Thursday, February 2, 2012

Finding new hope for research papers (and a new use for Diigo)

Guiding my students through the process of writing a research paper is part of the 8th grade curriculum.  Having done plenty of research writing myself, I value and respect the importance of the process.  But to be completely honest, I have never really enjoyed teaching it.

There always seemed to be something missing from the research papers students wrote in my class.    Even when students had complete control over what they researched, their writing just wasn’t meaningful. It was forced, mechanical, and impersonal.  Every year, I revised my both approach and the assignment, and while the changes I made to my practice usually yielded an improvement, they never affected what I had most hoped to change.  

I had just about accepted that research papers were lifeless, when a few weeks ago I tried out an idea for a project with my students that has given me new hope.  The project, a research paper, was a little different than anything I had done with my classes before, and I began it before I fully had my head around where it would go.   It combined a novel we had just finished, The Hunger Games, with a little brainstorming, some Diigo assisted web research, and a lot of writing.  The result was paradigm shifting.

Here was the idea for the project: Students would select and research a topic related to The Hunger Games, then use what they found through their research to write a paper that connected the novel and the topic.  It sounds simple, but of course, it wasn't.

In short, this is what we did:

I told my students we would be researching topics that related to the book.  As a class, we made a list of related topics that were researchable. Below is the list of what we brainstormed.
Students picked a topic and did a couple quick-writes in their daybook about what they knew already about the topic and how it tied in with the book.  
With their topics fresh in their minds, students turned to the Internet to search for more information.  I intentionally didn’t give much direction as to what they needed to find through their research.  Instead I just directed them to read-up on their topic, and while doing do, use Diigo to 1) highlight important information they found, and 2) attach sticky notes to the site that explained connections they found/realized between their topic and The Hunger Games.  For example, a student researching "relationships" may find a site giving information about healthy relationships and put on a sticky note on a fact that she/he felt explained a characteristic of Katniss and Peeta's relationship.   They took a couple days to find as much information as they could.

Next came the writing part (here's where it got really cool)
I told my students that they would be using what they found online to write a research paper.  The paper didn't have to be a particular number of paragraphs or have a particular organization.  What it had to do was show how their topic connected to The Hunger Games, bring in information from three sources (web sites), and give their reader a deeper understanding of both the novel and their topic (here is the full assignment that I posted for students). 
And this is also where my planning also started to fall apart.  I didn’t know what exactly a paper that did these things would look like.  So, my students and I figured it out together.
We brainstormed ways in which such a paper could be organized, and eventually decided that most would fall into one of the following categories:
  • Use the topic researched to analyze something in the book (like with the relationships example above),
  • Explain the facts behind the fiction (how real hovercrafts differ from those in the book)
  • Show multiple connections between the topic and the book (how types of roman gladiators mirrored characters in the book).  

How kids decided to organize their paper depended on what they found in their research, particularly the connections they wrote on their sticky-notes. Fortunately, Diigo makes accessing these notes, as well as the content highlighted, pretty simple.

Screenshot taken from student's Diigo library

We made some rough outlines, and started writing.  The content I usually teach with research papers (quoting and paraphrasing, bibliography, citing sources) and essays (introductions, paragraph organization, conclusions) I back-loaded in through mini lessons and conferences while students were writing.  
Students published their projects (research papers) on their blog, we took a day to read and post comments on each others, talk about ones we thought were really cool, and complete a brief self-assessment of the experience (right).  Also, the rubric I used to grade the self assessment and project can be found here.  

Unlike the research papers that my students wrote in the past, these make for pretty interesting reads.  Below are some links to a few of them:

  • For Liz's project, she analyzed and drew comparisons between poverty in the US and in Panem.
  • Weston made some interesting comparisons between the Hunger Games and Jersey Shore in his piece
  • Alycia used her research to write a post examining the science behind the genetic mutations featured in the Hunger Games
  • Asia analyzes Katniss' relationships as well gives advice to anyone caught in a love triangle in this tip sheet.
  • Jacob researched force fields, and wrote this post about figurative force fields that exist in the Hunger Games. 
  • Luis wrote about his analysis of the wilderness survival techniques used by characters in the Hunger Games.
  • David wrote this brief, but interesting, piece that compared Hunger Games characters to types of Roman Gladiators. 

Making sense of what worked
Earlier in this post, I called this experience “paradigm shifting” for me.  And it was.  I now look upon writing research papers more favorably. What made this experiences so different was that it treated my students like writers. The writing they did was the real type, not the scripted, certain-number-of-paragraphs, topic sentence-supporting details type. It put students in a position, where writers often are, of having to make a number of decisions based on the information they have and how they want to get it across.

It was hard, too.  I saw my students struggle a lot more through this process than any time we had written research papers in the past.  By not knowing myself what these papers would turn on out to be, when a student asked me for help, I wasn’t able to give them a quick answer.  Instead, we would end up having these long conversations about what they found through their research and what they were trying to make happen in their writing. There really wasn't much more I could/should do.  The eventual form this paper took was up to students, as writers, to figure out.

When the process was all said and done, the final product was amazing.  Not necessarily “amazing” in the sense that all of my students produced the greatest research papers ever written (though there were a few that were better than any produced in my classroom before). What made these papers so great was that they had life and personality. Their words had a voice of their own, not separate from the author who wrote them.  And all of them, even the ones that were a bit rough around the edges, clearly reflected a considerable amount of thought. These were papers written by students who were not just going through the motions.

This isn’t the last experience my students will have in my class with writing research papers; I never planned for it to be.  My intentions were for this assignment to be an introduction to the genre of research writing in the context of a creative activity that would also extend their thinking about a novel.  Later in the year, we will build off of the skills introduced here to write a more formal research paper. A paper that I'm going to be doing more thinking about before I begin taking my students through the process.  

I need to think through more this idea of formal writing.  In my mind I've kept it separate from creative writing (I even said above "an introduction to the genre of research writing in the context of a creative activity), but now this separation is seemingly less distinct.  Formal writing need not be formulaic, and creative writing need not be it's own, segregated genre apart from the more academic types.    I know this to be true now from my experiences with this project, seeing my students give life to writing that I had dismissed as hopelessly dead.