By Bryan Riha and Olivia Poirier, 4th Grade Homeroom Teachers
Just before Spring Break, fourth graders and their families gathered in and around the fourth grade tents for a newsstand full of biographical profiles.
The signage beckoned to another era, when newsstands were a primary source of information. On display were 43 profile magazines, with their authors poised to share the lives and impact of Black thinkers and leaders. It was a newsstand unlike any other, where a browser could read and ask the author all about their profile.
The journey to the newsstand started with fourth graders taking on the role of journalists and researchers in the classroom. After finishing a nonfiction reading unit, our fourth grade team decided that it would benefit the students to have practice researching and writing their own unique piece of nonfiction writing. Writing about the lives of other people would help students in the arc of inquiry to “see through windows” and understand the conditions and lives of great Black people. It also presented opportunities for students to take on the role of an inquirer, to find and sort their information, and to craft a narrative that teaches others about their topic. The newsstand piece added versatile skills in the students’ toolboxes such as analyzing evidence, finding captivating visuals to support their report, and identifying key moments for a timeline.
With the help of our librarians Lisa Ellenberg and Rhoda Ashley, students learned a new tool for finding credible sources and information: an academic database. After developing skills on how to navigate the database, students chose a Black person to research and understand their impact.
From there, students immersed themselves in peer reviewed articles, books, and the historical period. They guided their own inquiry into the lives of truly remarkable and resilient people, including Jackie Robinson, Maya Angelou, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Kamala Harris, Bessie Coleman, and Mae Jemison, to name a few. Fourth graders used a graphic organizer to record three memorable quotes, a timeline, two text features, and the story and impact of the person they researched. The graphic organizer included a goal setting schedule that became a ritual to plan their work for the day into an actionable goal.
While each step of the writing process developed naturally, students had meaningful discussions about how writers choose quotes, emphasize certain character traits, and find text features that help form a narrative. These young researchers learned the value of peer reviewed articles and where to find quality resources online; they also learned that not everything that is accessible and available online is in agreement. For example, a student who was researching Neil DeGrasse Tyson wanted to learn what sparked his passion for space and physics. The student read that the famed astrophysicist went to the Hayden Planetarium with his parents, while another piece of evidence stated that DeGrasse Tyson went on a school field trip to the planetarium. The student made the realization that both could be true and that either way, a visit to the planetarium when he was a young student made quite the impression on DeGrasse Tyson!
We observed that students felt like carriers of their subject’s legacy and impact. It was remarkable to see how they found characteristics and interests of their own through their person of study. Having the independence to plan their research, find a narrative and perspective, and share that through writing was empowering and built an independence through inquiry.
The results were a newsroom full of biographers and a newsstand rich with knowledge. Inquiry-based writing empowers students to analyze evidence, find a focus, craft a narrative, and reflect. The writing process and celebration made us all reflect upon the many ways a person can be a force for progress.