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2017 Commentator Brunch Sampler: Spencer Rendahl And Reliable Sources

For the past two decades, one of the highlights for kindergarten through third grade kids at the Plainfield, New Hampshire elementary school – and one of the biggest banes of some parents – is a research assignment called Project Sleuth.

For kindergartners it starts out relatively simple and easy: they research themselves, reporting on their heights, weights, favorite foods, and past-times.

First graders research a non-native animal. This year my son considered the horned lizard after seeing a video of one shooting blood out of its eyes at a coyote, which was awesome. But perhaps inspired by seeing our new family cat stalk and pounce on its prey – the cap of a ball point pen - he settled on the jaguar. Kids create 3-D displays for their projects, and this year they showed mobiles, Lego creations, and in my son’s case, a diorama with a clay jaguar he made in art class.

A big part of the focus is to properly use and cite sources. At a recent Project Sleuth night, I was treated to first graders presenting their pythons, leopards, hippos, and walruses, with posters that listed their reference books.

For second grade, students choose a famous person to research, which can be trickier than you’d think. Several years ago, my daughter saw me reading several hefty biographies of Lyndon Johnson, which prompted conversations about the civil rights movement and resulting legislation. So while her classmates chose George Washington, Babe Ruth, and Harriet Tubman, she picked LBJ. How could I say no? But she had to have two book sources, and we couldn’t find any children’s biographies of LBJ. So she switched to Amelia Earhart.

Second graders also start to learn what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. They’re allowed to include internet sources, but teachers make it clear that not all sources are created equal. Students learn that when something appears on the internet, it’s not necessarily reliable. I knew my daughter understood this when she announced that Wikipedia is not an acceptable source.

The standards for these k through three projects provide a foundation for later work in the upper grades. And I’m thrilled that in an age of fake news and “alternative facts,” my kids’ research projects about jaguars and Amelia Earhart are helping them to look critically at sources and the world around them.

Hear all the commentaries presented at this event here.

Suzanne Spencer Rendahl is a former journalist whose work has appeared in publications including the Boston Globe. She lives with her husband and two children in Plainfield, NH.
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