Rethinking Research

Screen Shot 2013-12-02 at 9.17.02 PMWikipedia. Google. Answers.com. 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!

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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?

The Okay-ness of Hard

“This is hard,” she sighs at me, her body slumped over on the table, head leaning against her arm, pencil lying limp in her other hand. “It’s toooooo hard.”

“Hard is okay,” I say to her.

She raises one eyebrow at me in disbelief. “No, really,” I encourage her. “You learn when you do hard things. If we always did what was easy, we’d still have our moms feeding us, right? I mean, dang. That was soooo easy.”

She lowers that supercilious, 9th grade eyebrow and mutters, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

I pat her on the shoulder before getting up to leave.  “I promise,” I tell her, “I’ve never had a student die from writing a thesis statement.” She cracks a hint of a smile and sits up.

We are writing thesis statements for mini-TED-like talks in Health class. And I’m hearing them all sigh and say, “This is hard.”

And this is hard. Not just the thesis statement, but the whole project.

Frustrated by poor quality presentations that felt more like fact-finding than research, the health teacher and I decided to take on the usual independent health projects in a new, more meaningful way. Over the course of this quarter-long offering, working with a class of freshmen and sophomores a few half periods here and there at a time, we asked students to shift from the default Power Point regurgitated tedium that they too-often present to mini TED-like talks where they encourage the audience to look at a health topic in a new way.

Throughout the process, we watched students struggle. We had conversations that often began with “This is tooooo hard.” And we kept telling them, You’re right. This is hard. And that’s okay.

After choosing a topic, they had to decide what they were trying to prove–what they wanted their audience to understand. Writing this kind of a thesis statement is difficult and requires an abundance of conversation, processing, and many drafts. From there, they had to use that thesis statement to drive their writing, weeding through their facts and deciding which were relevant. Part of good research is knowing what is important and what is not necessary, and our students often have a difficult time weeding through all of the material they come across. We reminded them frequently: There are books out there on these topics. You are only speaking for about 5 minutes. Focus. Focus. Focus.  They watched multiple TED talks, observing the craft over the content, and recognized that good presentations have attention-grabbing openings, integrate narrative elements with factual information, and have stimulating visual backdrops. Checking facts, writing drafts, receiving feedback, plowing through revisions, and practicing consumed their time. They worked hard.

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Fast forward to the end of the semester.

It is last period on a Friday and the entire health class is sitting, silently, in the library, their eyes on a usually quiet girl who is presenting on what it is like to live with asthma. She stands, tall, with no note cards in her hands, looking her classmates in the eyes, speaking audibly, recalling statistics and experiences, with word-free images on the screen behind her. She is following another student who presented on how to understand peers who have social anxiety, who used personal and honest anecdotes, intermingled with haunting music, stunning artwork, and stark research. Before her, a boy who struggles with and often does not complete most assignments, stood tall and proud, pleading with his classmates to communicate with teachers the importance of standing and movement during the school day and the health implications of too much sitting. Another student, typically reserved, encouraged everyone to take precautions against skin cancer, using her own father’s experience as a backdrop to the research. Each student who stood up there in front of the class amazed us in a thousand different ways.

The health teacher and I sit, filled with pride, because what is happening this week in health class is spectacular. Our students walked away from the assignment, aware that what speaks to our hearts drives authentic research and that true research isn’t about spitting back facts, but about what we make of the facts we’ve come across. They learned that they can use research to make change, and that their voices are important. They recognized that when giving presentations, audio and visual channels will always compete, and how to balance the two. And that to communicate important research and conclusions, they always need to pull together an effective presentation.

But most importantly, this class of kids–honors students and IEP students, boys and girls, intrinsically and extrinsically motivated students–they took on something hard.

And they learned that hard is okay.

For the Love of Pod: Research Isn’t Always an Essay

Here’s why I love history class: it’s made up of stories–rich, complex, beautifully tragic and magnificently inspiring stories that in hindsight, capture the tangled webs of imperfect humanity, reminding us that even as we evolve as a culture, there are truths that will always remain the same.

So this month, a history teacher (who is equally passionate about storytelling) and I embarked on a new endeavor with our US I sophomore students as they covered the Civil War: podcasts. We wanted them not only to understand that the Civil War is more than dates and battles and numbers, but to help them see that it was a complicated, multifaceted time in our nation’s history filled with stories that continue to impact our identity today. And while we certainly could have asked students to write papers or do presentations that present facts, we instead wanted them to focus on how research is reflected through the stories that weave together the entire picture of the war and through a mode that appropriately suits the topic and engages an audience.

Students began by doing presearch and choosing broad categories–medicine, artillery, spies, disease–and then began to explore that topic a little deeper. Their explorations brought them to primary documents and stories behind the broader categories. And suddenly, the student who was studying artillery, discovered the importance of horses in the movement of artillery, and then discovered a story about Stonewall Jackson’s horse. And the student who was studying spies discovered the importance of female spies and then uncovered Belle Boyd, a notorious and enchanting Confederate spy. A student who was interested in the Underground Railroad fell in love with Harriet Tubman’s saga. A student who researched photography uncovered the hard truths of day-to-day living for photographers like Mathew Brady.

They used photographs as part of their research, realizing that it was near to impossible to write about people and places without having ever really looked at them. We cannot write evocative, inspiring work if we cannot immerse our reader into the scene. What was the battle plan for Pickett’s Charge? What did the Napoleon canon look like? How did the dresses of the Southern Belle grace the figures of women during this time? How was the devastation of a town burned to the ground photographed? What exactly do illness and sanitary measures look like in small-tent infirmary? It is important, when we ask students to write about history, that we show them that pictures and photographs are important research resources for accurate descriptions.

Before students began writing, they listened to several episodes of Nate DiMeo’s amazing podcast The Memory Palace, where in each 3-10 minute segment he focuses on a sliver of a historical topic. They listened to his content, they recognized when he used narrative elements and how he pulled in research to substantiate the story, and they analyzed the craft of the podcast–the music, the voice, the timing. Using these episodes as models helped them frame their own writing. They determined if they needed more research or if they were ready to write. And then, they put pen to paper and drafted their first podcast script.

Writing podcasts is hard. And that’s okay. Our conferences with students involved discussions about slow beginnings, choppy transitions, and abrupt endings. They read their work aloud to themselves, pencil in hand, catching things that didn’t sound right. They dug back into their research to support their work. They rewrote their beginnings after they had finished their first draft. They told us what they loved and what they didn’t love about the writing, and then finally, after much feedback, they, at last, began recording. Most students recorded on an iPhone or iPod borrowed from the library and then used Audacity to edit and overlay with open source music they accessed through Audionautix, while others used other online programs that they discovered themselves. The results? Beautifully crafted pieces of radio work that bring history to life and the stories within to light.

Podcasts are a great medium for high quality research–the very nature of them calls for seamless, excellent writing, and as students hear themselves read their own work, they fall comfortably and naturally into a self-editing process. They stitch together facts with stories that make the experience of history more real, more relevant, and more engaging, both for the student and the audience.

You can hear some of the work here:

An Interview with Harriet Tubman by Kyle

La Belle Rebel by Katie

Disease & Death in the Civil War by Maddy

Pickett’s Charge by Josh

School-Wide Book Love

book club

“Hey, Mrs. Miller. You know that book you came and talked to us about this morning? You think I could maybe grab a copy? It sounds kinda cool.” The boy is slouched in one of our armchairs, looking at his phone. He has never signed out a book that I can remember. I maintain my composure and smile at him–not too eagerly and without revealing my utter jaw-dropping surprise, lest I scare him away. I play it cool. So cool. “Sure thing,” I tell him. “Let me get one for you.” I say this as though he asks me for books all the time, but inside I scream in delight. These moments never cease to amaze me. And yet this happens once a month with at least one unexpected student when a new book is coming up for book club.

With an 8-12 population of approximately 400 students, nearly 80 of them participate in our book clubs. These are numbers I couldn’t have even imagined my first year, when 5 students approached me about starting a book club, and then never showed up to our after school meetings. And yet, here we are with almost 20% of our kids taking part.

This is important to me, because the amount of reading a student does–especially for pleasure–has a direct correlation to his or her academic achievement in all areas, not just English. Study after study has shown that a love for reading impacts everything from vocabulary acquisition and fluency to overall general content knowledge.  We all have a vested interest in encouraging school-wide book love. This should be important to everyone.

Since that first year, when I sat, discouraged by the empty table, changes have been made to the structure of book club. These are four of the major ways our book clubs have become successful:

  1. Everybody gets the book “sold” to them. 
    Once a month, I grab a copy of the book and make my way through every first period class, talking up the book. I work with an incredible faculty who allow me to interrupt their class at any point during that period for 5 minutes to do a book talk.  A bulletin board advertises the book; signs are put up around the school; and all-student emails go out as reminders to sign up.
  2. Book clubs are held during lunches.
    Instead of competing with after school sports and other obligations, we meet once a week during lunch. This also helps disperse the numbers, since meeting with 40 kids at a time is too much. With our organization, we have 10-15 kids at the table.
  3. Faculty investment.
    Our faculty believes in independent reading and supports the program. They talk up the books, sign out the books, grab and follow up with kids they think would be interested, and sometimes even join us for lunches. It’s an everybody-thing, not just a librarian-thing.
  4. Real World Connections
    Whenever possible, we try to Skype with an author, watch speeches by the author, connect the book to current events, or meet with specialists in an area. My current 8th grade book club is reading Prisoner B-3087, a Holocaust story based on a real man’s survival. After finishing next week, we are Skyping with the author one afternoon and then having a Hungarian WWII survivor come and meet with us.

Sometimes, when I am standing in front of a class, I look at the kids sitting there and try to fight becoming deflated–I realize that nobody in that group will ever sign up for book club, and I’m just wasting my time. I start to feel foolish and am tempted to sell it short and bail. But every single month, some new kid, like the one slouched in the chair, surprises me and shows up for a copy of the book. Every. Single. Month.

And sometimes it’s not until later–sometimes months go by and somebody strolls in and says, “Hey. Remember that book you talked to us about? You got an extra copy?” And it’s moments like this that my heart sings. Because as educators, we are often unsure of the seeds we are planting–sometimes we get thank yous years later, but more often than not, we never know the impact we made. So when a student shows up and remembers a book talk and wants to pick it up the following year, you know that it doesn’t matter if 80 kids signed up or just 8, because you suddenly have a quiet glimpse of a seed that was planted.

So, get out there. Get kids reading. Plant seeds. Make it important to everybody.

 

Need book suggestions to start with? These are some of our students’ favorite book club picks!

High School–
Everyday by David Leviathin
The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore
Maus by Artie Spiegelman
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Middle School–
Legend by Marie Lu
Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz
 See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles
Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick