Way back in my first year of teaching, my students were working on writing an alphabet book about European exploration and one of the students was tasked to write a page for the letter O. She decided to write about the oceans. This led to an unplanned inquiry process in my classroom that I wrote about here and then followed-up with it here.
Jump ahead to this year. I decided to once again do an alphabet book for my class, but instead of having a variety of terms, I wanted it to focus on specific people. Yesterday we reviewed the narrative of early European exploration and, as mentioned, I used today to go over the geography of the world’s continents and oceans.
I didn’t even think about it, honestly, but the exact same question came up. That shouldn’t be surprising, since I still have the same map of the world at the front of the room and the same globe of the world sitting on my bookshelves. I thought we could resolve the question more easily by checking on Google Earth.
Instead of identifying just four oceans, like my globe does, or identifying five oceans, like my map does, Google Earth had six oceans: Arctic, Indian, North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, and South Atlantic. So I asked my students to form an opinion and state their reasons.
Many of them had at least one reason for why they felt there should be four, five, or six identifiable oceans, but they couldn’t articulate why. They tried looking up information online and just got more confused. So I decided to do what I had done four years ago when this question last came up: I taught my students how to seek expert assistance.
Using the Letter Generator from ReadWriteThink.org, the students wrote business letters to Dr. John M. Toole, Senior Scientist, Physical Oceanography, at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. They told him what they had been learning about, what they thought about the oceans, and asked him for his professional opinion. I wrote a cover letter explaining what we were doing and will be mailing the letters off over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
I felt very fortunate that Dr. Toole replied to my class last year. I have not contacted him in advance to tell him about this project, so I have no idea what kind of response we will get this time, but I am very hopeful that he will once again graciously answer my students’ questions.
I love it when I have the opportunity to grab a “teachable moment” and turn it into a project that engages my students in meaningful inquiry and development of important skills!