Note-taking: A Blender for your Brain

Note-taking: A Blender for Your BrainA fourth grade student came up to me this week and said, “Ms. V. I need a book about Denmark.”

Sadly, we do not have a book about Denmark. I have books about countries and cultures on my collection development plan for the year. I also had the 900s on my weeding list for October. I viciously weeded this section and pulled several boxes of outdated books from the shelves.

So, no Denmark book.

I asked a few more questions about the project and realized that this student had already found a few resources about his topic. I recommended CultureGrams for the completion of his project as a resource he could use in the library or access at home.

He thanked me and said, “Oh, and I was taking notes about Denmark yesterday. That Cornell one really helped me. I liked it.” He pointed to the large charts I had on the wall from our previous note-taking lessons I had done with his class.


We should expect that our teaching makes a difference. We absolutely should. But, in reality when I keep at least 15-18 minutes of class sacred for book checkout, there are only 20-22 useable minutes left in our class. It’s not a lot of time to teach something meaningful AND have students remember it AND have students use it in the future.

When I teach note-taking I have three strong messages:

  • You should find a note-taking style that is right for YOU as an individual
  • Note-taking is a tool to get from an original source to a product in your own words
  • Note-taking is NOT about the rules of a prescribed format

Here’s how I teach note-taking to fourth grade students:

I have chosen three formats of notes that I like: Cornell 2-Column Notes, Landmark 2-Column Notes, and Extreme Mapping. I found templates for each of these from Pearson Education at

I usually pull an article or content relevant to a topic the grade level is learning in science or social studies and keep my eye out for something that does translate really well to note-taking. I want the students to see the ease in note-taking.

I always begin with Cornell 2-Column Notes. I feel like Cornell has some of the best (but hardest) features of the three styles I use with students. Landmark is a good transition between all the parts of Cornell and the loosey-goosey Extreme Mapping.

When I teach note-taking in three classes then each format gets a class. When I teach in two classes then Cornell gets a session and the other two share a session. I won’t lie–it’s  rush to fit it in.

RF_Cornell_NotesThis fall I taught the classes with articles about the extreme weather happening around our nation as it coincided with our fourth graders’ weather research projects. I used articles at Time For Kids. For our Cornell day I printed the article on the backside of the Cornell template. We spent a few minutes reading the article. Then I asked the students to think-pair-share with a neighbor a few keywords from the article that they would share with someone who had not read the article. We brainstormed these as a class and listed them as keywords. This is one of the aspects of this format I LOVE! I ask students to be sure to add the words they would want to use in their final project to communicate with their audience.

I strongly encourage students not to just copy my model even though we’re doing it as a class. “These are YOUR notes for YOU,” is my message. “Your brain might not think the same way my brain does.”

Then we read the article together and talk about headings and paragraph topics. I explain about the Roman Numerals, but I don’t emphasize those. At this age the Roman Numerals can be more of a problem than an asset. I stick to a I. Main Heading and then A., B., C. as details.

Finally, students think about one sentence they would use that would summarize all of the information on the page. (The summary doesn’t have to be one sentence, but for this assignment the ideas they’ve taken notes about usually fits in one sentence.)

This is the part where I emphasize the blender metaphor. We started with an original article by an author. We put it through the note-taking process and the result is something in our own words! It’s similar to the original, but changed by the process.

The following week I demonstrate the Landmark 2-column notes. It is similar to the Cornell, but doesn’t have the keywords, the Roman Numerals or the summary. It does have the main idea on the left and the details on the right. I explain that as we get older we all settle into our own styles for making lists. You can number, use bullets, stars, little boxes, etc. I tend to use hyphens in lists where I don’t have to do anything and boxes for to do lists. I explain this to the students and make it very clear that I make lists for me as ME and not as me the TEACHER. They do NOT have to use hyphens just because I use them in my example. I make a mini list off to the side of all of their options and ask them to choose one. I let them know it’s important to choose some kind of marker to an item in a list so that you can tell when the idea changes, especially if it is more than one line long.

Extreme Mapping is similar to Landmark notes. I tell students that this format is great for students who are truly art-smart. Most of the students in a class will choose this format as the one of their choice, but in reality it probably only suits one or two students. I flat out tell them that this type of note-taking is difficult for me. It’s more work for me to think in pictures than it is in lists. That’s not true for everyone. But I also tell them that sometimes the hard kind of note-taking is good for us because we have to really think about what we write down. When I’m forced to draw to explain my thoughts it means I really have to understand the concepts well in order to draw.

When we finish I ask students to move to one of three locations in the room representing each note-taking format. it gives me a chance to summarize each one and to emphasize the useful features of each.

I love teaching note-taking because I believe it is powerful. I only wish I had more opportunities for students to practice and integrate it. I can only hope that my lesson about taking notes being important and individual sticks with them long enough for it to be of some use.

Unit Plans in Review, 3-5

I’ve been reflecting on my units taught so far this year. Here’s K-2 if you want to read about more lesson plan angst. As I start the reflection process I say, “what was I thinking!”

Third Grade: Library ResourcesI need to work on this one some for next year, but there are some good parts. I got into Dewey with students by using The Library Gingerbread Man and a Sliderocket presentation I made to go with it. The SlideRocket is REALLY simple. Don’t expect anything fabulous.  I also spent a lesson with students showing them how to use the OPAC. Finally, our third lesson is about all of the other resources available to students online. They have time to explore our website subscriptions and resources. 

Third Grade: Ready References
The first lesson in this round introduced students to print vs. online resources. In second grade my students have already had a lot of practice with dictionaries and maps. We did a very fast smackdown of dictionary, atlas, encyclopedia and almanacs in print and online. I made a symbaloo to house these for quick access on our website. The second two lessons were more exciting (I’ll have to go back and blog about them–I meant to!). I put together ‘research stations’ for students to float around to during library class. They had two weeks to complete 11 stations.  Nine were content related and the last two were book checkout each week. They had a great time and got to practice accessing resources and I love a more open class structure where I can talk one-on-one with students. I will definitely do this one again with some refinement.

Fourth Grade: Online Searching
I wanted to start the year off getting fourth graders into online searching. I am careful about not monopolizing the computer lab for my lessons because it does block off a good chunk of time when I use it for an entire grade level. Frankly, I think it’s almost too late. They probably need these lessons in 2nd grade before are (hopefully) allowed to search Google at home. This unit was successful and I would teach it again. 

Fourth Grade: Word Reference Sources
Ah. It’s a dud. I did a lesson on the dictionary and glossary and one with the thesaurus. When I taught the thesaurus lesson last year with nursery rhymes it was better. This year it just did not work. They need work. And frankly, these lessons don’t fit as well into the library realm as I would like. Instead, I may offer them as a classroom lesson when teachers reach these objectives in language arts. 

Fourth Grade: Memoir
I looooove my memoir unit. I explored memoir with students for the first time last year. It’s one I was ready to repeat this year with a few minor tweaks. Overall, a big success. Can’t get over my love of this unit.

Fifth Grade: Research Paper
Ocean Animal Research project including a basic “how to use this book to answer questions” mini-lesson. Students also learned how to cite sources. My feel-good accomplishments were creating a SlideRocket to walk students through finding the locations for the copyright info needed in a text and templates for citing sources
Fifth Grade: Notetaking and Fairy Tales
Ah, this one is a dud. I booktalked a few older fairy tales that have been twisted by using other animals. Petite Rouge, Three Little Dassies, Armadilly Chili. Last year these students participated in an extensive Notetaking unit. I wanted to revisit 2-column notes with them. We used the Nature’s Children series to review the notetaking structure as we made notes on the animal’s habitat, diet, and relationships. Students used their notes to do a comic strip draft of their new version of a classic fairy tale. This is one of those units that I *think* sounds exciting and combines several interesting elements, but needed more time. I did try to squish it into two lessons instead of three, so maybe it will work with a bit more time.

The Verdict…
It took me a few weeks to get this post written. Everytime I sat down to add a unit I kept thinking “What did I teach third grade? Was it really so bad that I don’t remember?” After (finally) remembering and jotting down these notes, it doesn’t feel so worthless. I think I just struggle with feeling like I make an impact on my fixed schedule. I see students for three weeks out of every quarter.

One good lesson at a time. I think the good ones outweigh the duds. The duds just seem worse because the number of lessons I teach in these units is so few.

What are your favorite lessons or units for upper elementary? 

KidRex Search (Part 2)

I’m not sure how I made it through the second half of the Google Power Search online class, but I did it! In the midst of Book Fair and traveling out of town I was able to get it done! I highly recommend viewing the course material as long as it is available online and participating if the class is offered in the future.

I explained my class procedure with fourth graders for their first online search lesson. During the second week of this mini-unit (just 2 class sessions) I scheduled the computer lab and set the students loose with some independent work.

I decided to use, a custom Google search, for the students to use. I briefly demonstrated how the search looks a bit different from Google. I said that I like the search because it filters out sites with lots of advertising and shopping. I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but I kept my explanation simple for the students.

Download @ Google Drive

The workpage I used has three parts.

The first is a guided practice question. Students use the question to generate key words and then experiment with their search to discover which combination of terms generates the best results. I told the students that the animal they are searching for is one of my favorites and that learning the answer isn’t the point. The point of this is to practice with keywords. (I didn’t want them to spend 30 minutes trying to find the right animal with limited information.)

The second part was independent practice. Each student identified a topic they wanted to learn more about. They had to list the keywords before searching.

Finally, I asked students to tell me what they had learned about searching in these two lessons. I phrased it poorly on my first draft of the workpage and students said things like, “I learned that sharks have strong jaws.”

Oh boy.

They answered the question almost exactly the way I asked: what did you learn from your practice searching?, but avoided the prompts I had also supplied. This is why I never make copies for an entire grade level unless I’ve done the lesson in the past. I revised and made another set of copies. Most students ended up telling me that they shouldn’t use a whole sentence to search or should just use important words. Some said they liked KidRex. One student was very insightful and mentioned that she could make a better search with some of the words she found in the results of her first search. Impressive!

I really hope that some of these lessons will translate to future practice. I’ll be sharing with teachers the strategies I used with students so they can keep them in mind when assigning projects to students. I placed a link to KidRex on my Destiny homepage and my library website so that students can find it easily. Google is a powerful tool, but many of the results distract students when they aren’t skilled at crafting a good combination of keywords.

Google Power Search

Near the end of the summer I heard several librarians mention the Power Searching with Google class available online. It sounded like something that was worth an investment of time. The ‘classes’ are activities spaced out over a two-week span. When the opportunity came around again for a fall class I signed up.

That was right as school was beginning when I wasn’t working full days yet.

I got the reminder email last week and wondered what I had gotten myself into. Book Fair week is coming and I have several weekends of plans. Not a lot of extra time. But, this past week the first class was posted online. The class consisted of 6 lessons and activities. Each lesson is a short video explaining and demonstrating a feature of Google search. The activities are quick reviews of practice or questions to answer. I think it took me less than an hour to do all six. At the same time I was watching Big Bang Theory……

The classes are available every other day. I’ve made it halfway through and passed my ‘midterm.’

It’s kind of funny to me that at the same time I was taking the first class I was also writing a lesson plan for 4th graders about choosing keywords to search. The same strategies that I teach students is what I was seeing in the video instructions for searching. Visualize the page you want to find and identify the keywords that are on that page. What will the title be? What words are side by side?

I learned a few new things about search. Word order does matter. I didn’t know that before. Articles do make a difference. The example given was searching for “who” (World Health Organization), “the who” (the band),  and “a who” (Horton Hears a Who movie). The top search results are all different.

I suggest that you sign up for the class the next time it starts and just go for it no matter what you’ve got going on in life. It’s really not so bad! You might even be able to jump in now and do the whole class this week.

Here’s my lesson for 4th grade….

The Common Craft video for Web Search Strategies: 

Then a demonstration of searching and how it’s important to choose the right words.

I do the “who” demonstration with students.

I give students their work pages and their first self-think activity. Brainstorm 5 words you could put in to the search box that would help answer this question: How fast does a wild cat run?

Students think and write for a few minutes. Then they share at their table and add their neighbor’s words to their list.

Each table shares one or two words for the list and I type them into a word document, flipchart, notebook file, etc. one the screen.

I talk through their choices and compliment them on putting “cat” in their search list because it’s a specific word from the question. Then I brag about the addition of “wildcat” to their list because it is more specific.  Gushing happens when I see the word “cheetah” on the list. I let them know how thrilled I am that they are using their prior knowledge to build a search to get the best answer to their question. They started with “cat” and got more and more specific so they could find their results quickly.

Now that we have the noun we need (cheetah) we search for the word that will give us the ‘what’ answer. Students have suggested “fast,” “miles,” and the winner, “speed.” I compliment them on not sticking with just the words from the question like “fast” but finding that word that will give them the result they need–which is measurement.

Before typing “cheetah speed” into the search box, I type in the entire question, “how fast does a wild cat run.”

I examine the results, which pop up as several sites of “answers.” I explain that those “answers” websites are people’s opinions. I let them know that I love the idea of asking someone’s opinion for something. But, I use this option when I want to figure out how to fix my vacuum cleaner, or get my Swiffer Wetjet bottles open to fill them with my own cleaning solution (which is really easy to do, by the way!).

For factual information for their research I want them to find more credible sources. So we use keywords.

Using “cheetah speed” resulted in a wikipedia and a National Geographic news article. I told them I was fine with Wikipedia for most of their inquiries. They picked to try the National Geographic news link.

Then I gave each table their “Google Challenge.” I simplified two questions from recent Google a Day postings.

Each group chose one of the questions and then wrote keywords based on the question and their own schema. As a class we chose the best ones for each challenge and then tried them out.

Shockingly to me this lesson fit in my 25 minute teaching time frame.

There are a number of ways to assess this lesson. I asked students in two classes to write a number from 1 to 5 showing how much they think they learned at the top of their paper. I should have added my usual rubric to their papers:
I can identify keywords to search online. 1 (don’t have a clue)     2     3     4     5 (I’m an expert)

You could grade papers. Give an exit ticket rubric. Give an exit ticket work sample just like one of the class search challenges. I think there are a lot if options for this one.

Here’s my work page for students!

Download @ Google Drive


I asked a teacher if she had any preferences for an upcoming unit in 4th grade. She suggested memoir.


What I know about memoir is that it’s mentioned a lot for ‘bestseller’ books, book club books, and suggested adult reading lists. But the books always sound sad and dull to me.  I haven’t been a very adventurous reader lately.

I had to go and do some research to figure out what memoir was before I could even think about teaching it to fourth graders. And now that we’re done the unit, I cannot WAIT to teach it again next year with some refinements. The students and I had such a good time exploring the genre.

Like any good librarian who doesn’t know what to teach, I conducted a Google search. I found several great ideas for teaching memoir and pulled lessons from several different sources into my mini unit of 3 weeks.

Week 1: What is Memoir?
Inspiration: Memoirs about Photgraphs at Writing Fix
Resources: List of books by Nancy Keane

I collected as many memoir picture books as I could identify to pass on a set to classroom teachers and leave enough in the library for a display.

With students, I made sure they knew the simple definition of memoir: narrative nonfiction. We talked about how these two terms are almost at odds with each other. Narrative is a story with fiction characteristics. Nonfiction is true information. We compared memoir to biography and talked about how a memoir is one thread pulled from that biography and woven into it’s own story to stand on its own.

I read aloud Potato: A Tale from the Great Depression by Kate Lied. It’s very short and a great example of a memory from the family turned into a story to share.

We watched the video of Jamey Johnson performing In Color.

After watching the video I displayed the lyrics for students to read. I used them to further cement the definition of memoir. I made connections between the song and Potato because of the Great Depression theme. The song does have the word “hell” in it and I got a few hands at mouths and looks of “the teacher just said a curse word!” It is a very appropriate use in this song.

Finally I book-talked a few books from my pile that I thought students might want to check out.

Week 2: Shortcut by Donald Crews
Inspiration: Memoir Reading/Writing Workshop by Dr. Beth Frye
Other Resources:
Grade 3 Genre Study of Memoir by St. Paul’s Public Schools
Memoir: The Stuff of our Lives by Barbara Peardon

This is the part of the lesson I would adapt. I loved using Shortcut in an analysis lesson, but I think I might choose a different workpage next time. I used the framework from page three of the Memoir Reading/Writing Workshop. Of course, maybe I just didn’t lead the lesson to my satisfaction. As I found more resources after teaching the unit, I think I like page 15 of the Grade 3 Genre Study from St. Paul’s just as well. If you teach several groups of students the same lesson, you might make it more interesting for you by changing up the workpage the students use in their response.

I wanted to focus on the emotional aspects of memoir and how it is different than just a recitation of facts. Shortcut is one that is short enough to use in a 20-30 minute lesson and enables the students to dig deeply to find the emotions in the story.

Week 3: When I’m Old I Will Remember
Inspiration: Childhood Artifacts Inspire a Memoir at Writing Fix

The inspiration for this one is a big jump. I wanted to have students think about their own memories, but in our fixed schedule I knew we didn’t have time to write stories. I decided to go the art-smart route instead.

I pre-cut paper to give the students a smaller canvas. And I cut ‘frames’ an inch larger. I challenged the class first to think of themselves as very old, cranky and wrinkly. Then I had them throw their older self back in time. What memories will really stick as they get older? It might be something that happens all the time and is routine or maybe the first time something happens like swimming in the ocean or riding a bike. Students used crayon and color pencil to draw their picture and then chose a frame.

I also asked students to make a chart of sensory words related to their memory: smells, textures, sights, etc. 

I was really surprised by the quality of the drawings that students were able to create in a short amount of time!

That’s Memoir in a 3-week nutshell. I think I was as excited about the content as I was about the teaching strategies. It was nice to be able to tackle a topic from three different angles rather than as three steps in the same process.

Extreme Nursery Rhymes

I love being able to find a simple idea online for a lesson. If you’re like me, you don’t always have as much time to teach as you would like. When a class period is 45 minutes and 28 students need to check out books….time dwindles.

Looking online for lesson plans that have meat often yield lessons that require several sessions that are at least an hour in length. I can certainly plan some of those lessons, but not usually at the point when I am teaching an entire grade level in a fixed schedule rotation. Finding lessons for those fixed classes can be a challenge.

I did come across a good one in December before teaching my 4th grade rotation. Teachers asked me if I would emphasize thesaurus skills this quarter. I did a search looking for inspiration and found this document and this website about nursery rhymes.

Genius! I’m sure it’s been done many times, but I loved it. I thought it would be a good way to use a short text, thesaurus skills, discuss several thesaurus strategies, and to not be totally boring either.

I made a poster explaining the directions using ComicLife2 (thank you TL Virtual Cafe Monday Night Webinars!). After students gathered I quickly involved them in a discussion about two thesaurus tips: make word choices based on your audience and make word choices appropriate for the context. Then we went over the directions for the activity. Students used a preprinted square of paper with a nursery rhyme (I had about ten choices) to choose 5-10 words that would be good to change. Those words were underlined. Then students worked at tables or on the floor with their papers and books to locate good synonyms to substitute in their nursery rhymes. I emphasized that the rhymes did not need to actually rhyme. They did have to have a similar meaning. The poster with directions stayed up while we worked as a reminder of the directions and the tips I had shared.

It was so (I’m going to say the F word) Fun! The students actually seemed to have a good time. I even heard singing.

One cheerful student came up to me and said, “this is inappropriate, right?” I read his rendition of Twinkle, Twinkle.

Umm….yes….”twinkle twinkle little but [his spelling], how I wonder what you smell like” would be inappropriate. But I could hardly contain my chuckles! I didn’t even want to read the rest of the rhyme. Most students would write a rhyme like this and then slip it into the pile I collected instead of confessing! I calmly reviewed the directions for finding a synonym and not a silly rhyming word to replace the words in the original.

His second version was much better than the first….

One more note….you may need a variety of thesauri?? Thesauruses? (No idea and I’m not looking it up.) We found that our Student Thesaurus did not have enough words to find words from the rhymes. Even basic words like “black” (baaa baaa) or “wall” (had a great fall) were not in these. I rounded up several other versions and we practiced our sharing skills.

Get on Board with TRAILS

This week, fourth grade has been strutting their stuff to show what they know in information literacy terms. When planning my first round of lesson plans I decided that I needed a strong assessment of skills for the upper grade students. TRAILS to the rescue!

TRAILS (Tool for Realtime Assessment of Information Literacy Skills) is a wonderful diagnostic tool to begin the year with. At least, I hope so. I’ve never used TRAILS, although I’ve considered it several times.

When planning my lesson for students I had to consider the fact that I have never met these students before and I will quite possibly not see them in class for another 15 school days. I hate to use the “F” word….but if the lesson couldn’t be ‘fun,’ I at least wanted it to not be boring! What and how we teach is an important relationship-building (or breaking) tool.

I made a few deliberate choices. I decided that students should be able to work collaboratively, but that I wanted each student to be able to individually answer the question. I decided that I didn’t need a record of individual student performance, or even class performance. I wanted a general grade-level baseline data set that will allow me to guide instruction through the year. I also want to be able to compare with end-of-year data.

I made posters of each of the 15 questions in the first 3rd grade question set. Next to each question I placed a numbered plastic cup. Yes, the posters have palm trees on them… original idea was to break out the box of leis I have leftover from a luau and to make it a tropical cruise them to go with our school theme of the year. Yeah right. I did manage to get the trees on these, which helped students find the posters hanging on the shelves.

Students received a half page paper with A, B, C, and D letters. They were given directions to cut their paper into ‘fringe’ to eliminate the chance of paper trash.

Each group visited each of the 15 posters around the library. They read the question and discussed each. Each student clipped off the letter tab that matched their answer choice and put it in the cup. I told the groups that each person did not have to agree on the answer. Each person had the freedom to put in their own choice, but I wanted them to have the support of their team. 

This has been a great first activity from a management point of view. I have been able to circulate through the students to greet them, learn names, and make observations. I think that the hardest question is the one about primary and secondary sources.  It’s been good for the students to work in groups. Most of the classes have agreed that it’s not so bad for a first class activity and that “it was easy.”

Tomorrow is the last day for fourth grade. I’ll take all of the answers from the cups to count and create a set of data for fourth grade. I’ll repeat the activity with my fifth grade rotation next week.

Overall, I’m glad I planned an assessment right away. And I’m really glad I approached it in a collaborative casual manner.

Career Map

Let’s recap…..

1. Research projects that I teach should be short or I lose my mind.
2. I have kids who don’t like work.
3. I try to plan authentic instruction.
4. I try to teach information skills without being all “let’s learn the Dewey Decimal system.”

So I planned the State/Career project. Used a research guide. Collected books about jobs. Kids are actually interested in their topic. Not so much in the work.

And here we are to the product! I promised pictures and I finally have them!

Each student was charged with creating a simple 5×8 card with a title, image, paragraph, and colored border. I encouraged them to use color, but not to make their card messy. I’m a firm believer in white space. I also encouraged them to write at least 5 sentences related to their research questions.

I got a few that said “The army protects people. They shoot guns. It is a cool job.”  Ugh. In these cases…..their product didn’t reflect what the resources provided. But for these students it was a good conversation starter and I hope that the discussions I had with students were more meaningful to their life than maybe the research process was. I sat down with a few, opened the resources and pointed out the humanitarian efforts of the military, the variety of jobs actually involved, and the training needed.

Waaaayyy back when planning this unit, I had this idea for a visual presentation of our product. I have a great wall in the library that is underutilized. I keep colored foam panels on the wall and occasionally think to staple something to them. Here’s what I made and put up on my wonderful wall:

It looks a little bland, I know. But the idea in my head seemed impressive and when you look at it in person it’s not bad. I took a map of our state, divided by six (the number of panels between the cafeteria windows), and cut the map into strips. I used our Elmo document camera to enlarge each strip of the map. I traced it on bulletin board paper, used a really stinky marker to outline the edge and then laminated. Just in case you’ve never laminated something so wide, here’s how you do it. Fold it in half so the good side is on the outside. Run it through the laminator. Then carefully cut down the edge so that the paper unfolds. The top of the paper will be laminated and the back will be paper.

Getting the panels to stay on the wall was the tricky part, but little bits of Command Strips finally did the trick.

Once the map was up and the students finished their products, they put their cards on the map in the general area where they thought the job occurred. We put the football and NASCAR information near Charlotte, and jobs like firefighters, vets, and fast-food workers anywhere. The picture here is just the cards from one class. I still need to have the students in the other class add theirs.

The white background is why I stressed to the students that their card needed a colored border. I’ll be putting up a sign explaining the project at the end of the map.

Overall, this is a project I’ll try to repeat again, and improve!

"I hate this stu…..yes! Army books!"

Remember I said that I can’t handle projects longer than 4-5 weeks? I mean it. March was jobs month in fourth grade. A unit I’ve been planning for nine months. And, I think it came off fairly well. I’m here sharing about it and one of my philosophies is that if you survived it, something about it must have been good.

I wanted the kids to do an integrated, but simple research project. It started as a musical idea related to work songs, like sea shantys.

Five week limit.

So I went to “jobs across the state” and ditched the music integration. The idea was to explore a bit of history, economics, culture and to open up the topic to things that interest the students. I made a research guide that asked four basic questions: why does our state need people doing this job? what skills and training are needed to do this job? where in the state is this job done? (region, city size), and to explain the historical context of the job if applicable.

I checked out a slew of books from the library. I could say a lot about the public library. Maybe later. I should keep track of these ‘maybe later’ blog post ideas…..I’m still new to this! (I hope I’m doing okay here….) Sorry, off topic.

So at the public library I’m very comfortable navigating and getting what I need, but when one of the delightful ladies asked what I was up to and if she could help, I accepted. I’m glad I did, because the unit wasn’t fully formed at the time and she had a lot of great job suggestions. I basically checked out tons (at least 60) job books. Traditional such as community helpers (fire fighters). Common, but not often discussed in school (beautician). From the past (colonial dressmaker). And then I started to dig a bit deeper…, engineers, and my big success: military!

I say this was a success because the week before this project started I clued the kids in about the upcoming research project and I got “I hate this stupid school. I’m not coming next week.”


Next week arrives and I start passing out the books and research guides. The directions were simple. Keep passing the books and when a topic looks good, write it down on your research guide.

“Cool! Army books!”

I am a hero. And it wasn’t a disaster.

I’m also long-winded…..this will probably go into two parts. Which is good because I’ll take the pictures I want on Monday. So the kids use their research guide to list their topic, potential resources, and describe the product. They also review the scoring rubric. Listing the resource ideas was a bit of a review step. I knew we were using all text for this project, but we’ve discussed the idea of possible sources so much I wanted to see what they would remember. They started to answer the questions and there were some questions from them. And some students who tried to answer without actually reading. And those that did read. And the one who crumpled her paper and said she wasn’t doing it. You know–a regular class of fourth graders in March when they start blooming right along with the daffodils.

Two weeks wasn’t long enough. Because that’s only 40 minutes of work time. I wish I had the time to go deep enough. I wish I were brave enough to MAKE the time to go deeper. But I don’t want to interfere in precious classroom time that is so heavily scheduled. That’s another issue. We took two weeks to use the books and find answers to the questions. I was fine with simple sentences. These classes are two that struggle with self-monitoring and self-control. The fact that I didn’t have “I hate this stupid school,” in the environment was a win.

The last two weeks of the unit students worked on their product. They had to do something, again, very simple. On a 5×8 card they needed a title, border, paragraph and picture. It took two weeks for most of the students to complete. A few faster and a few still not finished. And a few who lost their paper and started over with bitter complaints.

I’m considering breaking my five week rule. I feel like the unit still needs some depth that I didn’t tap during the research weeks. I would like to debrief the unit and discuss, but that’s not the structure of class that this group of students will benefit from. I might just have to let it go and call it good and hope that my individual conversations with students are enough.

More on the product next post–I’m kind of proud of it!