A parent volunteer with an armload of construction paper hears "oohs and ahhs" erupting from the Learning Center Lab and canâ€™t resist the temptation to peek inside to see whatâ€™s going on. Sheâ€™s mildly surprised to find a group of fourth-grade students viewing film and photographic archives from the world-renowned Museum of San Francisco. Another group listens to audio recordings made in Oklahoma in 1933. A third group reads eyewitness accounts from turn-of-the century residents of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and a fourth compares hurricane statistical data recorded this past year of record-breaking storms with an event occurring in Galveston, Texas, well before the advent of satellite technology available today. Tremont Grade School students are engaged in a research project made possible by a special dynamic duo, what we at Tremont call "Tech & Text". Four groups of students have been assigned a historical natural disaster: The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression decade, the Johnstown flood of 1889 and the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, still the worst natural disaster ever recorded in the United States. With our library adjoining our technology center, separated by an open doorway, students on their mission of learning pass between the two learning resources. Books, some historical fiction about children who witnessed one of these historical events, are scattered over several of the round tables in the library. Almanacs and atlases provide statistics, facts, figures, diagrams and maps which reveal another aspect of these amazing stories of survival and courage. Examining primary source material from the Library of Congress, such as photos, documents, music, film, and sound recordings, students listen and see real people of the era facing forces of nature at their most extreme. Students discover that at times a picture really does tell a story better than words. The worried look on Althea Langâ€™s famous photographic portrait of a Dust Bowl mother certainly arouses empathy, concern and understanding from these 21st Century students. We introduced this research assignment to the class as a "Tech and Text" project, meaning that part of the resources required to complete it utilizes books and the written word while another part involved Internet-ready computers and the World Wide Web.
The most remarkable thing about this research model is the way it teaches students to discriminate between different pieces of information. Our old 1999 encyclopedia may give students an estimated Richter Scale reading of 8.0 to describe the intensity of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, but the Museum of San Franciscoâ€™s Website may provide yet another number, perhaps 9.0. "Which one is correct?" we often hear from students and delight in answering, â€œWhy do you think we are finding two different numbers describing one historical event? Why might scientists today arrive at a number different from the author of a slightly outdated encyclopedia article?" Students must consider not only the source of the information they peruse but also WHEN was this article written and by WHOM? Any Internet user becomes painfully aware that many, many articles are published to the Web with inaccurate or distorted information. This is where studentâ€™s critical, higher-level thinking comes into play. Can we believe information posted to the Internet if itâ€™s published by a source such as a renowned, maintained, and recently updated institution such as the Museum of San Francisco Website? These dilemmas create fascinating group discussion opportunities that are stimulating to students and teachers alike. In addition to the natural disaster assignments, each student has a role to play during the reporting or presentation phase of the project. That is, after research is completed, students will form a mock panel of "distinguished guests". One student may be an "eyewitness" to the disaster. One may be a "scientist". Another might be a city or state "official" during the time of the disaster. One may be the author of a new book based on new research or findings relating to the event. And still another may have authored a historical fiction novel, where the setting reflects the disasterâ€™s time and place. These different perspectives provide for even more understanding of the event and its impact on people, communities, and even our nation as a whole. With all this variety of resource material comes the responsibility of citing sources. Students quickly learn that none of their facts will be acceptable unless they cite WHERE they found the information. We use an abbreviated citation style suitable for fourth graders, asking for the author, title, publisher, and publication date of Text resources such as fiction, almanacs, encyclopedia, atlases and non-fiction books. Tech resources may be CD-Rom, but more commonly the Internet. Websites are cited using the URL (Website address) and "todayâ€™s date." Students discover that Internet information can be so current that pages may change almost from one day to the next if the site is often updated. The Tech & Text technique has served us well. We have used it on numerous projects, not only social studies research topics, but weâ€™ve adapted it to integrate with science and literature activities. Studies of simple machines will involve text research and reporting, but also may be demonstrated and experienced using computer simulations. Students may design a "contraption", in the style of Rube Goldberg, and build an interactive Web page with a clickable diagram, linking to the studentsâ€™ own written explanations or perhaps to other science Websites. We may ask students studying poetry to participate in Web-based programming sponsored by the regional library system. Fledgling poets may decide to publish their own work to our community libraryâ€™s Web page. Perhaps students may create a Blog to share their literary endeavors and invite other students to do likewise. We intrinsically know that technology will never replace books. I believe there will always be readers who want to curl up with a good book, one redolent of ink or musty paper or a leather cover. But technology will never leave us either. Itâ€™s certainly here to stay, as demonstrated by todayâ€™s online books made portable using handheld computers, doubling as communication devices. Ironically, these devices are evolving so quickly that Tech & Text resources for students will someday soon be available all in one placeâ€¦ not two adjoining rooms, but separated only by a click of a button or stylus sitting in the palm of a studentâ€™s hand.
Note: authors of the project described in this article are Lori Fuoss, Learning Center Director and Susan Bishop, Technology Facilitator at Tremont Grade School