It seems that I’m spoiled for choice here: when I was invited to blog for AISL I indicated that I served both middle and upper school aged students, and so I was given the choice for this particular post of either division. What to do? Where to start? With no “problem” to solve, the world is my oyster but I’m staring out the window trying to decide on what to write. Sometimes having strictures or parameters placed upon our work actually leads to better results. Islamic religious art, for example, is astoundingly diverse in its color, texture, pattern and even regional style despite, or perhaps because of, the prohibition against using human or animal figures as inspiration. Instead it relies on plant forms, geometric patterns and calligraphic ornament derived from holy texts. (And it’s all stunningly gorgeous, but that’s a post for a different blog!)
And that’s what I’m here to talk about: solving the problem of having no problem to solve. For the past two weeks I have been conducting research skill workshops with the ninth and tenth grade. I have had the luxury of meeting with the entire ninth grade for four straight days, and at the moment I am doing the same with the entire tenth grade. Each day we work with a different tool for conducting research, but deploying those tools is dependent on having something to research. In the past I had always been called in after an assignment had been given, so the focus was just on getting the job done, not how best to do it. This time, my fate was entirely my own so I approached the problem differently. My show, my rules! So, no paper.
That’s right. No paper. I must give some credit here to my colleague and friend Christina Pommer of St. Stephen’s Episcopal in Bradenton – a talk she gave at FCIS inspired me to remove the burden of the essay itself and allow the students to simply focus on the research process by doing all the work except the actual essay. But a not-paper about what? Any topic would do, but which one? I know enough about students to realize that if I started the week by letting them choose their own hypothetical paper topics, it could stall the process indefinitely or allow them to choose things too narrow or too lacking in academic weight to really demonstrate how these research tools should be best used.
Instead, I spent a few days making up a list of quirky, interesting and broadly culled not-paper topics on a range of interests. I kept these in a spreadsheet and added to it periodically, and whenever I was able I gently poked around in my databases to ensure there were enough books and articles to make it a doable assignment. There are 75 ninth graders here at Out-of-Door, so I made up one for each kid. I cut the spreadsheet into little slips and put them into a grab bag.
On Day 1 I passed around the grab bag and allowed each student to choose one and announce it. When each had chosen, they were permitted three minutes to trade with each other to give them a sense of agency and allow for individual interest. Surprisingly, most of them just decided to keep what they chose randomly. From there, we explored ways to generate search terms and each student made a list to keep for the week.
On Day 2, we used those terms on Questia. Day 3, used the terms on EBSCO Discovery Service. Day 4, we did a little website-credibility exercise and they found one or two reliable, authoritative sites for their topics.
Finally, they turned their entire work product into a single document: list of search terms, bibliography of sources in correct format, and a three-sentence thesis statement based on the materials they found. Best part of all? The classroom teachers did the assignment right along with the students so they learned how to use the tools as well, and it reinforced to the kids that this is important. So far it’s been great – teachers all over campus are asking for classroom visits now, and I had to scramble to find time in my schedule to actually get this blog post written.