Category Archives: Research Writing

Question Storming with Students

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Eighty percent of my teaching load is in the role of senior school teacher librarian and much of this aspect of my job is spent working on research skills with our middle years and graduation years students. One of the hardest tasks students face when starting with research is knowing where to start. Often times students will start with a topic that is significantly too broad and they lack the skills to narrow down their search focus, which leads to a frustrated student proclaiming they can’t find anything at all on their topic.

One technique I have used with my students to help them narrow their focus in their research and to guide them through the search process is a technique called question storming. Question storming is a technique I discovered in the educator section of The Right Question Institute website and I have used it with success in research lessons with Grade 6s all the way up to my Grade 10-12 AP students. Question storming is similar to brain storming, but instead of generating ideas or statements that come to mind, students are asked to generate questions. The following are the steps I take to guide my class through the question storming process.

Step One: I model the process of question storming by walking through the process with them. I love to use images as prompts to generate questions as I find students really become engaged with the images the more they ask questions about it. After I briefly explain what a question storm is, I project a thought provoking image on the screen. With my most recent question storming practice with my AP Capstone class, I used the viral image of the Palestinian protester in Gaza.

Step Two: After projecting the image, I ask students to generate as many questions as possible about the image. In my initial modelling with my students, I have them call the questions out and I record them on the board. I also remind my students that at this stage we are not trying to answer the questions and we are not judging the questions, we  are simply trying to generate as many questions as possible. The first questions generated are often rather surface level, things like why is the man holding a flag or where is he, but after the first few questions, I am always surprised at the depth that starts to emerge in the questions.

Step Three: After a few minutes of generating questions, we stop and review the difference between a closed question (one that can be answered simply) and an open question (one that is complex and has multiple possible perspectives) and we go through the list of generated questions and label each as being either an open question or a closed question. At this stage we talk about how it is the open questions we want to explore in our research, but the closed questions often help us in our research, as well because they help us explore what basic information we need to understand about the topic before we can delve into exploring the open ended questions.

Step Four: Once we have labelled our questions as being closed or open, we then select the one open question we want to explore as our main topic. Some of the open ended questions my students generated about the Palestinian protester photo included: To what extent are the Palestinian protests in Gaza affecting the conflict? How has the media coverage of the conflict in Gaza affected the conflict? To what extent has the media coverage of the conflict in Gaza affected the level of aid provided by other countries?

At this stage, students have a significantly more focused starting point for their research and have narrowed their focus with their open-ended questions. As well, they can use their close ended questions to help provide search terms to help narrow their research down even more.

When students start research or an inquiry with a powerful question they find the research process to be easier and more meaningful and question storming is a technique that helps make the challenge of coming up with the right question easier.

For some more practical teaching strategies, check out Shana’s post on some strategies she learned from the pre-service teachers she works with.

Pam McMartin is a Senior School Teacher Librarian, Senior English teacher and English department head at an independent school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia Canada. When she is not wading through storms of questions with her students, she is braving the perpetual winter stormy weather outside that comes with living in the Pacific Northwest. You can follow Pam on twitter @psmcmartin. 

 

 

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Politically Motivated: Positively Harnessing Student Passion in a Time of Uncertainty and Fear

 

Yesterday morning, I stood outside for 17 minutes. Per the instructions of my administration to maintain the opportunity for all students to learn without interruption should they choose, after a moment of silence in our school for the victims of the Parkland shooting, if students chose to participate in the national walkout, teachers were to follow only if every student in his/her class left the building. After a few seconds of looking around at one another, one by one my sophomores stood up and filed quietly out of the room.

Outside, a small group of students had prepared statements to lead the several hundred students gathered in the chilly March sunshine through 17 minutes of reflection, support, and silence. The group was large, diverse, respectful, and unified, if not in purpose (likely a few students were carried out more by curiosity than conviction), then in the experience itself. A hush I’m not used to experiencing in the company of several hundred high school students quickly fell on the chilly March morning and the group stood in near silence, listening to their peers eloquently unite the crowd in peaceful purpose.

Teaching in time when I feel that I must often couch statements with a reminder that logic and facts should not be considered political, I must again come to you today and suggest that the overwhelming pride I felt in the students gathered in front of our school yesterday, and at the student-led debrief/discussion held during our resource period afterwards, had nothing to do with the politics of their statements. It has everything to do with the way I saw students, our students, standing together in support of one another to promote safety, unity, and empathy, not only for our schools but for our communities.

Several weeks ago, after the tragedy unfolded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I was compelled to write about how we can help our students (Shana too wrote beautifully about positive activism in the classroom), those young people who were not even alive when the shooting took place at Columbine in 1999, process such violence and uncertainty as a constant shadow to their educations. Little did I know that our school too would need to process an alleged threat to safety, a school day where several hundred students stayed home out of fear, social media-fed rumors of possible violence, and countless discussions with students who said time after time that even though this particular brand of violence has been taking place for the entirety of their educations, they didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know how to feel. They didn’t know how to cope.

They just want it to stop.

I looked at their faces and saw fear, anger, and pain that frankly frightened me, and for the millionth time this year, I knew I needed to figure out what we could do.

Discussion, writing, reflecting, sharing, and hugging was working, but much like this past month, something felt different.

These kids needed to DO something.

My colleague Sarah and I decided to have our AP Language students write letters to their representatives, expressing their researched opinions on how to end the violence of mass shootings. Their arguments would be their own, bolstered by research to better understand the issue, their own positions, and their audience.

social changeWe were clear with students from the very beginning that this was not an assignment in support of any particular political agenda. Instead, it was an exercise in better understanding our preconceived ideas and more deeply, and diplomatically, developing our rationale for how to bring about change  As long as their research came from credible sources, students could argue for changes to gun laws, support of the 2nd amendment, mental health considerations, school security, or any other defensible position to end mass gun violence. They could write to state or local representatives, as long as they researched that representatives current position on related issues, providing students with key insights to audience consideration we’ve previously only talked about or tried to emulate through blogging.

Supported with ideas from Kelly Gallagher’s incredible argument unit published over the course of 12 days on his personal blog, Sarah and I helped students through pointed research to build letters rich in ethos, persuasive argument, and pathos that could only be provided by the very students whose passions for activism have been flamed because they are so heavily and personally burdened with the threat of this particular brand of violence.

Over the course of the past two weeks, I have:

  • Seen students come in more for help/feedback with this assignment than any other throughout the year. When I asked a student after school yesterday, what had him so dedicated to crafting this particular summative he said, “Because my school work matters, but this assignment is going outside of the school. It matters outside of these walls.”
  • Watched young people who before could not identify who their state or federal representatives even are, research these people and their positions on key issues, and write directly in response to those issues in order to argue to an authentic audience.
  • Helped students channel their feelings of helplessness into purpose, simply by picking up a pen.

What these kids have produced is incredible. I am so proud of the way they have positively focused their overwhelming emotions into powerfully convincing letters to the men and women with means and opportunity to make changes to protect our students from further disaster.

Here are a few excerpts from letters that have started rolling in. In the coming days, we will get the letters printed, addressed, and mailed to Madison and Washington.


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I am a firm believer that addressing issues in a constructive manner is a significant step toward positive change. We owe it to our students to provide them with, encourage them around, and support their efforts in making positive changes in their own communities. Though unequivocally necessary as a foundation to an informed electorate, we will not raise the citizens this nation so desperately needs on standards, skills, and summative assessments alone. A new reality is built on the combined knowledge and passions of the humans willing to take risks in support of that reality.

I will certainly never stop teaching my students that deconstructing a prompt is the best way to dig into a timed writing task or that commas don’t occur only where you would naturally take a breath, but I will also never stop supporting them in all they have to teach to us. Our students deserve our help in amplifying their voices to bring about a better world. In this, our jobs have never been so important.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum. 

 

Research In Search of a Claim

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: 

  1. Students write their topics at the top of a piece of lined paper and pass the paper to the person on their left.
  2. This person reads the topic and writes one open-ended question about it.
  3. 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.

Research_NotebookPrompts

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.

Research in These Times

We all love those days when everything goes perfectly.  I’m not talking about getting your grading done and entered, sending all the emails you meant to send, or making sure you’ve made the requisite parent contacts.

I’m talking about days where your lesson planning paid off and the students engaged in a meaningful learning opportunity. Think about those days where the kids work bell to bell and it feels like all you did was confer with as many writers as possible (Amy wrote about the importance of conferences here). I’m slowing building toward a place where this happens more and more and it’s both exciting and rewarding.

Teacher Book Talk:

Maja Wilson’s book,  Reimagining Writing Assessment: From Scales to Stories, is introducing me the ideas of John Dewey, someone who’s thinking I need to know more about. Its also a well-written book with some amazing insight.

When talking about Dewey’s phrase, “growth in the right direction,” Maja suggests, “I have to be transparent about my primary aim: the healthy and sustainable growth of young writers within an inclusive and equal democracy.”

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….Um, wow.

 

Growing young writers….within an inclusive and equal…democracy.

 Lesson Talk:

Our English IV classes are investigating research through several modes this year.  We’ve read, talked about, and written: Letters to the Editor, Op Eds, Infographics, and now we are looking at TED Talks.

I wanted this exploration to be as pure to the workshop pedagogy as possible.  Instead of giving them an anchor chart or watching a TED Talk as a whole class, I asked them what they already knew about the medium and invited them to create a list of traits they looked for when consuming media.  Each class period was slightly different in what appealed to them and what they wanted to see in a TED Talk. Of course I guided them through this process of discovery, but one way I formatively assess them is by noticing what they already know and planning my lessons around filling in the blanks or extending their experience.

We laid the ground work of noticing by accessing our schema and I set them loose to seek out TED talks that appealed to their thinking.  The students engaged themselves in media that appealed to them.  They wrote about what they saw in their self-selected TED Talks that engaged the media as learners. I gave up control and gave them choice.

Of course, our forward looking thoughts aren’t just towards making us more savvy consumers of digital media.  Our thoughts should guide us toward being savvy producers of media as well.

 Growing young writers….within an inclusive and equal…democracy.

By late February, the seniors at my campus will produce a research project.  The fun part is that they will have choice in how they publish it.

I think the choices that we made as teachers are facilitating the, “sustainable growth of young writers within an inclusive and equal democracy.”  I’m proud of this work.  I’m also thankful for the teachers I have the pleasure of working with every single day.

How have others set free their students to explore their place in our democracy? What are other modes within which we can explore the research process?  Please share your successes; they are powerful.

Charles Moore has now totally lost control over his book spending habits. So much so that the cashiers at Barnes and Nobles don’t even ask for his teacher discount card and Amazon chose his house for their newest headquarters.  He loves the sound of a classroom full of readers and he likes to imagine word counts ticking higher as they hover above the students’ heads during reading time. His sometimes humourous musing can be viewed on his twitter page @ctcoach and his embarrasing short form poetry and, eventually, book recommendations are on instagram @mooreliteracy1

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