This is the latest in a series of blogs by a partnering cohort teacher.
By Sue Mellon, Allegheny Valley School District
My goal was to have students appreciate the nonlinear nature of true inquiry. Engineers have their iterations and detectives know that every tip will not pan out. Journalists realize that a once promising lead can result in wasting time and doctors lament that the first prescribed medication may not help the patient.
This blog focuses on connecting the dots between wonder and topic selection by relaying the journey of one boy whose question was “My grandfather is very smart. I wonder why he did not go to college.” You may be thinking that this student should just ask his grandfather this question because his grandfather is still alive. Well, I know from experience that this approach is not always helpful and can even stymie communication.
We started the work by brainstorming the reasons why someone might not go to college and decided that financial reasons were a good place to start. His grandfather grew up in the Scranton area and I told my student to see if he could find a secondary resource that accounted for the economic standing of Scranton around the time that his grandfather graduated from high school. This boy is very bright and soon had a graph that showed that population as well as economic activity declined about the time that his grandfather was finishing high school.
We hypothesized that perhaps a large business closed. Using the Google newspaper archives for Scranton area newspapers, we wasted a great deal of time looking at headlines hoping to find an article about an important business shutting down. One of the reasons that we were in the newspaper archives was that the students’ research task was to find three primary sources that gives some insight into the question that they had after reviewing their family vignettes.
The twisting and turning had begun and this student needed a new direction. Secondary sources can help when a next step is unclear and this is where the answer was found. In reading historical summaries for the Scranton area, we learned about the Knox Mining Disaster. Secondary sources documented that this disaster negatively and significantly impacted the Scranton region’s economy for at least two decades if not longer. Greed and corruption were at the heart of this catastrophic event that took lives. There was a hole in the Susquehanna River for which railroad cars were being used as “plugs.” A topic was determined and he decided that the literary theme that matched his research was “Overcoming Adversity” with a sub-theme of “My Grandfather: A Tenacious Man.”
Many of the students had similar experiences and I viewed my role as providing academic support and encouragement through a murky process. To do this, I took groups of four or five students to our computer lab for four 30 minute sessions which took about four weeks to cycle all the students through. Students were encouraged to conduct some research at home and many did. This was not a quick unit and Ms. Bellavance’s flexibility and positive attitude were so important to the culmination of this project.