For the last few months, Dingo, O’Mama and I have been zipping emails back and forth through cyberspace as we’ve taught our respective classes. We’ve talked about pretty much everything from grading (Oy! The papers!) to professional development. We’ve found a lot of useful material and invaluable support in one another. Really? This is the reason I blog.
Well, today’s email conversation revolved around research. O’Mama’s obliged by her college to teach a research paper, and she’s stressed (and rightly so) about where and how to begin. Her cry for help elicited from me a couple of suggestions based on what I do in class, and since I’m eyeball-deep in research papers at the moment, the topic is pretty much all that’s on my mind.
THAT email prompted Dingo to write that if I were ever to teach a seminar about teaching writing, I was to sign her up immediately. “Shall I start a series on my blog?” I asked. “Hell, YES!” was the general consensus.
I am nothing if not accommodating. Here, then, is the first in a series of meta-cognitive posts; a seminar in which I explain what – and how – I teach my students about the mysteries of the written word.
Since I am, as I said, eyeball-deep in the aforementioned research papers, and since the first batch that came to me were gawd-awful, pathetic examples of what I was asking for, I’m going to start with an explication of the research paper. I’m going to be starting ALL OVER again with my freshmen and sophomores at CHS, and here’s how I’m going to do it.
I begin by talking about the research process. What, exactly, IS research? How do we get started? What are our responsibilities as researchers – and writers – and to whom do we owe those responsibilities? Who uses research and to what purposes? This conversation gets the class thinking about the how and why of research, and it varies depending on the kind of time I’ve got – for the high school classes, it is much of a whole class period; for my college kids, it takes up about 15 minutes.
In my world, research is NOT a dirty word. Though most students will chafe at the idea that research might be (get ready – I’m going to say it out loud…) fun, that’s exactly how I present it. I am eager to find out stuff I don’t know. I adore digging into a topic that I think I have under control and finding this one strange little fact that puts my whole thinking in a tailspin. I love finding connections between this thing and that thing that I never even knew existed, and I love figuring out how to put all of my new-found knowledge together so that it makes sense to other people – so I can share it! Imagine!
Usually, I start the actual “research” part of my classes by talking about topics and what, exactly, I want the students to look into. Depending on the age of the student (and the theme of the course), I will be more or less specific about this guidance; for my I/II kids, for example, I required that they research something having to do with World War II. I wanted for them to make solid connections between actual history and events that were the basis of the fiction we’d just finished reading in The Book Thief. Since we just finished reading The Sunflower and had spent the last few weeks talking about how we treat others, I asked my juniors and seniors to engage in research that focused on some topic that touches on the larger issue of human rights. My Local U. kids got to choose whatever topic they wanted, though many of them came to me in desperation and begged me to assign something to them; sometimes, more freedom is harder than less. (If you want to see the actual assignments I wrote for each class, just say so and I’ll post them in another entry.)
Once the kids have a topic in mind, I start asking them narrowing questions. My goal here is to get them to see that “the Rwandan Genocide” is far too broad a topic to be handled in a 5-10 page paper, so when they come to me with a topic like that, my pat response is “Okay; what ABOUT the Rwandan Genocide?” They’ll sputter a bit, but they eventually see what I’m getting at, and this leads us to a discussion about guiding questions.
Guiding questions are the questions that the kids ask of their research – the ones they hope to answer as a result of their investigations. What kinds of questions the students will ask will depend entirely on the kind of research a student is doing (analytical, expository, or argumentative). Since I mostly teach analytical and argumentative research, I encourage my students to ask the kinds of questions that will lead them, sooner or later (though usually a lot later than the student prefers) to a thesis. Again, the kind of research being undertaken will determine whether the thesis is a question (“How does understanding the causes of the Kristallnacht pogrom in Germany and Austria help us to understand modern racial conflicts?) or a statement (“Despite the inherent risks of the sport, schools should not eliminate football from their programs”).
Once they’ve got a decent thesis going (and this is almost always harder than they think, and it almost always changes once they get into the actual research), I get them to start thinking about audience. Recognizing that I – or the person doing the grading – is most likely going to be the person they’re playing to, I try to get students to consider a much broader readership than just the teacher. I’m asking them to think beyond what one person may or may not know about their topic and, in essence, forcing them to consider how best to communicate specific information to a broad, and largely unknown, audience. One of the big learning objectives in a research paper is exactly that – the communication – and I want to make sure that they’re not relying on me and what I already know (about them, their writing style, their topic, etc) to get them off the proverbial hook when it comes to style and clarity.
From there, I usually spend a fair bit of time – at least a couple of classes, sometimes more – talking about ethical research techniques. O’Mama just had an incident where a student plagiarized most of his paper. His (lame, pathetic, and utterly inexcusable) excuse was that he didn’t know any better. I’m calling “bullshit” to that. I spend a lot of time explaining exactly what plagiarism is and making sure that the students understand that the consequences for such behavior are draconian. I’m not messing around here, and in an effort to make sure that all those bases are covered, I go over, in excruciating detail, how to avoid falling into the plagiarism trap. Start early (rushed and panicked writers will resort to plagiarism more than those with a manageable writing schedule). Understand that paraphrasing and summarizing information you didn’t already know is plagiarism. Oh, and CITE YOUR DAMNED SOURCES.
Tomorrow (or maybe Tuesday.. depends on what my life is like), I’ll continue this by telling you about how (and why) I teach annotated bibliographies and how I feel about Wikipedia.