Saturday, March 1, 2014

Studying Antarctica--A Great Topic for Inquiry

Several years ago, I started using Antarctica as a topic for our initial nonfiction unit. Why? I'm not really sure. I was probably influenced by the lovely Antarctica map included in Toolkit Texts, and also by Graham Nuthall's analysis of how students remembered information about Antarctica. But it has had a snowball effect. Over the years I've gathered more and more information about Antarctica, put together more resources for students, and watched as they learned about topics, main ideas, and details in the context of learning about Antarctica.

Now that I am in the middle of it, I'm convinced that this is a wonderful topic for a shared inquiry project in the classroom.

1. Most students don't already know much about Antarctica
Most teachers don't either! And that's what makes it an interesting topic for children and adults. It is so neat to start out with the basics of what most people know (penguins live there) and expand from there. I started reading aloud to students before the unit even began, whetting their appetites to learn more. This has given students the chance to see how their brains make new connections. This also makes it easier for students to become more metacognitive as they learn how and when they learned new information. ("There are 33 penguins in the world, but not all of them live in Australia. It's in that penguin book on the shelf.")

2. There are interesting topics for learners of all abilities
What's the standard research topic for elementary school? Animals. And a study of Antarctica can lead to the study of many fascinating animals, like chinstrap penguins, orcas, and leopard seals. For some of my students, another animal research project gives them the chance to consolidate what they have previously learned and become more confident with their research and writing skills.

But there are other topics that students can choose to pursue, like icebergs, the United States research stations, explorers of the past, jobs that people can have, and different research projects. These different topics offer a huge range of difficulty, making it easy for me to provide resources appropriate for different levels.

3. The story is constantly changing
To me, this is the most interesting part of studying Antarctica. There are research projects going on right now. Many of these scientists post updates on blogs, post videos, and share their information frequently. Students can find up to date information and see the power of science in action. Plus, the topic keeps me learning and guessing--I like to see the updates of what's happening this austral summer!

4. Antarctica provides many opportunities for digital and multimedia reading
There are plenty of online reading selections and digital resources for learning about Antarctica, making it an easy topic to use to broaden students' use of digital resources. The NSF funded projects are all clearly identified, making it easy to find out which resources are credible and reliable. And it gives me the chance to show students how to learn from videos and connect videos to texts. This is definitely helping me to weave RI 4.7 into my daily instruction. ("After we watch this video, create a sentence to explain one idea that you saw in both the video and the text.")

Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears: This site is called "an online magazine" and it includes printable and electronic books about different topics related to the poles.

Weddell Seal Science: Detailed information about an ongoing seal research study. Check out their YouTube channel for beautiful videos.

United States Antarctic Program: Educational resources from the USAP.

MVFram: This boat takes tourists on trips to Antarctica. Sometimes we stop by the blog to peek at the pictures and see what the expeditions are doing now.

PolarTREC: Tons of resources available here.

Educational Resources from IceCube: I haven't had much success in trying to explain neutrinos to fourth graders, but they are still intrigued by what goes on at IceCube.

My list of links for students: I provide students with a list of links related to various topics they may study.

My YouTube playlist: We watch various videos at the beginning or end of class. Most of them are quite short, and used to highlight a particular aspect of a text or get kids thinking of new questions to consider.

-I do have some articles about Antarctica included in Description Texts, Compare and Contrast Texts, and Main Ideas and Details. Several other articles that I've written are not currently available in any text sets. If you are interested, write to me at
-March Reading packets are available as well--and I finished them before the end of February. It was shocking. My students loved the frog poems!

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