Last term, I worked with Stage 3 students (four Year 5 & 6 classes) on a WebQuest about bushrangers, to complement the work they were doing in class: the Human Society & Its Environment unit, “Gold!”
I started by asking their teachers which elements of the unit, in past years, had been the most difficult to cover in class. Since a lot of home class time was devoted to an engrossing simulation game, the part they felt was suddenly sprung upon the students was the imminent arrival of a “bushranger” (secretly invited teacher or executive staff member), who “robs” the students (who until that point are often reluctant to “bank”). Depending on the whim of the “guest bushranger”, many of the students end up losing a lot of “money”, “gold” and (sometimes) even their gold-seeking equipment in the game.
I ended up creating my own “guided enquiry” WebQuest because existing ones on the Internet encouraged the students to assume the role of a bushranger. (Is it a good idea to have students play lawbreakers / robbers / murderers?) When I came across a fascinating little website called Newspaper clipping generator, I realised that a more positive angle was to have the students be newspaper journalists for a goldrush-era colonial newspaper.
After the preliminary activities, the students worked in small groups to complete a facts matrix using Internet and book resources. During their weekly library sessions, we also focused on the limited photographic and printing technologies and facilities of colonial times, and the need for text-based physical descriptions of their selected bushranger(s).
The presentation format was not announced until all research was completed. Explicit teaching, at point of need, also included deconstruction of effective newspaper headlines and colonial-era “Wanted” posters, discussion of how to select a suitable date for an article, and a focus on colonial newspaper journalistic styles and language (including terms which are not “politically correct” in 2008).
The students’ newspaper clippings about their chosen “notorious” bushrangers are at:
Pre- and post-tests were done to establish how well these WebQuest activities improved the students’ learning. Just watching the confidence of the students as they completed their post-tests told me that the unit of work had been very successful. I shall report further on my findings soon.
Afterthoughts: Ruth Buchanan did a great post over at Skerricks about books versus virtual resources in student research. I mentioned in my comment to her post that our “Gold!” research saw a similar phenomenon to hers, but with our Stage 3 students. With very limited time to complete the task over several weeks, I’d set up lots of “bushrangers research” Internet links from a central online locale, and showed the students which links I thought might be more useful, but many happily scampered off to see what “real books” we also had on the topic.
The biggest problem we found was one link off a WebQuest page: the link was to previous student research from another school (and from several years ago), and the accuracy of that information varied from student to student, even though their final products closely resembled webpages uploaded by so-called “professional” Australian historians.
Similarly, the work we‘ve now uploaded (to the Gold Quest blog we shared with Caddies Creek PS) – to give all the students the chance to share their findings online – is not necessarily 100% accurate.
The whole exercise has also reminded me how much work is involved for an editor to check historical facts in books and websites. I can’t possibly go through every student author’s sources and confirm every detail. To a certain extent, a “chief editor” and publisher must trust an author’s research strategies (and literary licence to express facts in valid ways).