There is often a struggle in elementary schools between a desire for higher-order thinking and students' emerging reading skills. How do we simultaneously promote the new Standards for the 21st-Century Learner by the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) and the call for independent, inquiry-oriented engagement when our students are just learning to read or write?
As the library media specialist and Reading Recovery Teacher, we shared these concerns. Working together, we led our students on an engaging and deep-thinking exploration and writing project. Students explored animal books, then combined the characteristics of two existing animals to create and promote a new animal. A playful, imaginative atmosphere kicked of this four-day project that culminated in a letter to the local zoo. To best support the emerging skills of our students, each element of this story was team-taught, and we alternated roles as lead instructor and supporting instructor. Each of us conferenced with students and guided their thinking and writing.
On the first day, Debbie, the Reading Recovery Teacher, began with a story. Posting a hand-drawn sketch of an unusual animal with large flopping ears and an extended, fly-catching tongue, she told the students of a trip to central Africa, where she had befriended a most unusual animal. This animal, the elephog, was a most intriguing creature, and featured attributes of both the elephant and the frog (hence its name). Debbie was sad that she and the elephog were now separated by such a long distance. If only, she wished aloud, her friend could come to live at the Detroit Zoo, then, she could stop by and visit it regularly.
The students were enraptured by her tale. We then told them that they could create their own animal friend. We let them loose on dozens of animal books and encyclopedias that we had selected together. They pored over the images, seeking two "just right" animals. They would combine features from each into their new animal, so we encouraged them to select two very different animals.
They then sketched their new animal and named it, thus concluding the first day's work (one of the favorites was octobunny!). Each instructor circulated through the room, asking students to tell us about their new animal and its name.
At the next session, Debbie led the class in revisiting their sketches, this time to begin to envision attributes based on what they had sketched. For example, long ears for the elephog might indicate good hearing, while the long frog-like tongue might give it incredible skill in fly-catching. Each student received a hamburger-shaped graphic organizer (which Debbie christened a "GO" Chart, because graphic organizers help you "go on" to the next step)—a bun at the top, then the lettuce, the tomatoes, the meat, and the bun at the bottom, enlarged to 11" x 17" to accommodate the students'beginning handwriting (see GO Chart, page 30). The items in the middle are what make the hamburger desirable to eat. Similarly, the students write an attribute on each layer that makes their animal interesting to explore.
We talked about how much we wanted to be able to visit our animals at the Detroit Zoo. The mother of one of our students is the zoo's veterinarian, and she agreed to let us write her with our requests. Kristin returned to the GO Chart, pointing out that just as the bun is important in holding a hamburger together, the opening and closing sentences will hold the paragraph (letter) together. As a class, we brainstormed intriguing opening and appropriate closing sentences. The opening sentence needed to let the audience (the Detroit Zoo) know why we were writing and what we were asking for. The closing sentence would reiterate our hopes and thank the zoo for considering our offer.
After Debbie's edits (checking for capital letters, periods, and complete sentences), the students used the GO Charts to create a letter to the Detroit Zoo. They followed the hamburger format, starting with the top bun, then the middle layers, then the bottom bun's closing sentence. Each instructor circulated the room to support students in this task. Since it was a letter, they included a signature line as well. Although the GO Chart may not have been filled out with complete sentences, Teacher editing helped students change the information into complete sentences for the letter draft. Parent volunteers typed the letters.
On the final day, the students illustrated the typed letter with their incredible animal creation. We encouraged the students to include the animal in its imagined habitat so the zoo could see the type of enclosure the animal would need if it were chosen to be displayed. One set of letters was displayed in the library media center, Debbie sent the other set to the zoo. We eagerly awaited a response, and the children were thrilled when a letter on formal letterhead was sent to the classes!
This project offered many benefits to our students. First, it was rooted in visual learning, which helps visual learners as well as emerging readers and writers who do not always think in terms of text. Images of real animals in research books provided a menu of potential animal features, and early sketches helped students "see" their animal before describing it in print. Secondly, by synthesizing the features of two existing animals, students practiced higher-order thinking that is frequently lacking in primary research projects. Next, by involving the Detroit Zoo, we involved the community in our students'learning. This gave students an authentic audience and made them highly motivated to do their best work. By working collaboratively, we were able to provide better writing support and guidance to each child, which resulted in greater levels of mastery and understanding. Working from students'areas of strength gave them more capacity for success.