Peripheral Vision

At this point it almost seems like a habit to spend time early in the new year reflecting on research. As many of you know from past posts, my school has a solid co-taught embedded research unit for all 9th graders each January. We collect papers in the days on either side of the Superbowl and meet in early February to tweak for next year. Today I’m not thinking about how we teach research per se, but rather the peripherals. For example,  

Eat when you’re hungry.    

My younger self would have shaken this off as unprofessional, but make sure you take care of your own needs too. So many of us put any help we can give a student or teacher first, which is great, but starts to become more difficult if you haven’t had a solid lunch in two weeks. During January, my base schedule is five teaching periods a day before adding other classes and lunch meetings, and, you know, running a library. Freshmen invaded the library (in the best possible way) during their study halls. Recipe for getting hangry? It was awesome that I could look at the teacher on the craziest days, and she’d motion for me to take a brief banana-peanut butter break. Those few minutes of silent sugary protein brought me the next 85 minutes of helpful answers.

This is true for students too.

Not just with food, but in a broader sense that there is a lot going on in their lives. Concerns about friendships, other course work, jobs, or a basketball regional might be foremost in their heads on any given day. Giving a brief brain break to stretch or grab water or just listening to their concerns works wonders with getting them focused again.

Ask for student volunteers as class examples.

We always tell students that their paper (student translation: grade) will be better for students willing to volunteer “to share the current state of their project with the entire class on the projector.” I was shocked at first when perfectionists eschewed the opportunity because they were afraid to share their works-in-progress. It’s more realistic for classes to see an example that looks like theirs. Then we either demonstrate the next research step on that student’s paper or have them model for the class. (Side note—for the first time this year, we had a class fall in love with a student’s paper—on the Cod Wars—and follow a single volunteer for the entire month. From our sample size of one, it worked really well. Of course, it’s possible that you need a topic that is particularly exciting to freshmen. Like cod, apparently. Who knew?)

Rally your school community.

Use your voice and those of your collaborators to build a culture around research in your school. This may require some creativity on your part, but it helps legitimize student work. Build an advisory session where students reflect on their budding research skills. Ask English teachers to talk about the ways that History and English research papers compare. Have Writing Center tutors “pop into” Western Civ classes unexpectedly to advertise their services. When the whole community rallies around you to help you succeed, you want to try just a bit harder to make that happen.

Separate process and product.

The inspirational Alyssa Mandel will be speaking about Not-Papers at AISL Atlanta next month, so mark your calendars. For the research project I’ve been discussing here, we do have a final paper. But that final paper is worth 50% of the project grade. The other 50%, for which students could theoretically earn full credit even if they never submitted a final paper, is entirely process. There are over fifteen daily checkmark grades. Items like creating a Google Drive folder, sharing three topic ideas, writing a half page of notes, sketching an outline, and completing a peer’s Ladder of Feedback. I must admit, however, that we adapted the full-credit process grading a few years ago. Now the full outline and rough drafts earn both checkmark grades and more nuanced grades. We did this for three reasons. It helps them take these deadlines seriously. It gives them a sense of whether they are on track to successfully write a paper. And it keeps them automatically from earning 100% for an entire month in our online grading system. Other than that, as long as the student follows along, I get to focus on process and the teacher can focus on product.

Give “easy points” so procedural tasks earn 100%.

I love the structure of a rubric, but I hate thinking about points. I have joked with kids that I became a librarian so that I could just help them learn without grading their work. But we are a school driven by grades, and for most of our students, grades matter. They are likely to struggle with conceptual tasks like analysis and synthesis. But the little structural pieces matter too because they suggest a level of seriousness to the work. I believe those structural pieces, like a title page, correct spelling, and a perfectly formatted bibliography, trick the reader into trusting the argument a little more readily. Plus it’s good training for future writing where the details matter: little things like a college resume or job cover letter. I think it’s important to waste spend my time going over bibliography drafts individually with students, asking them pointed questions about alphabetization and spacing even though we just covered this together as a class. They pay attention when an adult asks about their work, and they’re more comfortable returning for future projects. They get the sense that I really care about helping them perfect this part of their work and they get the easy points, as much as it pains me to say it.

Let them flounder…a bit.

When our alums return for a panel discussion about life in college, they stress time management. Not that they don’t procrastinate, but that they are more strategic procrastinators. Have you tried giving your students a little space during working sessions to use their time wisely…or not? We are explicit that this is part of their learning process and we won’t make them work. We give suggestions about limiting distractions—like turning off device notifications, sitting at individual computer carrels, or listening to a preplanned “focus” playlist. During the first block research period, we observe but don’t interfere. In future individual research meetings, we ask them to reflect on how they’ve been using class time, and we do sometimes assign specifics for students who aren’t quite ready to motivate themselves on their own. But our goal isn’t for them to work when we are looking over their shoulders; it’s to prepare them to work on their own when no one is watching.

20 minute tasks.

Since the lesson plan and the lived experience don’t always match, here is my addendum to the previous paragraph. Last month, 3 classes were on track with learning age-appropriate time management skills. Two weren’t. In frustration, the teacher and I turned to each other after a boisterous block period and asked, aren’t people supposed to be able to focus for 20 minutes? Because I love Post-it notes, the next day we showed up in class and had everyone write their goal for the period. Then, we talked about breaking that into smaller goals, specifically identifying a silent 20 minute task to start. If they had questions on their individual papers or wanted to be first to talk to us after the 20 minute “test,” they wrote it on the back. It may have been born of necessity, but it worked amazingly. And kids kept asking for Post-its during future classes. We all know it, but it’s new to high schoolers that their next task isn’t to “write their paper” but to write three sentences or check that their As have Bs in their outlines.

Where’s your average middle?

If you’ve worked with classes where students are working independently, you know that two types of students tend to dominate your time. There are weak students, who you don’t want to get left behind, even as they try to stay invisible. And there are the strong go-getters, who would probably sit right next to you for the entire project and ask a question every step if they could. But what are you doing to make sure you’re reaching the quiet average students, the ones who complete every assignment and who would never think to interrupt you while you’re meeting with another student? Can you schedule individual meetings with students once a week? Or comment more thoroughly on their work? These are the kids that it’s easy to overlook when others are vying for your attention, and it’s worth some effort to make sure these good kids aren’t forgotten. This is a particular weakness of mine. I tend to focus on the students in front of me, and I’d greatly appreciate your suggestions about how to strategically plan to serve this demographic.

Debrief with students and with teachers.

20 minute tasks wasn’t anything I thought I’d be writing about. Honestly, I didn’t think I’d be thinking about it after a random Wednesday when I just wanted students to pay attention. But in debriefing sessions with their advisors, where students presumably felt the most comfortable, this was the top lesson they said they learned. Every time I complete a collaborative project with a teacher, I take a Post-it note and paper clip it to the top of the lesson with the dates, what we did, and what I’d change for next time. Then it gets filed away. This process has helped me prepare more efficiently for last-minute requests, and it provides me a few minutes to reflect. With whatever kind of organization system you keep, this is something I’d recommend.

Perhaps a plane ride was a bit long for uninterrupted writing, so I apologize for the Giant Block of Test ™. You get a sense of the types of questions I ask myself as I transition from one task to the next. Please add any thoughts below. I’d love to hear what tips I can learn from each of you.

2 thoughts on “Peripheral Vision

  1. Fantastic, Christina! Today is Day 1 of the Not-Paper, and here is a bouquet of useful techniques I can deploy immediately. Thanks for sharing your experience and advice. I am raising my single-serve bottle of OJ to you in solidarity and gratitude!

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