Rethinking Research

Screen Shot 2013-12-02 at 9.17.02 PMWikipedia. Google. Do you ever use them? I know I do. Some of my recent searches include: How long do I cook my turkey? Do I need 2 or 4 winter tires? How old was Bob Woodward when he broke the Watergate story?What was the name of that guy who wrote that book about World War I with the blue cover?

Regardless of our own personal reliance on these websites, we want students to understand the importance of reliable sources. We teach them the “CRAAP” test. We do entire lessons on evaluating websites. We tell them we will not accept Wikipedia as a resource. We tell them not to use the sources we rely on.

And I agree with all of that.  If we are asking students to do academic research, we need to stress the importance of reliable online academic resources like school databases, websites like the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian, and digital newspapers and encyclopedias, while also showcasing available print material.  There is a great deal of garbage on the Internet, and we must guide them to well-researched, responsibly-written work.

But if we are asking them to use those resources, we need to ask them to actually do research.

The Oxford English dictionary defines research as, “the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.” Yet, too often we ask students to just establish facts. And facts are quick and easy to find.  If we want a student to find out information about Abraham Lincoln’s life, most of that information is common knowledge and we can find it almost anywhere. Citing it feels falsified and doesn’t show students how to really acknowledge others’ ideas, because we can find where he was born and who he married on any Internet site or in any book, so whose idea is it, really?  Yet, if we ask our students How did Lincoln’s early life guide his decision during the Civil War? then we are asking them to not only understand his life, but to also understand what decisions he made–and then to draw conclusions. Instead of asking students to research jellyfish, what if we asked them How does the jellyfish adapt to its environment? Instead of asking students to research weaponry during the Viet Nam War, what if we asked them How did the weaponry of the Viet Nam War impact the death toll? Asking students to prove something–to assert a claim–to make a thesis–will always help them dig in deeper and naturally drift away from those wiki sites.

This kind of research requires time. It requires students to be able to comfortably navigate resources, read and not feel rushed, make mistakes, assert a different thesis than their original. But, like in every classroom across the nation, time is a rare commodity. Yet, if we do not honor the need for thoughtful and deliberate research, we are cutting them off at the knees and not preparing them for the research expected of them in college.

So how do we get around this complicated research debacle?

  • Offer authentic  choices in topics that allow students to assert authentic claims.
  • Remember that not every research project needs to culminate in a large project. What is your main objective of this assignment? You can create small, feasible research projects that culminate in index cards, a list, or a paragraph
  • If you are immersing students in a full-process research essay or presentation, give them adequate time to explore topics, make mistakes, struggle with theses, take notes, organize their information, and pull together their ideas in well-written prose.
  • Always remember to model each piece–do the research piece alongside them. Explicit modeling will always help your students.

What other ideas have you tried that have worked? What do you still continue to struggle with? What are our greatest challenges in teaching students how to delve into research? How can librarians and classroom teachers collaborate together to make the process easier? Please share!


Tell Me What You Know

research pic

The  students had had nearly two hours of independent research time over two days when I sat down next to a boy. “Tell me everything you know,” I said to him. After all, we had already gone over accessing and assessing websites; I had created a LibGuide leading them to excellent sources; we had reviewed note-taking skills and databases. He should have, in two hours, had a plethora of information on the colonization of his African country.

“I don’t know anything,” he stated.

“Well, let’s start with the basics. Who colonized your country?” I asked.

He stared at me blankly. “I’m not sure. Britain or France, I think.”

As I moved from student to student, similar, vague conversations took place. They had EasyBibs started with their resources, they had lists of bulleted notes, they had their assignments in front of them, they had reliable resources open on their screens. When I scanned the room, it looked like they were doing everything we had instructed them to do. Yet, each time I sat down and asked, “Tell me what you know,” they were caught off guard.

One student grabbed his notes and started reading them to me. I interrupted. “Don’t read me what your notes say, tell me what YOU know.” He asked me to give him ten minutes.

After they left class, I sat, reflecting, discouraged. I wanted to blame the students, but I also know that if every single student in a class is not doing what they need to do to be successful, I am responsible for some of that blame. And so I sat and wondered,  how  can I get them back on track after this railroaded research disaster?


The following day, when the students came in, they found large pieces of bright paper with 4 index cards taped on them and my coveted collection of Sharpies that they love to raid. Each index card had a question: For what reason was your country colonized? What did life look like for the native inhabitants during colonization? How was the country liberated? What issues does your country struggle with today? “Grab a color you like,” I told them.  “Grab some markers, and start writing what you know. If you don’t know anything, write that. Be honest.”

Students sprawled out on the tables and started jotting down what they could. They started digging out their notes and reading through them. As the other teacher and I circulated, we heard a lot of comments like, “I think I have more to look into” or “Wow, I didn’t even pay attention to the part about that.” When finished, they took out a piece of notebook paper and wrote down where they needed to focus during the class period that stretched ahead of them.

During research time, there was a different tone–a sense of purpose. They started asking us questions about what they were reading. They started being able to answer our questions. When there were five minutes left in class, they returned to their poster-sized notes and scribbled more information down. And then, again, they wrote on notebook paper what they needed to focus on over the weekend.

It was simple really, and I was disappointed in myself for not doing this kind of checkin on day one. But it reminded me that we so often forget to teach explicitly about thinking and reflection. When we tell kids to go research their topic, they comply and walk through the paces that we have “trained” them to do. But how do we train them to reflect on what they are finding? On reading for understanding? On finding purpose in their searches? These habits of mind must be taught daily in order for them to independently make meaning of their learning when they leave for college.

So what can we do to bring explicitness into our classroom research practices?

*Confer with students constantly. Go to them–don’t wait for them to come to you.
*Be flexible in the process. Let them change topics. Let them change thesis statements. Let them change sides. Let them see that research is messy and non-linear, and then give them the time they need to find their way.
*Ask specific questions every day. Why did you choose this topic? What is the most important thing you have read? What do you remember most? What does this mean today?
*Ask students to be active in their daily learning process. Have them write entrance and exit slips–What do you plan to accomplish today and how are you going to do that? What did you accomplish today? What do you have left to do?
*Ask students to stop what they are doing and write from time to time. Writing is thinking, and giving them the time to sit and think about what they know for a moment will help them be more efficient in their process.
*Have students reflect on their habits. Are they proud of their work? What would they do differently? How did they use their time?

Explicitly teaching research takes time, and in the classroom, we never feel like there is enough time. But if we want students to find purpose, meaning, and pride in their findings, we must remember that they–no matter what age–will continue to require that kind of instruction throughout their educational career. It’s not enough to assume that somebody else has taught them how to do a task or  that they remember it from a previous lesson or that they just know how to do it. We need to remember to check in, provide personally-directed reminders, and have conversations about their learning processes routinely.

I, for one, will leave reminders for myself, in my next unit. Because the next time I sit next to a student and ask, “Tell me what you know,” I want her to confidently look me in the eye and open the world.

Science is Poetry is Science

“An enzyme’s active site is empty.
It floats there all alone,
Waiting to catalyze
A biological reaction unknown.

A substrate, also lonely,
Searches for a friend.
An enzyme to work together with
Who will help reactions begin and end…”

It’s National Poetry Month, and English teachers and librarians are celebrating all over the country. But what about everyone else? Is it true what kids say– poetry only belongs in English class? The biology teacher and I set out to prove them wrong. Looking for a way to add to her enzyme unit instruction, we collaborated, which included her  teaching me some biology and then assigning me homework, and me going over different forms and kinds of poetry, and then planned out the writing of persona poems. We wanted to ensure that this was not just a fun, “cool” activity, but rather a formative assessment tool that would point to any confusion or misconceptions her students might have.

Prior to the activity, the students were asked to sticky-note the important vocabulary from the unit in their text book. Which words are critical to the understanding of enzymes? When I came into class, I showed them Louise Gluck’s Red Poppies. We discussed the tone and the voice of the poem–how the poppy worshipped her god to the point of sacrifice. So what about enzymes? If we personified enzymes, what would they be like? Resentful for the work they selflessly undertake? Joyous and compassionate about the importance of their services? Adopt a persona I told them Decide who your enzyme (or inhibitor or substrate) is, and then start telling their story.

As expected, some kids’ eyes lit right up and they delved in. Others looked at us questioningly. You could read their faces: Poetry in science class? Are you for real? But after some quiet conversations and brainstorming, their pencils starting scratching the paper, too. Textbooks were open. Sticky notes were read and rewritten. The science teacher and I moved around the room–she answered questions about the content; I answered questions about the process.

And in the end, they proved what I had been suspecting for some time, and which, in hindsight seems like a well, duh kind of revelation: you cannot write poetry about something you don’t know. You have to know what hydrolyzing and catalyzing means to successfully use those words. You have to know the difference between a competitive and a noncompetitive inhibitor. You have to know how substrates work and what their purpose is.

Poetry is like the zoom lens of writing, and through its view you can see the pores and tiny hairs of whatever you are looking at. To write stunning poetry, you have to understand your subject and humanity all at once, while being able to pick apart everything you see. It’s dissection, it’s a microscope. It’s close observation. It is, in fact, a science.  What scientists are expected to do–that process of prediction, close observation, risk-taking, and drawing conclusions? That’s everything that goes into writing a good poem, as well.

So I dare you–shun the strict adherence to the kinds of writing we “should” do in each of our classes. Because once we do that, we will recognize that there is a place for all kinds of writing in every subject. And it will not only expose our students to a variety of writing and the importance of voice, but it will help with assessments, creativity, meeting the needs of all students, and strengthening the understanding of our content.

And besides: when was the last time you read something as enjoyable as this in your class?

“My active site is empty,
I’m inactive, waiting for a mate.
But a gorgeous, petite substrate attaches…
Oh my, life is great.

She distorts my molecular bonds
And her love for me is sweet like sucrose.
Yet she exhausts and weakens me with her love
Because I received it in a high dose.

So I gave her my energy,
I gave her my affection
Now she’s hydrolyzing before my eyes.
What were her intentions?

She used me, abused me,
and left me as a fool.
But together we created glucose and fructose.
What perfect little jewels!”

Cite This (maybe?)

The seventh grade history teacher and I had earmarked today as the day to have students pull together all of their resources to create their Works Cited. They had used a mixture of media in their recent country project: pictures, books, databases, websites, and video. We had anticipated that one 45 minute class period would be ample time.

We were wrong.

As we went through the steps, me modeling with my own research project on Iceland, we found students falling behind and not knowing where to go. They didn’t understand what the term MLA meant. They didn’t know what a URL was. They couldn’t tell the difference between a website title and a website page title. They didn’t know where to look to see if a photographer was credited. Some of them assuredly jumped on, telling us they had done all this before, and started creating their own Works Citeds, citing everything as a website and not recognizing the nuances of  databases or  online photographs, and then getting frustrated that they had to delete those citations.

Once we got everything into a document, they didn’t know the rules of Works Cited: everything has to be the same font and size, and entries have to be alphabetized. So when they pulled a generated citation from a database and tried to integrate it with their Easybib material, they didn’t recognize that they had to move things around, and then they weren’t sure how to cut the citation out and paste it in another place. Some students tried to un-indent the second line of each citation because it looked “weird.”

Everything we had assumed about their prior knowledge to citing was wrong.

By the end of the first period, we felt like we had already put in a full, exhaustive day of terrible teaching. Their Works Citeds were not finished, and we were pretty sure that tomorrow they wouldn’t be able to find them because in the state of being overwhelmed, we forgot to remind them to title their Google Doc as a Works Cited.

We all have bad days in the classroom. And while I hate to fail on precious student time, I am reminded that failure has its purpose in life: to teach us what sucked so we don’t do it again. A quick, post-class, reflective conference, before second period, helped us identify what went wrong and adjust the lesson. By the final periods of the day, our students were leaving with a completed, titled, fully-formatted Works Cited saved on their computers. We triumphed.  So what did we learn today about teaching bibliography skills?

1. We need to teach kids how to read their resources for citation information.
Remember when we (and by “we” I mean anybody over the age of 30) used to have to type our Works Cited by hand? We not only had to know where commas and periods and italics went, but we had to know book titles, publishers, dates, cities, etc. While sites like Easybib make remembering the formatting component obsolete, they still require the writer to look for publication information. Students still need to know how to look for titles, publishers, dates, and cities. In fact, I would even argue that they have to know more information than we did “back in the day” because they now have access to Youtube videos, online databases and encyclopedias, oodles of online artwork, let alone websites. They need to understand where to look for authors, publishers, titles, etc. because sometimes Easybib doesn’t pick them up. Explicit instruction on how to do this is key.

2. We need to teach students that there are different rules for different kinds of sources.
Our students often think that if it is on their computer screen, it is a website. They don’t see the difference between an eBook or a database. They don’t realize that an online video is cited differently than an online photograph. They don’t realize that an online photograph is different than an online painting. They often think they can cite Google Images rather than the site that carries a picture itself or that a URL link to that picture is the correct way to cite it.

3. Teachers need to know the rules, too.
If we don’t know the rules, then we aren’t catching students’ errors in their citations. We need to be able to look at a Works Cited and say, “Hmmm. I think there’s something wrong here. Let’s go back in and edit that together.”

4. We need to give students the time to cite correctly.
When we don’t, we implicitly let students know that it is not important. When we accept any version they have created, we also send that message. When we give students the time to work on this with us, it also allows them to start asking really important questions. One student today said on a recent project he had used a bunch of Youtube videos. He had cited them all by just typing in the general Youtube home site address and not differentiating between each video. This opened up a great conversation between us about where to look for that information.

5. Kids need practice.
While we were successful by the end of the day, we also recognized that this cannot be a one-time lesson. Explicit citation lessons must be part of each project, allowing for student questions and struggles. “Back in the day” I always had to pull out my Diana Hacker to figure out how to cite a book with two editors. I simply could not remember what information was needed. Our kids need similar guides and frequent practice at accessing guides. We are currently putting together a simple resource that will remind the students of everything we did today, but we will continue to give them the necessary practice in all classes.

In the end, today was a reminder that technology does not neatly solve all problems. While putting together a Works Cited feels easier to us, because we don’t have to remember the formatting intricacies, we are often failing to teach students the content of what goes into a Works Cited. We need to know the rules, give ample time to practice, and show students how to read resources for publication information. Easybib and other citing machines are miraculous tools, yes. But they do not replace our students thinking. In fact, our students have much more to think about when addressing issues of citation than we ever did, and today was a reminder they need help with that.

Authentic Writing in the Classroom: Empowering Our Students

No one writes anything worth writing, unless he writes entirely for the sake of his subject.~Arthur Schopenhauer

During my first years of teaching, I assigned the kinds of assignments I was supposed to be giving my students: narratives, arguments, informational texts, literary analyses, etc. But I started to notice that it didn’t matter how much I asked them to write or how much instruction I gave them, their writing did not improve as much as I would like. It certainly wasn’t interesting writing. And they were not falling in love with the craft of language the way I had hoped. I had big dreams that my students would love writing as much as I, but I wasn’t witnessing that. Discouragement clouded my classroom experiences, and I fell into rote, formulaic instruction, succumbing to the idea that not everybody can be a writer.

Except, at heart, I knew this wasn’t really true. It took a few years for me to acknowledge this. First I had to get over the new-teacher humps of navigating everything from classroom management to NCLB to understanding assessment. But then, when my legs felt a little less shaky, I went back to the soul of writing.

I started to closely examine my teaching practices in light of my writing practices, and the most glaringly obvious misalignment was in who was reading the writing.

I always write for an audience–whether it be a letter, a post, an article, or a chapter in a book. Ultimately, after the multiple drafts and revisions, my final pieces are always intended for somebody. But in my classroom, my students’ writing was only intended for me. And the purpose was to put a grade on it and hand it back, and it nearly always found itself to the garbage can during binder clean outs.

I believe, fundamentally, that writing well is the most powerful tool we can give our students. It harnesses their ideas and voices and empowers them to gather their idealism into productive and meaningful work. To write well is to think well. And I cannot think of any greater gift for our students as they catapult into a technology and text-driven society where words matter. I was failing to give this gift to my students.

As I shifted the focus in my classroom, I started small–an assignment here or there. But eventually, every single writing piece we took on had an authentic, live, real audience. Sometimes it was their peers (we would write product reviews and hang them in the hallways where other students would browse). Sometimes it was somebody else in our school community. (One girl wrote a data-driven piece on the benefits of gum chewing for students with attentional issues and permanently changed our school-wide gum-chewing rule.) Sometimes it was a larger audience outside of school. (One student wrote a moving argument for why our school district should have a lacrosse team. It was published in the newspaper the day of voting, and the article narrowly passed. We’d like to think that her articulate and researched words helped move voters.)

Sometimes the audience was larger than our immediate community. Students who wrote powerful letters received replacements for their defunct North Face jacket, post cards from Adam Sandler, and correspondence from our senators. We hosted a book review website where students posted reviews monthly. I would then tweet the articles out, tagging authors, and countless students received word from their authors that their work and words were appreciated.  We held community nights at the local library where their work was on display. They wrote research podcasts that we put on iTunes. We created websites with their research published. They entered contests. They created a literary magazine.

I knew I had accomplished my goals when one day one of my most limited students who sat at his desk, revising a poem, looked up at me and said, “Who will be reading these?” I was stopped in my tracks. This was one assignment I couldn’t quite determine an audience for, yet his question reminded me that knowing audience was going to be important to him during his revision process. I confessed to the class that I had no audience for their poetry. They looked at me blankly (like why not?) and then set off on the journey of creating one. Each student chose their favorite poem and we created laminated copies of them with fancy April is National Poetry Month banners at the top and we plastered the gas station, laundrymat, post office, grocery store, library, and restaurants with student work, making National Poetry Month a town wide celebration.

To teach this way, there needs to be a shift in thinking. Nancie Atwell once taught us to ask our students, “So what?” about their writing. I’m asking you to consider this for your teaching. When we sit to build units and lesson plans, we need to keep this forefront in our minds and ask ourselves, So what? What is the purpose in this? What do we want our students to learn? (Opposed to, what do we want our students to do?)

When I present this topic at conferences, the most dynamic literacy leaders from around the country still have concerns. Here, I would like to address some of the common questions I receive about making a shift to authentic writing in the English classroom.

1. How do you grade authentic writing? It is so personal at that point, how do you slap an assessment on it?

Assessing writing is always a tricky subject. (That’s another whole workshop, right?) But getting past the murky philosophy, the reality is we have to give grades. I only give summative grades for writing, never formative grades, and I rely on the 6+1 Traits language: Organization. Ideas. Sentence Structure. Word Choice. Voice. Conventions. Publication. This language became familiar in our writing projects and among our team members as I taught others how to assess writing. It gave us a common vocabulary, and it gives students the flexibility within the structure to identify which key components would fall in each category. What makes a good organization for a memoir? What about a letter? An essay? Students helped construct our rubrics based on our common knowledge. They know it is intended for an audience, so the focus is no longer about the grade, but about how to craft the best piece possible. With intentional excellence comes good grades.

2. How do you find time to do this?

Teaching authentic writing isn’t any more time consuming than teaching inauthentic writing. It’s still teaching writing. It may be a little more intense, because students are actually invested, but it’s still the same process: draft, revise, publish.

3. What about writing about literature?

What about it? They can still do it! We just have to think about who reads these. Would a literature blog be appropriate for your class? Are there sites that recruit student thinking on literature? Would the local newspaper be interested in publishing student literature reviews? (We once had a Sonnet Showdown, and the winners’ sonnets were published in the newspaper.) 

4. How do you prepare them for teachers’ classes where audience isn’t addressed & more formulaic pieces are expected?

First of all, (and this may sound harsh), I will never adopt a practice in my classroom I disagree with to prepare my students for that practice in another classroom. If students are writing rigorously and frequently, they will become adaptable craftsmen who can adequately address the demands of less-engaging writing. Writing for an audience does not mean lowering the bar—in fact, it means raising it. Publishing your work to a real audience means deliberate thinking and composition and intensive, intentional revision. By engaging them in this process you are not only preparing them for the next class, you are preparing them to be a critical thinker and active citizen.

5. What if my colleagues do not agree with this? What if I receive departmental pressure?
There are many arguments to institute authentic writing into your classroom. As with any pedagogical  decision, you should use research and standards to support your practices. Daniel Pink’s motivation research in Drive is an excellent read that clearly illustrates how autonomy and purpose increase quality and creativity. The Common Core Standards specifically call for students to write for a variety of purposes and audiences, using a variety of modes to publish their work, and the AP Language course description acknowledges the importance of audience. When discussing student motivation and engagement at a departmental level, propose integrating audience into assignments and assessments. The conversation will likely be lively and interesting.

6. What about the colleagues who will talk about me or make me feel like a terrible teacher for shifting the focus in my classroom?

This question was most startling for me. It is not the culture in my current school, yet I recognize it is a stark reality in many schools. In the past, I have certainly adopted practices that did not sit well with me because of highly critical colleagues. And I have heard from many teachers from around the country that they have done the same. Fear of confrontation, tension, being talked about, or receiving jabs in meetings forces many teachers to fit into a mold. Sometimes it is easier to fall into line than to push the limits and try new things. I get that. But here’s the thing: that is professional bullying. If our students behaved that way, we would not tolerate it. As professionals, it is our job to support one another, encourage each other to try new things, be open to taking risks, and have collegial conversations that challenge our ideas and perceptions. Rigidity and judgment serve no one, especially our students.

7. But there’s a test…

Yes, there is. And I would challenge you not to teach to it, but to teach beyond it. I want my students to write better than what is expected on the test. When students have a strong command over language and style and are confident in their abilities, they will be adaptive writers who can address any writing prompt appropriately. There have been times where I have read the test writing prompts and groaned, thinking I have never had my students write like that and they are not going to be successful, but in the end, they come up for air and tell me it wasn’t so bad. And my writing scores reflect this, as well. After having students for three years straight, our proficiency went from an average of 35% (the same as the state level) to an average of 90% (nearly 30 points higher than the state average). Never once did we do test prep–instead we did real world prep, which meant a great deal of writing. Do not let tests scare you into being inauthentic or uncreative. Our students will achieve greater results if their educational experiences are purposeful.  As one audience member said today, “Teaching more five paragraph essays will not make better writers.”

Yesterday, my dear friend and colleague, Sarah Brown Wessling addressed the entire CEL convention and asked us to consider purpose over task. It’s not about what we, the teachers, are going to do today, but rather what our students will learn. Reconsider your writing assignments–are you having them complete a task? Or are they writing for a purpose? Are you inspiring them to fine-tune their voice? Are you breathing passion into their need for expression? Are you empowering your students? 

Ultimately, ask yourself that big question: So what?