Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Whole New Research Project

Every year the sophomores do a major research paper in their history class. And every year it is a disaster.

Okay, okay, disaster is too strong a word. Let’s just say that my vision of how the process will go and the way the process actually goes have less in common than I would like them to.

But every year it is a disaster in a slightly different way, and every year we tweak it and change it and try to make it better. Having done this several times, we’ve been able to really hone in on the areas our students really struggle with:

  • Most of the time students are learning the PROCESS of research at the same time they’re learning new CONTENT for their class. Trying to master (or even manage) both is overwhelming. Trying to synthesize everything into an essay? Oy.
  • Students are often so focused (and stressed) about the end product, that they want to rush past the process and right into writing the paper (they do a lot of the things I mentioned in my post about why I want to teach a stand alone class).
  • We usually require students to find and evaluate X number of sources; students then find X (or sometimes less than X) number of sources, enter them all in NoodleTools, read 1 source, and get all their information from that one source
  • Thesis statements? *sigh* Well-integrated evidence from their research to support that thesis complete with appropriate citation? *sigh times a million*

I realize, of course, that none of these issues are unique to me or my situation, which is some comfort.

However, this year we have a whole new schedule which is going to allow us to do something entirely different, and I’m really, really excited about it.

We’re on a modular schedule this year. Our year is divided into 8 mods; students take classes A-D during mods 1, 3, 5, 7 and classes E-H during mods 2, 4, 6, 8. Classes are 75 minutes long, as well, which I love (in years past students took 7 classes--all of which met all year long--and classes were only 40 minutes long; with that schedule it was hard to both introduce a skill and have students get meaningful practice with it). Also, this year all sophomore are taking Thinking & Writing, a class which I think pairs very naturally with teaching the research process.

Today, I met with the chairs of both the Thinking & Writing and History departments, as well as the other teacher of sophomore Thinking & Writing, about collaborating across all three departments on the research project. We wanted to make sure students we’re able to grapple with the whole process of research from topic selection to finished project, while also hitting all the steps in between.

So. In the 5th/6th mod (depending on individual schedules) students will, in their Thinking & Writing class select a topic for their History research paper, develop research questions, find and evaluate sources and then create an annotated bibliography of all their sources (this bibliography will also include a sentence about how they found and selected each source). We’re doing this to emphasize to students that gathering information from multiple sources and viewpoints is a crucial part of the research process. By the end of the mod, having done this initial research, they will develop a working thesis for their paper.

Then, in the 7th/8th mod in their History class, students will, building upon the research and thesis from their Thinking & Writing class, refine their thesis, find additional sources as needed, outline, and write their paper. Students will be able to focus on taking the information from sources and integrating it into their paper in order to support their thesis, using information to build a well-supported argument. Students will also create a presentation about their research findings (we talked briefly about doing some work on avoiding death by PowerPoint).

Time devoted to process, and time to devoted to content, honoring all parts of the research paper writing experience. I think this will help, too, students better understand that the habits of mind involved in the research process are not isolated to one project or one class; they really exist and are applicable across disciplines.

We’d been playing with and talking about this idea from the start of the year, but things really crystallized today and we were EXCITED. I came to the meeting prepared to try and coerce these teachers in to doing things the way I wanted, but they brought even better ideas to the table. I’ve been working with the History chair on this project all four years I’ve been here and I feel like I am reaping the benefits of having really invested time in building that collaborative relationship; I honestly believe that I could not have made this project happen two years ago.

Also out of this discussion came the idea (also from the teacher) that we should develop a research paper rubric to be used across all classes in the History/Social Studies department, with increasing levels of complexity in grades 10-12, and with separate areas for the content area teachers to assess and for me to assess. This is something I’ve been wanting to move to for a while, and to have the idea come out of someone’s mouth besides my own feels like a major victory.

I’m either starting from scratch or totally revamping everything for this project, but I think it will provide a great way to try out some of my ideas for the class I’m teaching next year. It’s going to be a lot of work, but after years of trying to shape the research process to look more like this, it’s exciting to see it really take that shape.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds exactly like what every high school should be doing - great job! :)