The Literacy of Research: Part Two

Last week I wrote about beginning the steps to guide my 9th grade English students through the research process.

Our first steps to research were identification of specific topics and reliable sources from which to research them. By the end of our first working day on our Cultural Podcast project, my students had a good base of knowledge on their chosen podcast topic, but there was still a long way to go to turn the researched information into a podcast.

In class last Friday, we continued the next part of the process: reading for research. While many of my students were able to gather a good bit of information about their topics on Thursday, they often resorted to the copy-paste method of directly copying the information from the websites into their digital tracking chart. Obviously, it doesn’t work this way.

I decided that the most helpful thing to do would be to actually construct an Informational Narrative podcast from start to finish in front of them. This would not only show them the steps one-by-one, but it would allow them to see the decision-making parts of the process, also give them a concrete example to use as a guide in creating their own.

So, on Friday, I picked a specific topic (the signing of the Declaration of Independence) and pulled a research article on the topic from one of our reliable sources. I specifically chose an article with slightly elevated vocabulary in order to prove my point. Then I gave students 10 minutes to “research” and pull out information that I could use in writing about the signing.

Just as I’d imagined they would, most of them got out their highlighters and started reading the article from top to bottom. They highlighted nearly every word of every paragraph. I then asked them to share the information they found, which I typed and projected onto the board. Many of them quoted the article word for word, and I typed it as such. We were left with phrases like, “the ramifications of King George’s actions”  or “a visceral response.”

“So, what does that mean?” I asked.

Silence.

“What is a visceral response?” I prodded again. “Or, ramifications?”

Silence.

“If you don’t know what it says, how is it useful?” I asked.

Silence. Ooops.

We tried again, this time paraphrasing the information that I’d typed on the screen. My students were forced to Google quite a few words to help them understand the more complex vocabulary in the article. But, once they deciphered the complicated words, they were able to rephrase the information so that it was actually understandable. We then had a clear list of details from the article that would help us in constructing our informational narrative.

Then we were met with our next issue: the volume of information. The screen was filled with bullet-pointed tidbits from the article, not all of which were especially useful for our purpose.

We examined the information to find the most interesting angle from which to write our podcast. I reminded my students the purpose of the assignment: to tell a true story in an interesting manner, not to give a full history of the topic in five minutes. They needed to select one specific moment about which to write. The would then use the rest of the information to give their listener enough background on the topic to understand the context, as well as to provide sensory details to put the listener in the moment.

After examining the list and weighing our options, as a class, we decided on our focus: that it took Thomas Jefferson seventeen days to write the Declaration, which he did as a reaction to King George’s unfair treatment of the colonists.

Our angle in mind, I then had my students proceed to outlining, using a graphic organizer I gave them. With a partner, they were to look at the bullet points of paraphrased information on the board, choose what went where, and plug it into the appropriate spot on the outline. “It’s like a puzzle,” I told them. “You have all the pieces, you’re just trying to figure out where they go.”

Puzzle pieces in place, our next step was to write. This is one of the more intimidating things for me as an English teacher. As much as I love to write, it can be extremely frustrating, so to do it in front of my students can always be a little unsettling. But, it’s also good for them to see writing in action, and by having them contribute by offering suggestions of which information to use where, they were actually participating in the process as well. Here is the first paragraph that we came up with as a class, combining our researched details with narrative elements:

Thomas was furious. In fact, he was so mad that he couldn’t hold his anger in any longer. So angry was Thomas that he put quill to parchment and furiously scribed everything that was wrong. For seventeen days in June of 1776, Thomas toiled over his work, and when he was through, Thomas’s rant became known the world over. Thomas’s list would not only change the face of what would become known as the United States of America, but the document would also influence many other nations for years to come.

Throughout the day, each class period contributed more to our story. So, by the end of three class periods, we had a complete podcast, and they had a full example to use as a guide.

Over the next couple of days, I gave my students time in class to outline, to write, and to work on MLA formatting, all with teacher guidance if they needed it. I think it’s helpful for them to have the time to work with necessary guidance. Not only were most of them extremely productive, they also asked great questions about the process, and actively applied what they’d seen demonstrated to their own writing.

What I’m hoping my students take away from this experience is that research is a multi-step process that doesn’t just involve checking boxes — it involves solving problems. Each step presents its own new set of challenges that must be navigated before moving on to the next step. Once you figure out the topic, for example, you have to decide where to turn for the information. Once you have the information, you have to figure out what it says and what’s useful. Once you figure out what’s useful, you have to figure out how to use it.

Their podcasts are due tomorrow, but some of my more diligent students have been submitting them this weekend. As they trickle into my inbox, once again, I’m gleefully excited about what my students have accomplished. Not only are they telling great stories, they are using the information well.

Next week, we will delve into a mini six-day unit in which my students will choose a social issue to research and then write about in an editorial. They will repeat the steps of the research process that they just completed, reinforcing the ideas that we have spent the last two weeks working on. Since reinforcement is one of the keys to learning this process, my hope is that by the end of our second round, they will have solid knowledge of the steps so that when I turn them loose on Round Three (creating a documentary film!) they will need less guidance, leaving even more room for creativity. 

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