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Inspiring Excellence Part 2: Building Motivation and Skills through Whole-Class Research

The Inspiring Excellence Series is a set of six videos that document a learning expedition—an extended interdisciplinary study—involving second-grade students in Jenna Gampel’s class at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston, MA, investigating the topic of snakes. The videos celebrate a powerful confluence of exciting original research that includes fieldwork and experts, artistic skill and critique, and sharp Common Core literacy practices in reading for and writing with evidence. The quality of the resulting work is remarkable.

This video series accompanies the book Transformational Literacy: Making the Common Core Shift with Work That Matters.


- Timber Rattlesnake in the New York forest by Oliver Lee. It is early one summer morning in the forest of New York when the glistening sun paints the sky beautiful streaks of reddish orange.

- [Jenna] What were people wondering about the snake’s scales? We began our study of snakes with a whole class case study and the purpose of the case study is that it gives us a chance to all look at one topic in detail, before individual students go off and research their separate topics. One of the most important things to consider about investigations, or learning expeditions as we call them, is choosing a really exciting topic for kids, because kids are going to have to work really hard on this stuff and produce all kinds of work.

- Eventually, every student will be able to get their own snake to study, but we all start by studying the corn snake together as a whole class. They can see the physical features of corn snake, they can watch the behaviors of the corn snake, and they got to see the corn snake eat.

- [All] Whoa!

- [Child] The mouse is going to be digested.

- [Jenna] So I did want to bring Jules out. Look at her tail! What did you notice about her tail? Isaac?

- It’s round and short. I noticed that she doesn’t have any eyelashes.

- [Jenna] A big component of doing a case study is helping kids get the skills they’re going to need so they can work more independently in the second half of the expedition. One of the things that we really focused on during this time was all the categories we wanted students to be able to do research around with snakes. Things like habitat, adaptation for survival, diet and feeding habits, life cycle. When we do a case study, it’s not really just about getting kids to learn about snakes, but it’s actually asking them to do the kinds of thinking that researchers and professionals in the field do. And so for this one, I really wanted the kids to be able to do some high quality inferring. Now thinking about inferring, we’re going to use Schema and evidence to make an inference to infer how a corn snake’s physical features help it survive. What evidence do you think we’re going to be using today? Roshari?

- Jules?

- We’re going to use Jules. We’re actually going to have live evidence as our clues.

- [Ron] There is very little, I think, that’s as exciting for students as original research. When I was young, research in school meant getting the world book encyclopedia and paraphrasing what you read there. These students, only second graders, are investigating multiple sources and the live animal and then taking that information to create a book for an outside audience. That’s powerful and very cool.

- [Jenna] I made sure that every student understood how to look at text, and really figure out how to read between the lines, and understand not just specifically what the text said, but what that could mean about the corn snake and then eventually their own snake.

- My question was why do they need scales? And I inferred that because they need it to protect themselves.

- We’ll probably infer that the scales are helpful because they might help better if they slither.

- [Jenna] The most powerful thing we did in our case study is every student created an expedition journal, where they could track all the information they were learning about the corn snake. And of course, this was the same information that they were going to have to work on independently with their own individual species of snake. I wanted the kids to not only capture that information, but to see how that information can be organized. If we had somebody look at our expedition journals, and they wanted to find a specific page about the life cycle of a corn snake, would they be able to find that easily?

- No.

- I want us to think about our schema that we’ve built over the past two weeks about non-fiction features and I want us to be able to apply what we know about those features. So that’s our learning target. I can apply what I know about non-fiction features and their purposes. So we looked at examples of informational non-fiction and we analyzed non-fiction text features that were in those models of text. Things like Table of Contents, indexes, headings, labels, and diagrams.

- The first place I looked was the index because it was in alphabetical order and it told me the letters. I thought “H” would be the best because habitat starts with an “H.”

- [Jenna] After they’d spent time tracking and keeping information in their expedition journals, we actually went back to those journals and added those non-fiction text features to those expedition journals.

- This page is about shedding because first the corn snake starts scratching its skin on something hard. When I get all the headings on the pages, we get to make our Table of Contents and so say “I want to know about the habitat.” And say it’s like at page five. Then I can easily find it.

- [Jenna] Having studied the corn snake together, I was confident and the kids were confident that they were ready to take on their own species of snake. They knew what the categories were that they were going to study. They’d seen lots of models of text that they could research with, and they understood the non-fiction text features that would help them get instantly at the information they were looking for about their individual species.

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