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Inspiring Excellence Part 3: Building Motivation and Skills through Independent 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.


- Scrub python hides on a branch in a short tree, and camouflages from the hunters who are trying to get her. The hunters want her skin because its color and diamond-shaped scales are good for making jewelry to sell. The hunters search the scrub land.

- It’s already dead, right? So when you constrict, or squeeze the prey, it’s just... After finishing the group case study we did around the corn snake, students were really ready to begin researching their individual snakes.

- The snake I got was the yellow anaconda.

- The snake I’m studying is a sea snake.

- My snake is a fer-de-lance.

- [Jenna] They knew at the end of the expedition that they were going to be producing a product about their snake. It needed to have all the categories that we included in the case study.

- Today we are trying to find information about their habitat. Where do mambas live? Like forests or swamps. And I put down woodlands in Africa.

- First thing I did was I looked in the Table of Contents, and it showed a map of where the Western Coral Snake live, and the Eastern Coral Snake live.

- [Jenna] It isn’t just about learning about snakes. It’s about teaching kids how to think like researchers, how to think like scientists. So I also had kids do the same inferring process that we did collectively in the case study more individually now, so that they could think like researchers do.

- I also inferred on this page, is there’s a picture of the crops. They’re trying to show you that crops are also important for them, ‘cause some rodents eat farm crops, and that’s why I inferred that the farmers’ crops help it hunt.

- There is a turning point in the research process for kids when they all of a sudden build those skills of research and they can take on investigation by themselves, and a parallel turning point for teachers. When teachers realize kids have those skills, and they can start offering kids much more sophisticated texts, and also much more sophisticated text analysis tasks than they could at the beginning of that investigation.

- First, you look at your specific snake books, then you look in the snake research bin, and you use your bibliography, right? We had a lot of materials in the classroom. Really important when you’re doing learning expeditions, to make sure you have enough materials for every student to do research. Do you see it?

- Yes, we see Corals!

- And because the kids had so much background knowledge and vocabulary from the first case study, they were able to access challenging texts, know where to go for information, and feel successful.

- In the front, there is also a Table of Contents. And it has King Cobra sizes, colors, and where they live, which is on page ten.

- It’s really important for students to learn how researchers cite their work, so we did a process of creating bibliographies. Eastern North America, I’m going to cite that I got that on the iPad. Bibliographies can be really cumbersome, because there’s all these rules about how to cite information. So we simplified it for students. They get to understand the same thinking process without getting hung up on all the technicalities of bibliography.

- We have these two different books, and we have to look for them in this big, big pile of books. And then we found these two books of Coral Snakes. And so, since they’re called the same name, we put the author, so we know which one is which Coral Snake book.

- [Jenna] We coded the books that they researched from, and whenever they took notes, they applied a code to their notes so that they could tell somebody where that information came from, and also if they needed to learn more about that, they knew where to go.

- I just learned a fact about my snake. It’s that they live in grasslands, forests, farmlands. It’s from this book. It’s called African Rock Pythons, and that’s my type of snake. Oh, by the way, it was on page 12. That’s how it’s D12. Hunting around! Spotted pythons can hunt...

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