Grade 4 Students Investigate National Park System

The National Park System turned 100 years old on August 25, 2016. To celebrate this milestone, park visitors, partners, volunteers, and rangers participated in a variety of programs and special events throughout the country. At the same time, National Parks became a core part of the fourth grade social studies curriculum at Shore, through a yearlong investigation of topics ranging from the parks themselves to the concepts of adaptation, environmental protection, and more. The extensive unit, now in its third year, also affords opportunities for Grade 4 students to practice a variety of critical skills, such as researching a complex question, creating informational writing, and presenting information visually.

Explains fourth grade teacher James Hubbard, the National Parks project begins at the start of school in the fall, when students examine the concept of adaptation. "This is a moment when they themselves are adapting to a new grade level," says Hubbard. They also learn that parks are much more than spaces for hiking, camping, and recreational activities. Parks can also include museums, historical monuments, and places of refuge for endangered species. "The fourth graders consider these different options," Hubbard recounts, "and identify the topics that are most interesting to them individually, leading them to their own research-based project."

Next, continues Grade 4 teacher Amanda Berg, students are challenged to formulate an "essential question"—one that can't be answered with a simple Google search. "An essential question," explains Berg, "is one that requires multiple sources—books, magazine articles, websites, databases—to synthesize an answer." From there students begin the research process, reading everything that they themselves can find or that a teacher guides them to. They write "notefacts" and keep track of their sources. "Students learn that in order to write good notes," Berg says, "they need to put the facts into their own words. This sets the stage for turning notefacts into an informational book."

Students weave nonfiction text features throughout the "essay" format for their book. According to Berg, "They have already learned the essay structure using more personal information, so it's relatively easy for them to transfer their knowledge of essay structure to newly learned information about their essential question. Putting their notefacts into a logical order is one of the more challenging aspects of the writing process."

The fourth and final phase of the project is for the students to come up with a creative way to present their knowledge for a real audience—their parents. Students first write proposals, and once approved, they use a good deal of class time creating what they envisioned. "Frequent reflection leads some students to change their idea completely," says Berg.  Students who finish with more time help out classmates who need an extra hand. "Dioramas, board games, videos, 'Kahoots,' and models are just some of the creative projects that are made." For the final presentation, students speak to parents about the multi-faceted nature of the project. They then proudly stand by their project in a gallery-type display and eagerly await questions from their visitors.

Fourth grade teacher Stacy Tell reflects on the impact of the National Parks project. "We wanted to ensure that the opportunity was interdisciplinary," she says, "reaching across our content areas and tying back to our learning goals for fourth graders." For example, students spend a significant amount of time prior to the unit practicing different reading strategies that apply to informational text. They learn to 'chunk' small amounts of information at a time to build gradual understanding of their reading. They practice putting information into their own words in a way that is clear and age appropriate. "This gives them the necessary background knowledge to begin exploring text and online resources expertly," says Tell.

Similarly, in writing, Tell explains, "We turn our focus to paragraph structure, writing sample paragraphs that include a topic sentence, supporting details, and a concluding sentence. Once it comes time for students to write their informational booklets, they're familiar with this format and are able to record their information."

Yet the more significant takeaways for students go well beyond the scope and sequence of the social studies curriculum, says Tell. "Opportunities for critical thinking, building resilience, teamwork, public speaking, and time management are seamlessly integrated throughout each phase of the project," she says. "We often reflect in Morning Meeting or Class Chats about the hard work it takes to synthesize information for a 'non-Googleable' question. We talk about the level of perseverance required if research hits a dead end, or a project idea doesn’t quite meet the expectation of the initial sketch. We become problem solvers when challenges arise to meet a deadline. We are teammates when hesitation arises about speaking in front of an audience, and we encourage one another to show their best."

For fourth graders, the National Parks project has become a shared experience to embrace together, a rich environment for intellectual and personal discovery that's just as inspiring as the landscapes at its core.