Charting a Research Course to Deeper Learning

We are very excited to introduce this week’s Chartchums guest blogger, Chris Lehman. Not only is Chris a dear colleague and friend, he is the author of several professional books, including the brilliant Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement (with Lucy Calkins and Mary Ehrenworth), the highly helpful Reviving Disengaged Writers, and his newest book, Energize Research Reading and Writing: Fresh Strategies to Spark Interest, Develop Independence, and Meet Key Common Core Standards, Grades 4-8. In his latest book, sure to be another big hit, Chris tackles one of the most talked about issues among teachers: research reading and writing. Chris shows how he works with students and teachers across the country and around the world to engage kids in real study, real excitement for learning, and real understanding. We’re so excited about this book and so thrilled to have Chris share some of his latest thinking with us here at Chartchums. (In fact, the book is available for pre-order right this second HERE.)

Chris also has an active education-focused twitter account – @iChrisLehman – we suggest you give him a follow. Without further ado, please join us in welcoming, Chris Lehman!

It is such an honor to post with Chartchums, not just because I think Kristi and Marjorie are two really brilliant people—who are awfully funny, I might add—but because the mission of this blog/community/love-fest embodies all that research should be: digging deep into a topic you love, grabbing every single piece of possible information you can, and then sharing it with others. “How can we harness the visual power of charts to support our students’ independence” is a battle cry for teachers in this community; in every post (and every post comment!) we see that call being answered over and over.

Researching a cool topic—like charts—isn’t just fun, it’s an essential life skill. In fact, the Common Core expects that every child will research “to build and present knowledge.” From shared studies and writing in kindergarten, all the way up to intensive, individualized research with cited sources in upper grades, every child should learn to find information they need, learn from it, and share that learning with others.

But here’s the thing. Walk the halls of nearly any school and you are certain to find projects that, though colorful and well-intended, are either plagiarized directly from sources or are filled with regurgitated facts formed into the shapes of paragraphs. Even more concerning, walk up to any of the creators of those posters or essays or booklets and ask, “Can you tell me about your topic?” and a great percentage of them will look at you as if you are out of your mind (imagine a typical pre-teen look of disgust here).

There is lots to say about this topic, but here are two ideas to consider. First, students come with loads of expertise, even in methods of research. Secondly, writing about research is about teaching others, not just proving you read something. I’d love to hear what things each of you do in your schools, too.

Our Students Come with Oodles of Expertise, Even in Methods of Research

Often times in an effort to “help” we—how should I say this?—“over-help.” We dole out itty-bits of strategies on a daily basis, almost forcing students to wait for each new nugget, even when they may already know how to do it. Take for example, nonfiction reading. If we begin a first grade nonfiction unit by saying, “We’re now going to start a brand new type of reading in this unit. One you have never done before. It is waaaay different. It’s called ‘NON-fiction’!” we don’t take advantage of what children already explored when reading nonfiction in kindergarten. We can unintentionally act as if it’s brand new every year, even up through eighth grade and high school sometimes. Studying research is no different.

So consider letting your students show you what they already know about research writing, before diving into instruction.

Here’s a version of this idea I had the pleasure of teaching with a 5th grade inclusion class in Harlem. We set up bins of nonfiction books on tables, some chart paper (yay!), kids arranged in partnerships or groups, and then took a few deep breaths to prepare us for whatever ride the class took us on.

I said, “Today, we become authors of nonfiction ourselves. We are going to find topics, organize them, and write not just for ourselves, but write to teach others to become experts on our topics as well. Today will be all about experimenting, just trying things out—who cares if one version doesn’t go well, we’ll just try another and another. To start, let’s take a look at what some of our fellow nonfiction authors are already doing in their books.”

We started with a chart on which we had written three categories:

Information Book Authors Write to TEACH!

• They choose topics (hobbies, ideas, places) they LOVE and readers will too.
• They organize (structure, sections) to teach readers.
• They use different (a variety) kinds of details.

I then led the class in all three, super fast, inquiries. I demonstrated with a book I was holding, then they spoke with partners about books they had in front of them. In the end, we ended up with this messy, but loud, energetic, idea-filled chart:

This chart not only captures the excitement of the children’s discoveries, it provides several strategies they can draw upon as they begin their own research reading and writing.

Inquiry work is often a messy process when kids are in the midst of making discoveries. Brainstorming needs to be fast and it is more important to capture these erupting ideas than worry about how the chart looks. As students get further into their experiments, they can then revise or create new charts with examples from books or from their own writing, with hand-drawn illustrations, or with photographs of themselves in action. Handing over some responsibility is always harder on the teacher than on the students, but the results are usually increased agency and ownership of the work being done in a classroom.

Right after our shared brainstorming session, the students were fully geared up and nearly bouncing out of their seats, so I let them loose by saying, “Right now, you are nonfiction book authors. Look up here for a moment (I pointed to the chart we had just completed) and make a plan for your work for the whole rest of this work time. Are you someone that will start with number one? Brainstorming lots of topics? You might decide to focus working most on number 1. Maybe making lists or webs or charts (I checked the first box for emphasis). Or maybe you have topics and want to try our ways to organize them, so you’ll work on number 2. Maybe listing possible chapters, or drawing sections, or coming up with subtitles (I added a check to the second box). Or maybe you already have the perfect topic in mind and you want to try other ways of teaching it. You could work on number 3 (another check). Maybe you will make some diagrams, or write what you know already, or jot down sources you could go to. Right now, show your partner with your fingers where you will start: 1, 2, or 3. I pointed to each category to emphasize that this chart contained different strategies they could try to get started with their research. Okay, ready nonfiction authors? GO!”

The results of one period were amazing. Some students made lists, some webs, some started writing sections, some brainstorming ways of teaching their topics. The other teachers and I were so impressed by the choices students were making and, even more so, by how much we could see they already knew. “Hmmm,” we thought, “so we don’t really need to spend too much time on collecting ideas. And for sure they get the idea of topics with subtopics, so we can go a little further and look at more sophisticated ways of organizing ideas.”

Writing About Research Is About TEACHING, Not Just Proving You Read Something

Once students show what they know, you can decide what to teach. One important shift for students (and, frankly, for us) is to frame writing about ideas as teaching others, not just as writing to show that you learned. To underscore this point, I’ll often hold up a nonfiction book and say to students, “The author of this book did not just write to prove to you that they know a lot of stuff. It’s not pages and pages of just facts. That would be SO boring to read. Instead the author of this book wrote to teach you. I want to read just a little of this book to you. Listen to how you can almost picture the topic, because the writer is being so careful with how they teach you. Listen….”

You then could teach students to experiment with many different ways to teach the same facts. Seeing which way can best teach others. Here is a version of a teaching-through-writing chart for younger researchers.

This chart uses visual examples that illustrate each strategy for teaching more about a fact which will make each fact more interesting to the reader .

During shared writing, students can orally practice a number of ways of teaching the same fact using this chart while you write down the sentences (your older students can see how you practice writing these out, then try out some of these ways in their own writer’s notebooks). For example, if the class is studying cuttlefish, you might start by saying, “If we are teaching our readers that cuttlefish flash their skin to surprise other sea creatures, let’s try one way of teaching that fact by making a comparison to something else people already know….”

“Let’s try another way to teach, describing what the cuttlefish does, slow step-by-step style, so our readers can really picture it….”

“Now, let’s try telling a story, the cuttlefish can be the main character. Maybe start with something like, ‘deep in the ocean, the cuttlefish swims along’….”

Practicing ways of teaching-through-writing is not only good for leading to way, way, way better writing about research, but is also terrific for learning. The repeated practice means students are interacting with facts and ideas over and over, manipulating them in different ways. Research is fun again, charts help hold onto what was discovered along the way, and all of that work leads to what it should—greater expertise.

Happy Charting!

Marjorie Martinelli and Kristi Mraz

Smarter Charts