We’ve been planning our trip to Hawaii: discussing what essentials to bring, how to find accommodations, what tourist attractions we must see. Then, while en route to our epic imaginary vacation, our plane crash-lands in the ocean. My class of 14 fifth grade girls is now washed up on a deserted island, and we need to figure out how to survive. It’s just another Tuesday morning here in the Dana Hall library classroom.
There are many ways to teach students to conduct research, but there is one common thread among all the most effective methods: engagement. Students have to care, not only about the subject of their studies, but about the process. The teacher needs to create a sense of purpose and excitement to maintain that engagement. This is a process that I struggle with every year as I prepare to teach my Trimester II fifth grade Library class. How do I create that buy-in and sustain it over a precious few weekly classes?
This year, I tried something new: I turned our quest for information into a game, a survival adventure I called “Welcome to the Island.” Suddenly, our search for information has become a matter of life or death — at least in our imaginations. Marooned on an island in the South Pacific after our plane fell from the sky, the girls and I must band together to determine what we need to survive until rescue. Between bouts of research, we keep each other’s spirits up with book-related campfire discussions.
The subject of today’s lesson is formulating a search query. On the board is the question we are trying to answer today: which necessity do we need first: fire, water, shelter, or food? As a class, we brainstorm keywords that might get us an answer, then in teams we string them together to create a search query. All of this thinking is projected on the wall from my iPad, using an app called Padlet. We’re able to use the graphic interface to move words around, forming new search phrases. Each team picks their most promising query, and all the girls watch as I enter the chosen words into Google. We view the resulting list that our search generates, then we click on a few of the links, evaluate what we see, and discuss why the query located what we were hoping to find (or why it didn’t.) The girls get excited when some of the the same sources come up for different queries, and they realize that sometimes different paths lead to the same place.
When we skim an article titled “The Real Castaways: True Stories Of Being Stranded On A Deserted Island,” I ask how this article could help us find new information. The students look puzzled, then one girl pipes up: we can add the keyword “castaway” to our word bank. It’s a thrill that the lesson has naturally steered the students to a revelation I was hoping for: the benefits of using information you have to find information you don’t.
Satisfied with our excellent foraging for information on the island, a student picks a card from the “Campfire Circle” stack. The card prompts a lively discussion concerning which book character each girl would like to be for a day, with answers ranging from Ada from The War That Saved My Life to Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. Things on the island are calm once again, at least until next week when I introduce the “Curveball Cards,” with the potential to interrupt our island routine with a sudden rainstorm. Or a snake.