In my school, third graders reign supreme. The school consists of three grade levels: first, second, and third. There are approximately 225 students enrolled in each level, so it is a fairly large school. For most people, it is difficult to imagine third-grade students possessing seniority. Despite third graders’ young age, I am constantly amazed by their talent, intelligence, and determination. Elementary-aged students are leaders in the making. They jump at opportunities where they can exhibit their leadership qualifications. Educators often have to create these opportunities, especially when serving young students.
I decided to pilot such an opportunity during open library time that I call Research Ambassadors. This special research cohort makes use of third graders’ leadership and academic abilities. Research Ambassadors are school-wide leaders who possess the knowledge and skills of a good researcher. Students become expert researchers who support the research efforts of peers by engaging in a meaningful inquiry project of their own.
The Research Ambassadors program is designed to give one student from each third-grade homeroom the research skills necessary to help fellow classmates conduct research during regular instruction. Ambassadors learn and practice the skills of a good researcher by engaging in a project where they use a variety of sources to investigate a topic or pursue a passion.
Each third-grade homeroom teacher selects one student to represent their class as a Research Ambassador. Teachers choose Research Ambassadors based on students’ academic strengths and leadership capacity. Ambassadors meet in the library twice a week for 40-minute sessions to work on their projects. Projects typically take 10-12 weeks to complete. Upon completion of the program, researchers present their projects to an audience of peers and family members.
According to Dictionary.com, an ambassador is “a person who acts as a representative or promoter of a specified activity.” This definition describes a Research Ambassador perfectly. Research Ambassadors are charged with the task of teaching the ones they represent (their classmates) how to follow the inquiry process and utilize a variety of information sources.
A Sample Project
Inquiry-based learning initiates by posing questions, problems, or scenarios—rather than simply presenting facts or prescribing a specific path to knowledge. Research Ambassadors follow the inquiry process to explore a topic. The following section outlines how my students engaged in inquiry-based learning to complete a research project that required a diverse set of information sources.
- Motivate/Connect. The research unit begins by sparking students’ interest in the topic. Students view 360-degree images and videos from my 2016 expedition to Antarctica as a National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellow. Students record observations of the Antarctic landscape and wildlife. I explain to students that they will have the opportunity to explore a new place on Earth through research. Students select a country to research based on their interest in that particular place. Students build background knowledge about their country by reading a print book from the library or an electronic book from Epic!
- Question – Plan. Students develop and refine their inquiry questions. The best research questions are “open” inquiries, meaning they are not easy to answer and we need to look at many different information sources to find the answers. Each student writes a letter to a family member that lists their questions and gives rationale for choosing the topic.
- Investigate.Students read closely to locate evidence that answers the research questions. A variety of resources are used to support students’ research including Google Earth, Britannica, PBS LearningMedia, and Web results from Kiddle (a safe search engine powered by Google). Students identify the author, title, and date of each source. They keep track of key details and pertinent information in note-taking graphic organizers.
- Construct. Students synthesize meaning from their notes and begin outlining their presentations. There are a number of formats students can choose from to demonstrate their learning. For instance, students can create digital and physical posters, three-dimensional models, slideshow presentations, brochures, and short videos. Inquiry-based learning encourages students to consider new alternatives for demonstrating their knowledge. Many students created a hands-on instructional activity for their audience to complete such as a Breakout EDU game, puppet art, and matching games.
- Present.Students present their knowledge product to an audience of peers and family members. Copies of students’ presentations are uploaded to the school library’s social media accounts and website.
- Evaluate/Reflect. Students evaluate their research product using a learner-friendly rubric. Students plan for the future by reflecting on the learning experience and identifying their individual strengths and areas in need of improvement.
The inquiry phases are from the “School Librarians Take a Starring Role in the Common Core State Standards: Be a Star in Reading Comprehension”
The first man to walk on the moon is right. I want my students to use the knowledge they gain from research to create and to teach. At the conclusion of the project, Research Ambassadors present their final products to their homeroom classes. Parents and administrators are also invited to attend. During presentations, ambassadors do more than display their work and discuss their learning. They explain how they used the phases of inquiry to examine a new topic. Presenters demonstrate how to access information sources by conducting sample keyword searches. Research Ambassadors explain how to filter search results, use text-to-speech Chrome Extensions, and cite sources. Because of researchers’ presentations, they are viewed by their peers and their teachers as experts in research. The next time the class investigates a topic, a Research Ambassador will be there to assist and lead.
Research Ambassadors do more than conduct research; they become ambassadors. Students not only master the skills of a good researcher, they share what was learned with their classmates. They teach others how to answer inquiries by utilizing print and digital sources from the school library. In its third year, the Research Ambassadors program has impacted every student in the school from all three grade levels. Now, second-grade teachers select students to serve as ambassadors. In addition to presenting projects and the inquiry process to homeroom classes, Research Ambassadors deliver workshops to first-grade students. First graders are trained on how to access and use age-appropriate information sources from the library to address their research needs. Most importantly perhaps is the fact that many first-grade students are inspired to show their teachers that they too have what it takes to become a Research Ambassador.
Author: Sam Northern, Ed.D.
Sam Northern is a National Board Certified Teacher-Librarian at Simpson Elementary School in Franklin, Kentucky. He currently serves as President of the Kentucky Association of School Librarians. In 2014, Sam was selected for the Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminars Abroad Program where he spent four weeks in China. Since then, Sam has voyaged to Antarctica as a National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellow and worked aboard a research vessel on the Atlantic Ocean as a NOAA Teacher at Sea. From January to April 2018, Sam traveled to Finland as part of the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program to research best practices for project-based learning. Connect with him on Twitter @Sam_Northern and Facebook @themisterlibrarian.