Dear readers, you may have noticed I haven’t said much about our 4th graders lately.

It’s not because they haven’t been visiting the library. They have.

It’s just that they’ve been working on something BIG–and now, it’s finally ready to be shared with you!

In their social studies standards, our 4th graders are required to learn about six European explorers: Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, John Cabot, Jacques Cartier, Christopher Columbus, Henry Hudson, and Juan Ponce de Leon.

Instead of just reading about these famous dead guys in a textbook, our intrepid 4th graders also immersed themselves in various sources of information about their explorers, from biographies to encyclopedias, from online databases to educational websites like Enchanted Learning and Thinkquest.

And their final products were not the basic 5-paragraph report you might expect after all this research.

Oh, no.

Our 4th graders became the explorers.

Their task: divide into groups, each learning about a different explorer. They read a lot. They gathered all the information they possibly could to answer these three big questions (which were based, again, on the standards):

  1. What were my explorer’s reasons for exploration? (their goals or motivation, who sponsored them, etc.)
  2. What obstacles did my explorer face along the way? (financial, physical, and more–we learned that death was a pretty major obstacle for many of our subjects!)
  3. What were my explorer’s accomplishments? (discoveries, conquests, wealth, fame)

And then, the students wrote first-person letters from the perspectives of their explorers, sharing detailed narratives of their adventures and, in some cases, their untimely demise.

The final product: carefully crafted letters on tea-stained “parchment”–finished and displayed in the hallway just in time for parent conferences last week!

Here’s a sampling, complete with an adventurous soundtrack:

The Process:

Week 1: Introduction

We read excerpts from one of Christopher Columbus’s real letters to Ferdinand and Isabella, paying attention to his use of language (very formal and fancy), his tone (kind of pompous and arrogant), and his narration (the letter told the story of one of his island stops). Then we discussed how we could write the same kind of letter about other explorers.

We also did a quick whole-group note-taking activity using an article about Ferdinand Magellan to review how to read for relevant facts to answer our questions and to practice paraphrasing.

Weeks 2 and 3: Gathering and sorting information

Students read and took notes from a variety of resources. Each group had access to the following:

Since we were short on devices and time, and since we wanted students to be able to easily highlight and mark all over the resources as needed, I provided paper copies of the digital resources. I am hoping that we will be able to take advantage of our school’s brand new netbooks next year to make this process less paper-based and more digital!

Students wrote information on sticky notes, which they then placed on a shared graphic organizer for their group made from two file folders, with sections for reasons, obstacles, and accomplishments:

The file folders served as both a graphic organizer and an easy way to keep everyone’s work together!

Weeks 4-6: Drafting, revision, and publishing

Students worked at their own pace, so some students were ready to write their drafts during week 3. I modeled the process for this by drafting a letter to Ferdinand Magellan based on the practice notes we took in week 1. I did a think-aloud as I wrote and had students help me make sure my letter included all the important information and elements.

To help us review the parts of a letter and draft this practice epistle, we used ReadWriteThink’s fabulous online letter generator:

Screenshot from – click to try it out!

Most students needed a little extra time to sort their notes and get their ideas on paper, and that was fine.

By week 5, most students were ready to revise their work. We brainstormed what elements our letters needed to include, and students used a checklist to make sure their letters included everything they were supposed to:

On the back: Three things I did well,
and three things I need to work on.

During the 6th week, most students participated in the peer revision process using a similar checklist, colored pencils for marking editing errors, and sticky notes for leaving comments on each others’ work.

As you can see, they took this very seriously!

At the end of Week 6, after each class’s library visit, students spent time in their classrooms tea-staining and distressing the “parchment” for their letters and then publishing their final drafts. Each class’s parchment looks a little different–some lighter, some darker, some more or less crinkly, some torn or burned around the edges.

Week 7: Sharing

Last week, when all our work was done, a few fourth grade students and teachers helped hang the finished letters in the hallway.

On the left side of the library: Juan Ponce de Leon, John Cabot, and Henry Hudson
And on the right: Christopher Columbus, Jacques Cartier, and Vasco Nuñez de Balboa

Parent conferences and book fair were last week, so these final products had a huge audience! We will probably leave them up for another couple of weeks so that everyone has a chance to see our 4th graders’ hard work. 🙂