Chapter 4: Why Bees? Writing Nonfiction Together In Kindergarten
It is day 3 and our KLEW chart is loaded with our questions about bees. Room 104 is literally buzzing with excitement to get started! Over the next few weeks, during the read aloud portions of our day, I began to read nonfiction picture books in order to find answers to our many questions. Also, because at the end of our inquiry unit on bees I expected each child to produce a nonfiction book in order to educate our audience about the importance of bees, I also used these books to help us consider how authors organized and presented the content – what kind of nonfiction features did they use, what kind of writing craft decisions did they make and how were the books illustrated. This was a lot to investigate in our short (15-20 minute) sessions together on the rug. Some days we were able to discuss both craft AND content but on most days, the curiosity, the need to find the answers was what consumed our time with these books.
And to be quite honest, most of the nonfiction books that I had borrowed from the library did not vary much in their organizational structure. For the most part, these books had the standard table of contents, information presented under subheadings with fact boxes and captions included, and a glossary at the end. What was interesting, at least to my Kindergarteners, was that despite the similar organization, the titles differed. Of the books that provided information about bees in general, three books had a title like Bees or Honeybees. However, one was titled, Incredible Bees while another was called It’s a Good Thing there are Bees. These books generated a discussion about how authors use titles as their “hook” to entice us to read their books. Interestingly, when students came to title their own books as we prepared for publication, thirteen chose the title Bees while fourteen chose a title with a hook to invite the reader into their work.
Our research continued throughout April and into early May. As we found answers to our questions, I recorded the information on a post-it note or just wrote the information under the “what we have learned” section on the chart. Inevitably, the more we read, the more questions we had. I tried to write them down as quickly as I could, on scraps of paper when necessary. One day, the questions were coming too quickly for me to record them all and our time on the rug was coming to an end; so I sent my curious scientists to their tables to write down their own questions which we later added to the chart.
This is exactly the kind of excitement that I wanted to instill in my young researchers. When Matthew learned that wax comes out of a bee’s body (a fact we in Room 104 call, “mind blowing”), he wanted to know exactly how that wax was made inside the body! And then there was Abigail who wanted to know how the eggs got in the queen’s body in the first place. Robert was curious about how exactly the antennae work! This is why we do inquiry. We want kids to ask those questions; even those difficult ones that keep us thinking, reading, writing and creating meaning.
And yet, sometimes these questions don’t really have a place in our whole classroom discussions because, although one student is extremely fascinated by the question, other students could care less! Similarly, most nonfiction written for elementary children will not have information to address such complex questions. Even the beekeeper, who we visited on a research trip to a local organic farm, didn’t have the time to address all of our complex questions in one visit.
And so we are left with another conundrum when negotiating community research about complex content. How do we keep the research moving along, answering as many questions as possible (even as more are being generated) while keeping as many children engaged as possible? Inquiry takes time. But, in my opinion, it is time well spent. It’s that slowing down, taking the time to really look, think and wonder that can lead to amazing writing by Kindergarten students. And when you feel that you don’t have the time to answer all the questions, then do what I did after our visit to the beekeeper: I looked up the information online, printed it out and sent it home for families to use to support their curious scientists!
The sheer number of questions that came up during our research was not the only issue that arose for me as a teacher. Sometimes students had difficulty with the seriousness of the content or they were not emotionally ready for some of the concepts. On the day that my students made the connection that a dwindling bee population would not be good for food production, Chase piped up with his slogan, “No bees, no us!”
Immediately, Gina replied, “No us? My mommy would miss me too much!” and broke down into tears!
Every day after that, she would get upset if any of our discussions approached the topic of OUR survival! As a community, we reassured Gina that scientists were indeed working to help bees. I also took these moments as an opportunity to point out that this was why our work, reading, researching, writing, was so important! We had an important job to do – to educate our audience about bees. Poor Gina, however, continued to be so worried about the bee situation that she ultimately wrote her nonfiction book about butterflies, not bees. Emotionally, despite our support and encouragement, she was unable to handle the intensity of the content.
Another emotional moment occurred while reading about the short lifespan of bees, especially the workers. The text I read that day said: “After a worker bee has made about 400 long flights, the muscles in her wings and legs are worn out. She usually falls to the ground and dies of exhaustion” (Honey in a Hive, Anne Rockwell, p. 17).
My intention was to read on quickly, but in the slight pause between this paragraph and the next, Nairan said, “That’s just the silly bees who didn’t listen.”
I was puzzled by his response but before I could think of what to say, Maddie said, “All bees have to die sometime because they are living things.”
Then Robert suggested, “They don’t die if they rest one time. I think they would just die when the wings wear out.”
“Yeah”, Helen chimed in. “It’s like when you’re running and you get worn out.”
I intervened in the discussion at that point: yes, that was a good personal connection to being “worn out”, but I didn’t think any of them needed to worry about expiring while running during recess time!
Finally, Nairan had the last word, “It would be too sad if they die.”
Again, for some children, the reality of life and death that inevitably comes up in all areas of life science is just too real for their tender hearts. My students responded in the way that a community of five and six year olds do best, by comforting and supporting Nairan as they shared stories of their own deceased pets and grandparents.
Fortunately, life goes on and it did, day after day, as we continued to be fed by the need to know more. After many sessions of reading aloud, summarizing our information and recording our answers on multiple sheets of chart paper, we finally got to the point where more of our post-it notes were in the “what we have learned” section than in the “what we are still wondering” section. I realized that it was time to move on. We will always still be wondering. And that’s OK. But I had to let go of my need to answer all of our questions. If we were going to be real scientists, (and we were!), we would never be truly finished. There were always going to be more questions.