This year, I've been working with providing more time for independent research. This research has grown from the center explorations of early in the year, and then expanded into contracts and experiments.
I really love it. There are no grades for these explorations; students are doing them because they really like learning. Seeing what students create and listening to their conversations is a daily affirmation, a reminder to me to stay the course in the face of standardized testing.
I start each reading class with 15-20 minutes of independent reading time. On several days out of the cycle (mostly based on when I can get the mobile computer lab), this time can also be used for independent research.
This has worked out fairly well. At first, about half of the students chose not to do any independent research, and used the time for reading. Excellent! As they have seen their classmates' presentations, many students have chosen to move into their own projects. Students who work quickly have gone through two, three, and even four contracts, sometimes taking a break for additional reading time in between projects.
Start with research notebooks
These are very simple--just large pieces of construction paper folded over about 5 sheets of notebook paper. Each page is a sub-topic within the student's research. It takes about 5 minutes to talk to students about how to set this up.
And here is the beautiful part...the students then teach each other. A student who researched golden-bellied mangabeys taught a student researching narwhals about what topics to use: "Well, you can think about where they live, and what they eat, and how they raise their young."
As with the research notebooks, I don't teach each student individually! This is why it works out so wonderfully to have staggered entry into independent research. I taught the students in the first groups, and then they took on the role of teaching each other. Sometimes there is some good-natured squabbling: "You want me to show you how to get pictures again? I just showed you yesterday!" Even better, students learn multiple ways of doing the same thing, from keyboard shortcuts to using Finder.
Lots of different kinds of presentations have been going on, from posters to Keynote presentations to plays. (Fourth graders love making Keynote presentations!) Some students have written out essays by hands, imitating the formal style that we are learning in writing class. Words like introduction and conclusion are finding their way into their everyday conversations.
I use Learning Notes to provide feedback for students. Each day between 1-3 students present.
During their presentations, I write a narrative to explain what the student accomplished, interpret their accomplishments, and suggest next steps.
"Next I'm going to..."
Kids are already planning out their ideas for their next contract, and the next. Some students are collaborating together, which is wonderful to watch. The biggest problem is that they do grumble a bit when independent work time is over and the lesson for the day begins...
...which is a pretty positive outcome.
You must have a really small class
Not at all! I have 30 students in my first class. In my second reading class, which I co-teach with the ESL teacher, I have 27. In fact, I find independent research easier to manage and use for targeting individual skills than guided reading. (But that's a post for a different day.)