We do so much teaching about how the texts operate, that at times, I worry we aren't reading enough nonfiction for the content that it offers. In Teaching with Text Sets, the book I co-authored with Lesley University colleague Erika Dawes, we have an instructional model we call the Tree Ring, in which we ask teachers to have students explore some of the primary and secondary source material that an author or illustrator used to create a text, to immerse students in the content beyond the book, in order to better understand both the book and the larger content. From there, we suggest that teachers and students look at other texts on the topic, to further explore authors' choices, and, again, reinforce content learning.
I love the idea of harnessing the authentic questions that young people may have about the content of a nonfiction text. When I was writing my entry on teaching with Steve Sheinkin's The Port Chicago 50 for The Classroom Bookshelf this week, I thought about something else. How do we allow students to consider deeply questions they may not be able to find answers to, questions that could lead students and teachers alike to dead ends? So often in school, we limit what students do research on to safe topics, or topics for which the teacher knows there are "enough" resources. There are reasons for this that make sense, particularly when at the high school level you may be dealing with over 100 individual research projects at once.
But isn't there a value in sending students out on a quixotic quest for answers to questions that matter to them? In real life, we don't always find what we are looking for, but there is something gained in the process. For example, when reading Port Chicago, I couldn't help but think about the over three hundred men who were killed in the munitions explosion. What happened to their families? The Port Chicago fifty, those who survived the blast and refused to go back to work without proper training in handling ammunition, we learn about. But who were those other men? What lives did they lead before they were killed? In one of my teaching ideas for Port Chicago, I wrote the following:
More Missing Pieces. The Port Chicago 50 focuses on the fifty men who were ultimately put on trial by the U.S. Navy and convicted as mutineers. It was the largest mutiny trial in the history of the navy. However, when the explosion took place on July 17, 1944, 320 servicemen were killed. Who were they? Who were their families? How did the U.S. Navy compensate the families of the dead African American servicemen? This is an extra-challenging research project that may not be completed quickly. But for interested and engaged students who up for the challenge, have them research naval records to get the names of the dead. Using online resources, including, perhaps, an Ancestry.com subscription available through your local public library system, try to track down surviving relatives of those servicemen.
There are so many ways to engage students in research that matters. And sometimes research matters most when it ends in unanswered questions.