Students read non-fiction books and then did research to produce their own illustrated and written reports – and these were only first-graders.

“I’ve been amazed to see what they can do,” said Kristen Smith, the Aiken Elementary School students’ teacher. “Research and writing are among the standards, and you think they can’t do it yet. But they have proven me wrong.”

Dr. Rebecca Harper, an Augusta State University professor in the School of Education, is the mother of Amelia, a student in the class.

A former Aiken Middle School teacher, Harper teaches literacy and language arts, as well as reading and writing across the curriculum. She brought the project to Smith recently.

“Students don’t always get a lot of opportunities to write,” Harper said. “Most college programs don’t have a writing pedagogy; the focus is mostly reading-based.”

The new Common Core academic standards fully implemented in the Aiken County School District calls for more non-fiction material and writing exercises.

Harper is a fan of the children’s author Jerry Palotta, whose books include the “Who Would Win” series which provide facts, for example, about hammerhead sharks versus bull sharks and Komodo dragons versus king cobras.

Smith’s students chose their own comparisons – chickens versus tigers.

The joke behind this is Smith is a Clemson fan, and Harper roots for the Gamecocks.

Indeed, the students sometimes got partners on the opposite side of the stadium.

Piper Woodward likes the Tigers, and Robbie Girardeau is a Gamecock fan. He was even wearing a USC sweatshirt Tuesday.

“He sits at my desk, so I had to be partners,” Piper said.

Robbie responded that a chicken would defeat a tiger. “A chicken would be able to poke out a tiger’s eyes,” he said.

But the trash-talking was just an aside. The students explored facts about chickens such as their sharp claws and how they grind their food.

They talked about tigers like where they live.

“Things have changed so dramatically in education,” Harper said.

“I tell my students at the university that if we expect students can’t do something, they won’t. If they are told they can do research and write, they will.”

Children are used to looking for plots and conflict in fiction reading, Harper said. Of course, those components can’t always be found in non-fiction, so they have to see and engage in the different genres.

“We have some reluctant readers in the class and they love these books,” Harper said.

“One of the cool things is that a student might struggle a bit, only to work with another student who might help them. They’re doing teamwork, and those are the skills they will need throughout their lives.”

With Common Core, expectations for even the youngest students are increasing, Smith said.

“They have to step it up,” she said.

“The work is challenging, but they’re finding it interesting. They’re investing in their stories, taking ownership of them.”