Searching for Gold: A Collaborative Inquiry Project

3 - 5
Lesson Plan Type
Estimated Time
Six 50-minute sessions
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In this collaborative inquiry unit, the real gold is the inquiry skills and content area knowledge that students develop. The class works in small groups, each focusing on one aspect of the same big topic, such as the Gold Rush. After skimming related texts, the class brainstorms people, places and things associated with the topic and develops a list of five or six main subtopics. Students then work in small groups to research one of the subtopics, practicing specific research skills as they work. Finally, students choose an activity, such as an oral report, trivia game, or newspaper, to teach what they have learned to the rest of the class. Group accountability and individual responsibility are built in to this lesson process.

While this unit uses the Gold Rush as an example, any event or geographical area could be substituted.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

As Helen Dale explains in her Co-Authoring in the Classroom, "Working together on a shared goal leads to higher achievement than working alone, and it leads to gains in the kinds of thinking teachers like to model for students: high-level reasoning, generation of new ideas, and transfer of knowledge from one situation to another (Johnson & Johnson, 1994)" (5). Collaborating as they research the Gold Rush and compose their projects for presentation, students participate in the cooperative learning experiences which Dale identifies. In addition to the cognitive gains that students make as they collaborate, Dale states, "Working together on a project can involve authentic learning for students. Peer groups concentrate on what the student learns, not on what the teacher knows." Furthermore, as Dale writes, "In groups, students need to do something: communicate, organize, interpret, or apply" (6). That is exactly what will occur in this lesson: students will be doing something together, as they work to explore a variety of resources in this ongoing inquiry project.

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology




  • Bookmark selected Gold Rush Websites listed and any additional Gold Rush links you may find appropriate for student research; or bookmark the Gold Rush Web Resources Travelogue, which provides the links for students.

  • Collect an assortment of texts on the Gold Rush at a variety of reading levels.

  • Make an overhead transparency of approximately one page of informational text dealing with the initial discovery of gold (or other related informational text if desired), to use for a whole-class mini-lesson on finding and highlighting important information. Alternately, use a Website and LCD projector for this process.

  • Make copies of student handouts: Guidelines for Teaching about Your Topic and Group Oral Presentation Rubric.

  • Test the Gold Rush Web Resources Travelogue on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tool and ensure that the sites are not blocked by any filtering software. This test will also ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • select research topics based on interest.

  • work in cooperative groups.

  • research information in books and on the Internet.

  • take notes on research topics.

  • develop presentation materials using visual aids.

  • deliver oral presentations to teach others about their topics.

Session One

  1. Invite students to share information on research and inquiry projects they have completed in the past. Ask students to share details on the topics they have researched, the steps they completed in their research process, and how they worked (alone or in groups).

  2. Explain to the students that they will again be working on a research project, using the following approach:

    • The class will all be working on the same big topic. (This lesson plan uses the Gold Rush as an example.)

    • Working together as a class, students will brainstorm people, places and things associated with the topic.

    • Students will then get into groups and choose one of these topics to research.

    • Each group will choose an activity to teach what they have learned to the rest of the class.
  3. To begin this process, ask students do an initial exploration of the Gold Rush, using selected texts from the Gold Rush Book List. For this part of the project, students can work individually, with partners, or in small groups.

  4. Allow enough time for students to explore the texts. Make sure they understand that they are skimming and exploring at this point, rather than trying to read books from start to finish.

  5. If students need additional instruction, have students participate in this mini-lesson on skimming.

  6. Once students have had enough time to explore the texts, bring them back together as a whole group.

  7. Ask volunteer students to tell some of the things they learned while looking at the texts or things they already know about the California Gold Rush. Record this information on the board or on chart paper.

  8. After some sharing of information, ask students to suggest some topics about the Gold Rush that they noticed while they were exploring. List the topics on the board or on chart paper.

  9. Using the list created by the students, work with the class to combine or expand topics as needed, so that there are five or six main subtopics. For example, if students have suggested different ethnic groups as separate topics, these could be combined as one topic. The resulting topic list will depend entirely on what students suggest. A sample list of subtopics on the Gold Rush might be:

    • discovery of gold

    • migration to California from the eastern U.S. and from other countries

    • life in a mining town

    • laws, justice, and keeping order

    • the role of women

    • contributions of and conditions for various cultural groups

    • important, interesting, or famous people

Session Two

  1. At the beginning of this session, review with the list of subtopics students created about the Gold Rush with the class.

  2. Next, review the texts and other resources with students, including any information that may be in their Social Studies textbook.

  3. Display the Gold Rush Websites using the Travelogue, which allows them to take notes as they view Websites. They can read and take notes online, or print from the Websites and highlight important information. Students can also view the Websites using the Web Resources Guide.

  4. Using an LCD projector or in the computer lab, show the students the Hints About Print demonstration, which discusses how to choose appropriate resources for research projects.

  5. Next, use the Fact Fragment Frenzy tool to show students how to isolate the most important information in a passage. If they are in the computer lab, this tool also has a practice activity that students can complete if desired.

  6. To reinforce these skills, display an overhead of informational text about gold or its discovery. This Sacramento Bee resource could be an example.

  7. Using the selected resource, model how to identify and highlight important information:

    • Read aloud the entire text from start to finish.

    • Go back to the first paragraph and highlight one main idea phrase and any key vocabulary. Be sure to highlight only important words and/or phrases to help students understand that there should be more text “left over” than highlighted.

    • Repeat the process with one or two more paragraphs.

    • Review the highlighted information.

    • Leaving the overhead visible, pose pertinent questions to students, then ask the general question: “What have we learned so far?” Call on volunteer students to share information.
  8. Now that students have seen their resources and have a better understanding of how to use them, invite students to form groups based on their interest in the topics. Try to have a similar number of students in each group.

  9. Once the groups are formed, remind students that their goal is to learn about their selected topic and share what they have discovered with the rest of the class.

  10. Emphasize that students have many options for how they will present their information to the rest of the class.

  11. Distribute and discuss the Guidelines for Teaching about Your Topic handout and the Rubric for the project.

  12. After sharing the handout, answer any questions the students may have about the project. Ensure that students understand the expectations for the projects.

Session Three

  1. Once groups have formed based on interest and students understand the expectations, invite them to brainstorm questions they have on their selected topics. These questions can be recorded in their inquiry notebooks. Explain that these questions will help guide students during the research process.

  2. Allow time for the groups to meet and conduct their research.

  3. Encourage students to use a variety of sources to find information on their topics, including their textbook, selected reference and nonfiction books, and Websites.

  4. Have books and printed resources available to the students. Books can be selected from the book list and Websites can be bookmarked using the Web Resources Guide or accessed using the Gold Rush Web Resources Travelogue.

  5. Remind students of the process for taking notes.

  6. Monitor progress of the groups, as well as the contributions of each group member.

Session Four and Additional Work Sessions as Needed

  1. As student groups work on gathering information for their topic, circulate among them and act as a resource as needed:

    • Meet with each group in rotation to help members identify important information, define terms, and keep their information organized.

    • Ask questions about information that has been recorded and/or group needs.

    • Answer questions.

    • Make suggestions for research materials (books, Websites, textbook pages, photographs, and other materials related to each group’s topic).

    • Provide assistance for students as needed.

    • Help students do Website searches and print out information and photographs.

    • Encourage students to keep their information organized.
  2. At the end of each research session, invite students to volunteer interesting information that has been collected.

  3. During the research time, use books from the Gold Rush Book List for read aloud material to supplement the research.

  4. Once the research on the selected topics has been completed, have students review their research and choose how they are going to share that information with the rest of the class.

  5. Consult the Guidelines for Teaching about Your Topic handout, which explains what needs to be included in a choice activity for teaching the rest of the class about a topic.

Session Five

  1. Provide time for students to work on and complete their presentation product on their selected topics.

  2. Students can also use any applicable online tool to create their product:

Session Six

  1. Group by group, invite students to share their information with the class in whatever way they have chosen.

  2. Make sure that the students display any visuals or posters that accompany their research.

  3. As students share their information and products, assess them using the Group Oral Presentation Rubric.


  • Make a Gold Rush Wall: clear enough wall space to accommodate all charts, pictures, and oral presentation posters generated during the research period.

  • Have students write and illustrate a class book about the Gold Rush and add it to the classroom library. This student publication can be a question and answer book (see the Question and Answer Books—From Genre Study to Report Writing lesson plan) or it can be a narrative with text and illustrations. Have each student in the class be responsible for one page, or, depending on the amount of information gathered by students, have pairs of students collaborate on pages. The Flip Book is another publishing option.

  • Have students use the ReadWriteThink Timeline Tool to create a timeline of Gold Rush people and events.

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • This project requires a variety of informal and formal assessments. Informally, make certain students are on track by:

    • listening to the answers they volunteer during class discussions.

    • observing their level of participation in discussions, group work, and research.

    • using anecdotal notetaking or kidwatching to track students’ cognitive skills as they complete the research process.

    • interviewing and questioning students throughout the process.

  • For formal evaluation of the completed, illustrated Gold Rush products, use the Rubric.

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