Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Behind the Books: Getting Ready to Research, Part 1

Here are some words I associate with the act of researching:
Treasure hunt
Fascinating facts
Prospecting for rare nuggets of knowledge
Developing unique perspectives
Books, databases, observations, interviews

As you can tell from this list, I enjoy the process. So when Ellen Brandt, the Teacher-Librarian at Westford Middle School in Westford, MA, shared this word cloud based on words her sixth graders associate with the act of researching:
I was surprised and disappointed and confused. Why did these students have such a negative attitude about what I consider a fun adventure?

Are these students alone?

Unfortunately, they aren’t. The more I talked to educators about my concern, the more I realized that Ellen’s students aren’t an exception. They’re the rule.

Why, I wondered, didn’t students enjoy the hunt for rare nuggets of knowledge? As I searched for an answer, I started looking closely at the kinds of research experiences elementary students are having.

At many schools, early elementary students are handed fact sheets. For them “research” consists of picking facts off that sheet and incorporating them into a report. Older elementary students are often given a list of acceptable websites and told to use only them.

Suddenly, the word cloud started to make sense.

Students were bored because they weren’t doing authentic research.

Real research is active and self driven. It requires creative, out-of-the box thinking. That’s what makes it engaging.

But in the same burst of understanding, I recognized the heart of the problem. It’s difficult to create authentic research experiences for early elementary students.

And so, I asked myself a question: Is there a fun way to teach research skills—visual literacy, information literacy, digital literacy, critical thinking—to early elementary students without actually doing research?

I think the answer is “yes!” and beginning after February vacation (which is next week here in Massachusetts), I’m going to share some ideas with you.


  1. I think that elementary students enjoy research when they are given the opportunity to research their own interests. We've recently used I'm Trying To Love Spiders by Bethany Barton as a mentor text for research. I've had kids choose animal poop, cockroaches, math, Justin Bieber and many more fun topics to research. One student commented last week, "I can't believe I'm writing about this in school!" The best part is the research is student driven and the kids are given choice. I can't wait to read your next posts and learn more ideas for making research fun in the classroom! Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts, Melissa and passing them on to my 8th grade daughter. Thanks, Melissa!

  3. Yes, this is my experience at my son's school as well. And it's a progressive school! When we do "research" during school library classes, it takes TIME, something kids/teachers don't have much of during the school day. So we give them a handful of websites they can search. So many of them try to get answers through sites like! Yikes! They're looking for a quick answer to write down and move on. I am all ears to hear about your suggestions. Thank you!

  4. Thanks for all your enthusiastic comments. My feeling is that if early elementary teachers don't have the time or support for authentic research experiences, it's better to do fun activities to teach and reinforce research skills. Rote research experiences are bound to turn off curious young minds, and that's the last thing we want to do.

  5. Thanks, Carrie. I hope you'll find my ideas useful. Please join the discussion if you have additional ideas.

  6. Your ideas will be fun to follow. Thanks Melissa!

  7. I am very interested in your finds Melissa! Your ideas and thoughts will be beneficial to many educators.