Can baby cheetahs climb trees?

A 1st grader and a 2nd grader walked confidently into my office carrying a binder, a clipboard and a bin of cheetah books from both the Ancona and public libraries. Placing the book bin on my table, they got right down to business. While the 2nd grader took a piece of yellow paper from the binder and readied it on the clipboard, the 1st grader took out the list of steps in the research process and explained to me how the partners had already consulted books and the computer and were now going to conduct an interview with an expert (me!). I’m actually not an expert on cheetahs, but I did think I could help two young researchers find answers to their own authentic questions.

In the binder, they had written what they already knew about cheetahs on pink sheets of paper, and in an orange booklet, they’d written the questions they wanted to answer. The 1st grader enthusiastically read the questions, and the 2nd grader painstakingly took the notes, which, she knew, had to be in her own words.

What we want to learn.

What we want to learn.

The first question was, “Why do cheetahs have spots?” I was quite relieved, because I actually do know. The last time Room 110 did research projects, I served as an expert on the Revolutionary War, and the first question was, “What was the name of George Washington’s horse?” My expert status was immediately suspect.

Before I could demonstrate my great expertise, however, the second grader told me she knew a folk tale about the spots, and I was tickled to recognize an African folk tale the children had studied and performed in Kindergarten. We know that learning experiences are powerful when children can draw on them in new contexts.

So here is the genius of children.  They led me step-by-step through the book of their questions.  We talked about camouflage, the grassland habitat, trees on the savannah, cheetah speed, what cheetahs do all day, how baby cheetahs are raised, why a cheetah bites an animal in the back of its neck to kill it and the difference between pray and prey. The first grader knew exactly where to find a photo of a cheetah and its prey in one of the well-read books. We had to type a question into Google to find out how high a cheetah can jump, and while we were looking at the Internet, we found a picture of baby cheetahs in a tree, thereby answering the climbing question!

When the interview was over, a full hour later, the second grader carefully added the yellow page of notes to the binder.

WitFaith and Elliot 2h their research complete, the partners will soon write and illustrate a book about cheetahs, and at their final writing celebration next week, they and their classmates will share their works of non-fiction with parents and other visitors.

This project is not about cheetahs; it is about developing the components of project-based learning — setting your own questions, research, organization, discerning fact from fiction, locating quality information,  working with a partner, learning about something you love, seeing where research takes you and presenting your results.  It is also about working with non-fiction — one of the critical emphases in the Common Core standards — in both Readers and Writers Workshops.  And it is about leadership and cooperation.   The 2nd grader drew on last year’s experience to guide the work, and the 1st grader knows his turn to lead will come next year. This is rigorous work for six and seven year olds.

Ancona teacher Jenny Hempel designed this marvelous piece of curriculum to give substance to the idea of teaching young children how to take charge of their own learning. The organizational thinking embodied in the question books, the binder, the clipboard, the different colors, the notetaking,  the thoughtful procedures – these are fundamental tools the students will use to power their genius from now through graduate school.