Saturday, May 17, 2014

"Search is Part of the Word:" Historical Research: Exploring the Titanic

At the close of our dome work, we re-opened project time to the children and asked them to consider what research projects they might want to investigate next.  The topics were pretty broad at first, but we were able to discern several strands – the Titanic, the rainforest, and ancient Egypt (pyramids and mummies in particular).  To help guide their queries, we asked them what they thought information is and then what research was…

T:  [Information] is things that you learn, like people tell you something and that’s information for you. 
M:  Well, if you want to do a project you can get more stuff to think about, that’s information.
E.K.:  Information is something you don’t know and then you get to know. 
C:  Like someone tells you something that you don’t know, and then you learn it.

So it involves not knowing and then knowing… Is it simply created when someone tells you something?

C:  Or from books, you get information from reading them, the person who wrote it has it.  It’s just what you think.
A.L.:  When you make a discovery you get more information.

When you write a research paper, you can look at Wikipedia but you have to find other resources.

Why are there so many books?

I:  Because each one is a little different. 
E.S.:  New ideas can be explored in other books.

Why would there be more than one book about a topic?

M:  Because more than only one person in the world is interested in that topic.

So different people might be researching the same thing.  What is research?  "Search" is part of the word...

T:  Finding something out.   When we were doing the project about plants, we were doing research.
If I don’t read through the books, am I actually “searching”? [Everyone answers "no"]  How would you conduct research?

A.C.:  You could visit places.
C:  You could search it on Google or on the computer, but it might not always be right.
T:  Sometimes Wikipedia lies.

Why is important to check your facts?

M:  Maybe because it would be bad because people would read the book and believe the lie and they wouldn’t know the truth behind it.  That would be dis-encouraging [sic].  And it could ruin your career as a researcher!
W: You could use an iPad.  There’s this place that tells you about the Titanic.
N.S.:  We could make a time machine!
A.C.:  Books. 
C:  But books aren’t always right. 

Other research tools discussed were trips to museums and libraries, reading magazines, interviewing people, first hands accounts, and movies, particularly documentaries.  We invited the children to start with what they knew and then pose questions for themselves that they could answer via book research.  We began our new venture by selecting books on the three topics they were interested in and setting the books out at three different tables in the classroom.  

The children were encouraged to flip through the books, look at the pictures, and read through some of the text.  Quite a few flitted from table to table to see where their curiosity might find deeper purchase.  Stephanie and I sat back and observed, listening to the children’s conversations.  We saw children change their minds about what research they might want to pursue.  As conversation percolated and ideas were exchanged, we noticed that a number of children began to change their minds, and eventually, the children whittled down their possible research topics to Titanic and ancient Egypt.  Next, we gave the children “fact sheets” to record three interesting facts about the topics they wanted to investigate.

After a few rounds of fact-finding, we began to take a closer look at the fact sheets the children wrote.  We weren’t really sure if they were understanding the project or getting their heads around what it means to record factual information for their research.  We were hearing some interesting conversations as they flipped through and studied the books, but their writing didn’t really capture their thinking.  However, when we came to a whole group discussion, Stephanie and I were blown away with how much information they had actually processed.  We proceeded to have some of the most engaged conversations of the year.  In each follow up research discussion, every hand was raised.  The children’s minds were on fire! 
My hand could hardly keep up with recording the children's ideas
What did you notice as we started our research?

T:  People changed what they wanted to study.

Why did that happen?

E.S:  I looked through the books about the rainforest and wasn’t really finding what I wanted so I moved to the Titanic.
A.C.:  Since my mom is really grossed out by ancient Egypt, I know she won’t really read me those books, so I can study the Titanic at home and Egypt here at school. [A.C. later showed great flexibility in jumping into the larger group's Titanic work]

Is research just looking at one book and then closing it?  What does research look like?

W:  Learning stuff.  I know what happened.  I know where it hit, I know what it hit, and I know how it sank. 

So you have read a lot of information, which is how you found out. Does that mean you know everything about it now?

W: I’m not interested in anything more about the Titanic.  I’m interested in some more stuff but I don’t know how to explain it and how to write it down.

Even someone who is an expert has more to learn. Researchers are not satisfied to stop with what they already know.  They go beyond to seek out new information.  That is how we learn more.

We talked about how you need to look at many different books to collect research.

M:  I had I think three more questions…

P:  Why was it such a big ship?
N.S.:  Because it’s a cruise ship.  Cruise ships always fit tons and tons of people to make it fun.
R:  They don’t want it to be like on a plane where it’s boring for hours and hours.
W:  It was the biggest ship built. 
G:  Two football fields [long]. 
J:  It was sailing from England to America. 
A.L.:  To New York City. 

L:  For fun?
I:  For rich people for fun.  For poor people to find a new home.  Because they might get more money having a home in America instead of England.

E.K.:  It split in half and it sunk to the bottom.  More people died than survived.  [I also read] that somebody told the people that the Titanic could not sink. 
I:  It sunk in the Atlantic Ocean.
W:  An iceberg hit the edge of a storage room then got stronger and stronger.  Some people made it.  Some people drowned.
N.S.:  Some people froze to death in the water.  There were sparks in the storage room, it sunk, and water got in.  When water touches fire there might be sparks.  What else could have caused the sparks?  What is that (points to people in upside down lifeboats).  Lifeboats can sink.  People in the water froze.  For people to survive they have to swim really really fast.
W:  Life boats were way smaller.
P:  Here’s what it looks like (a lifeboat).
I:  If 5 rooms are filled it’s okay, it will still float, but if 7 filled with water, it will sink. 

T:  Did the Titanic split in half?  It says its an “unsinkable” ship.  Yeah right!

R:  The reason people thought the boat was unsinkable was because the storage rooms got filled up with water quickly.
I:  The compartments were called “watertight” and because a tight steel door would block the water so the water couldn’t flood the rest of the ship.
R:  They didn’t seal in time because it hit the front side of the ship.  Also the ship sunk in two hours.

Why did the Cunard Line tell people the Titanic was unsinkable?

W:  So they (passengers) wouldn’t get scared.
C:   All ships are not unsinkable, it was made of metal and metal can break.  If people believed that, they shouldn’t.  You have a chance of dying.  Nothing is ever unsinkable. 

Is anything in the world unbreakable?

W:  Titanium?  Titanium wouldn’t break because of an iceberg.
 E.K.:  Titanium?  Titanic? 
 P:  Maybe because it [the word "Titanic"] goes with titanium and they are saying that the ship is unsinkable…so maybe because titanium is so strong…
 E.S.:  Maybe because that would make people think it was like titanium and wouldn’t sink.
T:  I know why they thought it was unsinkable, because it had two bottoms.  One of them was like that and then there was another one below. Double protected.
I:  It wasn’t that protected if it had a second bottom so it might only be like one part of it protected without the second bottom.  
N.S.:  I also read a book about the doors that said it was watertight and that water couldn’t get in, so I’m confused.
L:   There were only 16 lifeboats.

Do you think there were enough lifeboats for people?

E.S.:  I know why they only had 16 because they said it was unsinkable so they only got only 16 boats because.  They also should have put more people in each boat.  

I remarked that during our fact-finding project time, I saw Peyton and Roman making an interesting connection:

P:  We were trying to see where the Titanic crashed.  In some book…
R:  In some book, I thought there was a little box and one said Atlantic Ocean so I thought that one half broke off in the Atlantic Ocean and the other half somewhere else.  We went to the map and Stephanie showed us the Atlantic Ocean and then we saw that wasn’t possible. 

Why was that important to connect what you were reading to the map?

P:  Then we figured out that the Atlantic Ocean is much longer and bigger.
R:  [The Titanic] started from England.  It stopped in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  It was headed to New York.  (They are thinking about the path that it travelled…) 
A.C.:  Looking at the map, it looked like the Titanic sunk near Canada.
P:  The ships got there at day.  The rescue boats came at day and took them [the survivors] to Canada. Maybe if the Titanic didn’t sink they might have stopped at Canada to get gas or something.
R:  They didn’t use gas.  There were people at the bottom, and they were lighting coal.
G:  They used coal.
R:  When the ship was sinking, the captain ordered the person who was doing the ship thing to send out S.O.S. and they recorded it with a black box.   The only ship nearby had there …I think it was engines off?   (A.C. – it was their radio).  Yeah that was it.  They shot a rocket and the nearby ship thought they were having fun and they were having a party.
E.S.:  They thought they were partying so one ship didn’t go because they thought it was just a party but they were really sinking. 
 N.S.:  They shot a flare.  
J:  One of the big boats [the rescue boat] was called the Carpathian.  And this other one, the Canadian, it didn’t hear the signal because it was night. 
I:  It [the rescue ship] also did not see the sparks.
J:  They thought the Titanic was happy, celebrating.

With each bit of information, you are really starting to flesh out the story. 

J. discovered that it set sail on the very date we were having this discussion 102 years ago, on April 10th.   
R:  I think the flag should be at half-mast.  I think in Connecticut when a building fell down and a lot of people died, then they flew the flag at half-mast.

Each day that we discussed the children's ideas, it became obvious that while it was a good exercise to try to get them to record new information on paper, what they were able to absorb and retain far exceeded what we had asked them to record in writing.  These project conversations were incredibly dynamic.  Each child was eager to fill in the puzzle pieces as the information began to flow and take on real form.  Even when we told them it was lunchtime the children wanted to continue the discussion, and many actually continued to chat about what they had learned at length as they ate with their friends.   While we decided that both Egypt and Titanic were very worthy topics to explore, the group began to coalesce around more fully exploring the history of the Titanic together.  Even N.B., who was initially resistant to switching gears to immerse herself in the work of the group, later exclaimed that she was really finding the Titanic work exciting and interesting.  
Mad Prof. M. shared her "fun fact" about icebergs with us 
during our research discussion circle - which truly helped the children figure out
how the Titanic misjudged their dangerous course

In the spirit of full disclosure, it can be harrowing trying to start new project work, especially when you are really unsure of where the children will take it, but the children always remind us and demonstrate to us that there is so much possibility and opportunity in this type of learning.  We need to trust their instincts and let their interests guide their project work, and as instructors, we need to tease out the learning, channel their intellectual and creative energy, and help them to see the connections.  Two years into my journey as a Sabot educator/researcher, I am learning to trust the disequilibrium more and more, and am consistently rewarded by the unexpected places that the children take us.  
Titanic ahoy!  

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