fiction, make sure students understand what is fact and what is fiction.
- Use primary resources as much as possible.
- Try to immerse your students in the topic they are studying and find ways to link it to their personal lives.