Why do high schools feel compelled to create their own “headings” for how students should format their papers, in spite of an English curriculum that calls for teaching MLA style? Oh, never mind. Put like that, I can see that this contradiction is in line with what we are tasked with every day in our classrooms: to machete through convoluted curriculum standards so we can lead our students to some real learning. This particular contradiction usually preempts any teaching energy I might have at the beginning of “The Research Unit.” As I plan, I am haunted by images of students typing their research questions word-for-word into Google, scrolling aimlessly through search results based on what they are most likely to click through to infinity, and finally just quoting from Wikipedia or that first Google blurb (attributed to “Google” and a 400-character URL in a triple-spaced Works Cited page presented in a hodgepodge of fonts from the cutting and pasting). Sigh.
It’s not their fault. This work can be rather uninspiring. Last year I tried to shake things up by offering another option to the traditional research argument: Students could compose a “research narrative” by using story form to trace their process of developing a claim. I spent hours developing model texts and elaborate instructions, devoted precious class time to comparing the two forms and creating anchor charts. Students dutifully complied with this. They complied again by completing a traditional research paper filled with information they mostly already knew or will have quickly forgotten. I dutifully (and wearily) returned papers filled with equally uninspired feedback they may or may not read and a grade that left me feeling morally compromised. Sigh.
So … no. How can we get away from Google as a first-resort and turn instead to our own minds — and each other — as we develop topics? And how can we make use of all the writing work we have already done and blend it with the research “unit” so that it feels less like a “unit” at all? Where can we look for topics that might inspire some meaningful, lasting learning?
Instead of starting from scratch, I had students turn back to their “Writing Territories,” the areas in their lives and in the world they identified earlier this year as potential writing topics. (Nancie Atwell is a continued inspiration–“Writing Territories” comes from Lessons that Change Writers). I modeled using my own territories to extract 1-2 potential research topics, and students did the same. I wanted to develop a sense of community and investment in each other’s topics, so I adapted an activity from Kelly Gallagher’s Teaching Adolescent Writers:
- Students write their topics at the top of a piece of lined paper and pass the paper to the person on their left.
- This person reads the topic and writes one open-ended question about it.
- Papers continue around the room until each student receives their own paper back.
Even just this movement was energizing. After some initial fumbling, papers began moving through the room (almost) smoothly. Even better, students began talking to each other about whose topic was whose, and competing to write obscure and original questions to “stump” each other. Students took their own papers home, and were tasked with thinking through the questions and deciding on a few focus points within their topic in order to move forward.
So, this was fun and students had a bunch of interesting questions to explore. But that vision of students typing those interesting questions into Google still loomed large. I felt they still needed more of their own entryways into their topics, entryways into authentic thinking beyond search engine results. And as usual, I borrowed. This time, I adapted a poetry exercise from Georgia Heard: the 9-Room poem. I asked students to move through “9 rooms” of preliminary research that I hoped would lead them to consider their topic in terms of themselves and their own worlds.
My intention was for students to move through the rooms to establish a basic foundation of information (rooms 1, 3, 5, 7) and to explore their topic through a more creative lens (rooms 2, 4, 6, 8). As with the question swaps, perhaps the most valuable outcome of this exercise was the conversation it generated around the room. Students are talking about their topics with each other, even excited about being quoted in each other’s work!
So, here’s where we landed for now. Stay tuned for student examples as we move through this process toward formulating a claim. And, of course, proper MLA format.