More “un-fancy” things…

Each year, our 8th graders spend a week in Boston and are required to complete a month-long research project studying a topic that relates in some way to the trip. Because the librarian before me was incredibly organized, I have files for each project dating back to the early 2000s. For years, the final product was a five-page historical report, with many intermediary steps such as 40 notecards, a page outline, and a full MLA bibliography. In recent years, however, the project has been amorphously shape-shifting, as we’ve experimented with modernizing the assessment. David Wee just shared his experiences with teaching note-taking in the 21st century, and I feel the need to do the same with research projects.

This week has been a librarian’s dream….well, if you’re a librarian Energizer Bunny supplied with chocolate-covered espresso beans. Our 8th grade has four sections, and all week is collaborative interdisciplinary chaos. Students are being given two class periods in which to work with three educators —the History teacher, the English teacher, and me— on hand at all times to assist. As someone with a flexible schedule, it’s phenomenal to have the gift of time and the opportunity to work individually with students.

Thinking back to old-school quality research skills, here are some other ways that the project seems to be working well:

    • In the past, topics were limited to history and the topics necessitated that students write reports:
      • Lowell Mill Girls
      • Samuel Adams
      • James Fennimore Cooper
      • Wampanoag Indians
      • Boston Massacre
    • Now, all the 8th grade teachers are working collaboratively via GoogleDocs to develop analytical questions across subject areas. It’s not possible to simply “wiki-up” the answer:
      • How did depictions of the Battle of Bunker Hill differ from the American and British perspectives?
      • What characteristics best describe the Sons of Liberty and how did they go about seeking change in the colonies?
      • How did harnessing water power change the energy budget of Revolutionary times?
      • How have the Boston Red Sox and Fenway Park played a role in Boston’s history and identity?
      • How have burial traditions changed from Revolutionary times?
    • These topics are more comparative and often ask the students to answer a how/why question without the stress of coming up with their own thesis statement. Middle school students benefit from learning what goes into analytical research questions so that they are more comfortable developing their own questions in future projects.
    • Students are able to choose their own topics from a list of 75 instead of picking a topic randomly out of a paper bag. I consider this a huge win for the kids! There’s more buy-in from students who are invested in learning more about topics they’ve chosen themselves.
    • By giving students 300 minutes of unstructured class time after returning from Boston, we’re helping them learn time management. We are able to monitor student progress on a minute-by-minute basis, eliminating the black box surrounding student work that’s sent home.
    • In a somewhat ironic librarian move, I requested that we get rid of the requirement for a “printed book source” and instead offer a range of source choices, of which each student must choose at least three. This means that students are able to choose the sources that best fit their individual topics rather than trying to pigeonhole a source that doesn’t quite work just to meet an arbitrary requirement. (In case you’re interested, the possible sources include the following: book, reputable website, primary source, EBSCO database source, Encyclopedia Britannica article, newspaper article, magazine article, informational brochure, and educational video.)
    • I’m a fan of choice; however, there is one additional source that is a requirement for each student. Since we wanted the students to pay attention during the Boston trip and to take advantage of the expertise of docents at each site, they were required to submit three interview questions to their advisor ahead of time and to interview one expert while in Boston. This lets them practice speaking with an adult in a “professional” setting and gives them direct answers to their questions. I love it!

And here’s the twist. While it might seem like all is well and good, I do have questions about the project in its current form. It is difficult if not impossible to create a project that will engage every student and will build skills for future endeavors. Here are some of the questions I’ve been asking myself:

    • I requested that we broaden the list of possible sources. Therefore, I want to say that giving students the latitude to choose the best sources for their individual topics has been an unmitigated success. It isn’t true. Some students are confused by the different choices and feel like they don’t know where to search for their topics. They turn exclusively to their trusty friend Google. On a case-by-case basis, this is easy to solve, but it doesn’t address the quiet students who want to remain under the radar. When should we be teaching students the best types of sources for individual projects, separate from evaluating sources of a particular type on a particular topic?
    • Whenever you give students the latitude to work independently in a classroom setting, some use the time more wisely than others. For every student who diligently uses every minute, there is another who has gotten off track with cat videos. Then there are the aforementioned quiet students who assert “I have everything I need” whenever you stop by. However, my most urgent question is about the students who stick by the teacher needing constant approval without advancing independently. How do you balance your time with students during unstructured class time?
    • Next up would be the iPads themselves. I have already spent 4 ½ periods today answering bibliography questions. Some of our digital natives don’t know how to italicize, double space, indent, or otherwise meet the requirements of MLA style. And the mobile versions of websites can hide the publication information that you need to cite a source correctly. Do you foresee a major change in specific formatting requirements in the coming years?
    • The format of this project has shifted from a paper to a: “Product: The way you demonstrate your expertise is up to you.  Product should involve creativity or analysis. How can you most effectively and engagingly show your findings?  What skills do you have and how can you utilize them?” This comes shortly in the project description after the Product Objective, which I wholeheartedly support! “Use research to demonstrate expertise on your topic through analysis or creativity.” Again, I struggle with the balance between too much and too little freedom. Many students have chosen to write a five paragraph essay because it is a more familiar format to them. Others are designing posters or padlets. One girl is creating a comic book, and a few are writing a series of letters, such as between a mill girl and a miner and a doctor to his patients. I see some students spending more time on research and others on aesthetics. Some formats make it easier to demonstrate expertise in a subject. I also wonder how to keep grading fair across formats. Is a three minute video comparable to a five paragraph essay or a poster? And do we have teachers have the expertise in each format to gauge the quality of the student’s research as well as the quality of a particular format?
    • Writing takes practice. And that practice must be supported with feedback and revisions. And that takes time. And students don’t necessarily enjoy it. And it can be time consuming for all involved. Does that mean that it isn’t worthwhile? I will be working with the English and History department chairs to determine the approximate number of pages that students have written historically compared with the current year. Our upper class teachers have expressed concern that our students’ writing is not as strong as it used to be. If this is a direct result of fewer writing assignments, is that something we need to address or should we focus more on assignments that demonstrate greater digital literacy?
    • I have been working to align research expectations over the Middle and High school years. My ideal would include two research-based projects in each grade, one with a creative output and one with a written output. The projects could be split across disciplines and would give students the opportunity to practice the research process. We are getting there but aren’t there quite yet. Does anyone have a model they could share?

Just like Dave’s note-taking conclusion, I have no one-size-fits-all solution. There is a team of smart dedicated teachers who want to teach the research process in an approachable and engaging way, and this iteration is a work in progress.

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