Friday, May 16, 2014

Kindergartners and the research process

Students who are in their final year of the Primary Years Program are expected to carry out an extended, collaborative inquiry project, known as the exhibition.

The exhibition represents a significant event in the life of both the school and student, synthesizing the essential elements of the program and sharing them with the whole school community. It is a culminating experience marking the transition from PYP to further steps in education (information on exhibition taken from the IBO website).

All teachers at every grade level have a responsibility to prepare our students for exhibition. Recognizing this responsibility, one kindergarten teacher recently e-mailed me:

"I am wondering if you have any good ideas for the process of doing mini research projects in kindergarten. Today my kids came up with questions they have about animals. They all start with “I wonder…” The questions are like… I wonder why skunks stink. I wonder what elephants eat? I have done this in the past and find that I have to do all the research since the kids can’t really read well enough to do research. Usually we look things up together on National Geographic kids or other sites. Any other ideas?"

Below are samples of some of the students' questions.
"I wonder why does a skunk stink."

"I wonder why do snakes bite."

"I wonder why a whale shark is so big."
"I wonder why a zebra has a tail."
"I wonder why do giraffes have a long neck."
"I wonder why does a lion have claws."
"I wonder if a snake can get married."
"I wonder if a fish has families."
"I wonder how elephants eat."
"I wonder why zebras have stripes."
"I wonder why does a raccoon have stripes."

"I wonder why an arctic fox is white."
The next day, the kindergarten teacher and I chatted about the Research Process that we follow at Kaposia: Plan, Gather, Organize, Share, and Evaluate. Question generation is a part of the Plan phase of the process.

As we reviewed all the questions together, we realized that no two questions were the same. We felt that if we sought to answer every specific question with the kids, students would learn lots of random facts, but wouldn't have the opportunity to construct conceptual understandings. 

To focus on the concepts behind the questions, we decided that it would be best to sort the questions with the students to make their thinking visible and to find the BIG IDEAS. As I left the planning meeting, the teacher was going to continue the activity later in the week, so I forwarded her some helpful sites from the San Diego Zoo where they could gather information as they continued the research process.

The next school day, I received this inspiring communication:

"I couldn't wait until Friday to try to see if the kids could put the questions into categories because they were wondering what we were going to do with the questions, so I did it with them today. It was so interesting.

I guided them in the process but they really picked up on it quickly. One said we should call the category for, "Why do snakes bite?" "action" because biting is an action. Then we came to why do skunks stink and one girl clarified that skunks don't stink; they spray and it stinks. The "action" kid made the connection that it is an action to tell you to stay away just like the biting, so we changed the name of the category to "actions that tell you to stay away." I couldn't believe someone put that together!

We had the question, "why are whale sharks so big?" and the kids were saying that we should put that into the body part category, but a kid said no, that is size not a body part. I was impressed he came up with the term, size!

The girl with the question, "can snakes get married?" clarified that she doesn't mean can they have a wedding, she means do they stay together like they are married (I understood that she really meant do they bond for life, or bonded pair) so I lead that into questioning animals that live in packs or alone. We called the category, "Animal families."

I was so surprised by how they did with it. We have been doing comparing and contrasting with language arts and I really saw them carry that over. Thank you so much for the tip to organize the questions that way.

So our categories are:

  • Size
  • Color (why do animals have stripes, etc)
  • Parts of the body (why to giraffes have tails, etc)
  • Actions that tell you to stay away
  • Eating
  • Animal families (can snakes get married?)
  • Animal language (can snakes talk to each other?)"

Now that students will be able to focus on the big ideas related to their animal inquiries, they are ready to start gathering information. In order to research, the kindergartners will team up with their 5th grade reading buddies to investigate a particular animal's size, color, body parts (all adaptations), actions that tell you to stay away (defense), eating (diet), animal families (community), and animal language (communication).

As students gather new information, they will organize it in a way that they can easily share it with others. Finally, students and teachers will have to evaluate the process, reflecting on what went well and what should be changed in the future.

After reading about how a kindergarten teacher is leading her students through the research process, how can you or have you lead your own students through this easy-to-follow, five-step research process?

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