Picture Book-Driven Inquiry: Reframing Research Investigation

“The river’s rhythm runs through my veins.  Runs through my people’s veins.”

My student unmutes herself in our video conference, identifying these two lines as her favorite in Carole Lindstrom’s We Are Water Protectors.  The day before, I had read the book aloud to my students, enjoying the novelty of holding the pages close to the screen, my students relishing the afternoon turn of events that found them being read to on our usual Zoom call.  During the next day’s class, after we watched a video recording of Lindstrom reading her own book with a close-up view of the pages, my students pointed out lines and images that caught their eye, telling me to pause the YouTube video to screenshot them.

This was not business as usual.  I was excited to launch a research case study with a picture book as our springboard, grateful to begin our foray into research with the help of such a gorgeous visual narrative.  Already delighted with our video “story time,” my students were intrigued by Michaela Goade’s book note explaining how she honored Lindstrom’s Ojibwe culture through key visual details: the traditional ribbon skirt worn by the protagonist as she rallies her people, the animal imagery reflecting Anishinaabe/Ojibwe clan symbols, and the repeated floral designs inspired by traditional Anishinaabe woodland floral motifs.  Goade, an enrolled member of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, is the first Indigenous illustrator to win the Caldecott.  Throughout the book, her use of negative painting, watercolor, colored pencil, and gouache beautifully compose images embodying the Lakota phrase “Mni wiconi” (“Water is Life”).  By situating We Are Water Protectors as our anchor text for a research case study on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline, I wanted to see what students would notice about media representations of Indigenous resistance: what was emphasized, what was left out, what was conflated.  Through juxtaposing a picture book with other texts, I aimed to broaden our vision of what constitutes source relevance.

Based on my past experience teaching research investigation, I had identified two issues frequently occurring in my students’ writing regarding environmental protection.  The first issue concerned a rush to pose a solution to an identified problem, when the topic required more contextualization before sliding into a proposed fix.  The second issue concerned briefly mentioning an adopted environmental policy or emerging technology, which often had the effect of addressing the symptoms of a problem, but not its root causes.  This time around, I hoped to meet those potential issues head on and do a better job of anticipating signs of undercooked research writing.

Most of all, I wanted to make room for questions.  The ability to narrow or widen the scope of research investigation can hinge on a well-thought out driving question.  Creating classroom conditions where students can push each other to refine their research questions depends on them having opportunities to mull provocation to deeper thinking together – not just while isolated in research “silos.”  Gone are the days when my students drew research topics from a hat, matched to a research investigation that I arbitrarily assigned to them.  As I think back on my first couple of years as a secondary teacher, I realize how little time my students spent interacting with each other as they scanned library bookshelves for research sources and browsed databases for the most recently published articles on their topic.

Step #1: Text Pairings

To begin our case study, I asked each student to find a text to pair with We Are Water Protectors: songs, articles, movies, speeches—any type of text was on the table.  Given the key ideas they had already gleaned from our reading of the picture book, they were to find something that tackled the same topic, placing them “side by side.”  It was exciting to see what students selected to share with their group.  In many cases, their choices sparked unforeseen connections in their classmates’ mind.  Below is a slide from a student group slide deck, which functioned as a thinking artifact to later consult during writing:

Group 2’s Text Pairings:

I added two twists to our usual “I notice/I wonder” discussion protocol for breakout room groups.  The first was asking, “What new noticings emerged after thinking about your text pairing?”  Hearing students voice new observations was important because they were paying attention to shifts in perspectives and contrasts in stated priorities.  Aware that Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, was recently confirmed as the first Indigenous cabinet secretary in U.S. history, a student had unearthed a C-SPAN transcript copy of her confirmation hearing.  She had seen a tweet from Secretary Haaland about water security, which began with the sentence, “Water is sacred and essential.”  The sentence stayed with her because it resonated with the first lines of Lindstrom’s story, said by the protagonist’s grandmother:

“Water is the first medicine, Nokomis told me.  We come from water.”

 The group members speculated that it must be rare to hear the U.S. Secretary of the Interior describe water as something precious, as something “sacred”—for them, it was not the language that automatically came to mind when thinking about the federal management of natural resources.  After reviewing the transcript of the confirmation hearing, my student pointed out that some senators stressed that a ban on oil and gas leasing would reduce jobs and do nothing to limit the world’s total production of oil and gas.  The contrast between the protagonist’s perspective in We Are Water Protectors—a young steward aware of the consequences of drilling on the natural world and committed to defending it—and the extractive mindset of these senators could not be more stark.

On the group slide deck, one of her classmates typed the question, “How widespread is the belief that a focus on environmental protection occurs at the expense of the economy and jobs?”  The text pairing revealed competing perspectives, uncovering a tension between an outlook seeking a harmonious balance of ecosystems and an outlook pursuing limitless business “growth” and expansion.

Step #2: Student-Generated Bank of Questions

The second twist to the usual “I notice/I wonder” discussion protocol was designed to elicit a closer look at who controls the narrative about Standing Rock: “What new wonderings do you have about the event based on differing takes about what happened?”  I asked my students to compile a bank of their own questions, a resource which they could always revisit.  A question bank is one way to track how thinking has changed, evolved, become more nuanced.  The Padlet image below contains the initial set of questions my students asked after reading We Are Water Protectors for the first time:

The list below gives a snapshot of one student’s question bank after his group presented text pairings and formulated questions based on new noticings:

As my students compared their question banks in breakout rooms, I circulated, writing down notes.  One important noticing that I heard echoed across groups regarded the name given to the people gathered at Standing Rock.  Most of my students had never heard the phrase, “Water Protectors” before.  They had noticed Indigenous writers would use the phrase, but nearly every other news source fell back on referring to the camp activists as “protestors.”  The difference seemed innocuous, at first, but one student drew our attention to a point made by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People: “The pipeline company, law enforcement, and the news media usually called them “protestors,” which emphasized objection to the pipeline rather than the goal of saving the region’s water supply.”  This noticing prompted an interesting discussion of how the names we give ourselves can show what we value.  The term “protectors,” as seen so vividly in Lindstrom’s book, reveals a a commitment to defending the sacred and experiencing kinship with all living things.

Step #3: Putting Sources in Conversation through Writing

As the line of inquiry grew, the center of gravity shifted, so that what began as a question about why the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe was fighting DAPL evolved into a larger question about how a coalition of Water Protectors could help others reconceive their relationship with the Earth’s water.  What mindset shift needed to take place? By addressing harmful mindset assumptions about water’s availability as a commodity, my students were tackling the root cause of so much environmental exploitation.

Image from A’s group slide deck

For the last part of our case study, my students responded to a question posed by a group member.  A’s response to a classmate’s question shows how deftly she synthesizes relevant details from her group’s text set and comments:

By ignoring the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s land rights, as laid out in the original treaties of Fort Laramie, Energy Transfer Partners and the Corps of Engineers perpetuated the United States’ ongoing failure to abide by its treaties.  This moral failure is foreshadowed in the Anishinaabe prophecy about a black snake discussed in We Are Water Protectors, evident in the criss-crossing pipeline “snaking” across the land.  Article II of the Fort Laramie Treaty guarantees the “undisturbed use and occupation” of reservation lands surrounding the proposed location of the pipeline.  The pipeline threatens to contaminate the local water supply, a possible hazard that had been strategically concealed from all impacted communities.  Reading Lindstrom and Goade’s book helps people understand the response to the tribe’s ignored sovereign authority and the inspiring call to join Water Protectors in peaceful resistance.

My students and I realized that most of us did not have recent experience reading picture books, let alone picture books that conveyed a story of nonfiction. Encountering We Are Water Protectors during a school year where the reduced number of instructional minutes and distance learning context have challenged me to truncate, remix, and rethink all my lesson planning was a gift.

How do you bring picture books into your classroom?  What do you do to support your students’ first steps into research investigation?  Share your reflections in the comments below or find me on Twitter at @dispatches_b222.


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