Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Research Writing 101, 2.0!

     This week my class moved into our next thematic unit, the Justice Unit.  It's one of my favorites, too.  In it, students get the chance to explore issues of social justice, both present and past, and interact with each other to develop their own perspectives and voices.

     I have units already made from last year, and all sorts of thought-provoking resources.  The only problem is after having going so long with letting my students direct the course of their own learning, I felt like my dictating the content we would be studying would be a step backwards. So, I didn't.

    We began with a discussion and debate attempting to come to some level of understanding of just what exactly "Justice" is. From here, I led my students through a series of quick-writes in response to the images on the following slide show:

    As we wrote and discussed, we also kept a list running of any topics that came to students' minds that they felt fell under the broad category of Justice.  The topics on the list were pretty similar to those I had brought into the unit in the past.  In place of taking any structured approach to teaching them, though I continued in the spirit of our Inquiry Project, and let students pick what they wanted to learn more about, taking advantage of the wealth of information on the web and some essential web tools.

    Of course, this process began with daybook brainstorming and writing, then once students had a topic and a sense of what they wanted to learn about it, they scoured the web to see what they could find.  As for instructions, I told them to base the start of their search on the questions they had written in their daybooks, but by no means should they be limited to those questions.

   "Right now, you don't know what you don't know," I said to them.  "And as you learn more about your topic, your going to think of new questions you'd like to know about it.  Make note of those new questions, and think of new ones as you discover the answers."

    I didn't want to place limitations on their learning.  But one direction that I did put in place, in no uncertain terms, was that Diigo needed to continue to be their partner in the process., but not just for bookmarking.  As students came across sites with relevant information, they were to use Diigo's highlighting feature to capture what they had found,  as well as post sticky notes summarizing key points and responses to what they have read.
A screenshot from a student's Diigo library

    My students are no strangers to Diigo.  They've been using throughout the past couple of months as they've engaged in their Inquiry Projects, where they searched the web for information of interest to them, bookmarked their findings, and used what they learned to inform a piece of writing that they would eventually publish to their blog.  The writing for the inquiry project was always creative or personal, and I forbid my students from writing reports or research papers. I didn't want them venturing into this genre until they knew how to write research the right way. 

   Now seemed like a good time to cross that bridge.

   The Three Day Research Paper

   Every year my students write research papers....and every year they seem to drag out for weeks on end.  It's a time-consuming process, and one that I never look forward to.  This year I decided that Diigo, along with my abbreviation of the writing assignment, would enable me to guide my students through the toughest parts of writing research in just a few days.

   These tough parts that I mention are teaching students how to paraphrase, synthesize ideas from multiple sources, make internal and bibliographic citations correctly.  In the past, I gave students organizers for recording information they found on the web, along with the information from the sites that they'd later use for citing.  Diigo took the place of this organizer, allowing students to keep all of their annotations in one place, while also keeping this information connected to the site where they found it.

   As for the creating the bibliography, this used to be an entire class period in itself, giving students handouts with the rules for writing source information in the proper format. I'm sure that there is value of knowing the basics of this format, but the last several years I've had my students use  Son of a Citation Machine or even the citation feature of Microsoft Word to do the work for them after they entered in the information on their sources.
    This week, the process became even more simplified as students created their bibliographies with the help of either Easybib or Bibme.  With these web tools, all students had to to was copy and paste the URLs of the sources they used, and the bibliography would be created for them in seconds (though not necessarily fully complete or correct).

     The web tools that I described above expedited the process of organizing and formatting written research.  Add to it that instead of writing research paper, I only asked my students to write a paragraph or two focused upon drawing in several sources to answer a single question, this week was the quickest, and perhaps one of the most productive, written research project I've ever had my students carried out.

The full requirements that I gave my students for the assignment can be seen here.

And a list of all of their writing that they published to their blogs can be seen here.

     I think that I'd like to preface my reflections on how this all turned out by saying that in no way do I feel that  what my students were engaged with this week could replace the writing of a real research paper; in about a month we'll be revisiting the process with the purpose of doing just that. Nor do I believe that such a quick and limited experience is enough to teach my students all they should know about writing research at an 8th grade level.  A quick glance over some of their writings reveals plenty of rough edges.


   This assignment was an awesome introduction to the process. In just these few days, students learned about strengthening their writing with others ideas, using the work of others fairly, the purpose of organizing web content for future use, and even a little about website evaluation (I plan to discuss this in a later post).   And this all took place while students learned about a multitide of relevant and important topics.

    I think that this week was an important step in the right direction.  While chances are that when we take on a larger scale research paper in a few weeks that my students' writing still won't be worthy of publication in a scholarly journal, I feel pretty good about what they will be able to do as they build upon the foundation this mini project has set in place.  Now that I'm not going to have to spend as much time introducing my students to the concepts of citing, we can focus more on the actual writing. I'm already getting excited thinking about the chance to be able to talk more with students about writing than incorrectly written citations....though I'm sure I'll have plenty of these conversations, too.

   One step at a time, I guess.  Tomorrow, when my students come in, they're going to have the the chance to learn from the research and writing of their classmates. Their assignment tomorrow is to take time reading the Justice Research pieces that their peers have published on their blogs, leave some comments, and take some notes on the reactions they have to the what they learn.  After engaging with this process for 30 minutes or so, they'll then refer to their notes and compose a post discussing their thoughts on the most significant social justice related matters confronting our society.  Within these posts, they'll link to the research written and published by their classmates, building their learning upon the learning of others, and laying the framework to take future collective action.  At least, that's what I hope will happen. 

   Either way, I'll be sure to write about it.

   As always, feel free to contact me with any questions or comments you may have.  I'm sure my students would love to hear the thoughts on what they've been up to as well  Check out thier work and feel free to leave them some constructive feedback!