I’ve been scrolling through Twitter a lot these past two weeks. I can’t look away from the news and everything I read is prompting new questions and new things I need to research. Saturday, someone tweeted a poem by Naomi Shihab-Nye, Gate A-4. It’s a beautiful story of an interaction between two women in an airport, one helping the other. She ends with some words of reflection:
Though I teach two classes that don’t traditionally use a lot of poetry, this text fit perfectly in my AP Seminar class because it’s nearly impossible to read it and not be left with some questions in your brain.
In AP Seminar, a research and inquiry based course, I’ve found one of the best ways prompt curiosity and inquiry is giving my students completely un-research-y types of texts: poetry, music, paintings, etc. The formula? Give them something high interest, let the questions fly, and then let them build the answer.
Give Them Something High Interest: Stimulus Materials
One of the main assessment tasks in AP Seminar is an Individual Written Argument. Students receive a packet of “stimulus materials”–essays, articles, research studies, photographs, paintings, poems, etc. The texts are all loosely, thematically connected, but the students need to find those connections. And then they need to use some of the materials to drive their own research and argument.
We’ve been practicing this all year, and I’ve found that the most stimulating stimulus materials are often the most non-traditional ones. In our Money unit, students generated some fantastic questions from the pop song “Royals” by Lorde. Later in the year, I started the Monsters unit by having them watch an episode of The Twilight Zone, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” For our final unit of first semester, Movement, I gave them an article from a 1950s magazine about Thanksgiving food traditions and origins. In each instance, the students were hooked–stimulated, I guess–by something that didn’t feel weighty or overwhelming. They were pulled in to think and question by a text that was easily accessible. The questions they generated from those texts provided great bridges to more traditional research texts.
Building On Questions
For example, after listening to “Royals” and looking at the lyrics, one student wondered, “Lorde is rejecting all this materialism, but she HAS to be pretty wealthy herself. Isn’t she kinda being a hypocrite?” We talked about the wealthy and whether or not they have certain responsibilities that go with their wealth. It seemed natural to give them Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth next. They dug into that much more challenging text with a sense of purpose that I contend they would have never had had I started with that. At that point I wanted to see how far I could push them. I gave them an article from Harvard Law Review about connections between wealth, poverty and crime. It was dense and full of research, but since they were already hooked, they went for it. We examined a few more texts together, and soon they were ready to draft their research questions. The questions they came up with were relevant, interesting and nuanced because they grew out of the students digging into a wide variety of texts.
Applications to All Student Research
Obviously, not everyone teaches AP Seminar, but I think many people teach The Research Paper. (It’s in all caps because it’s an all caps kind of event when it happens.) It takes forever, and with many kids it’s like pulling teeth. Some are passionate about topics and choose them instantly, but many cast about listlessly trying to choose topics. When they finally do choose, they spend their research time skimming articles trying to cherry-pick “good quotes” to prove predetermined positions. I know that process because I’ve done it many times. My motives were always pure–I was giving students choice! But choice without choices can be overwhelming.
I won’t do it again. One of the best things I’ve learned from teaching AP Seminar this year is the power of diverse, interesting stimulus materials. It makes sense. I don’t ever sit down, open up a Google search and just say, “Hmmm..what shall I learn about today?” Rather, I scroll through Twitter, click on links that seem interesting, read hyperlinks when I want to know more, perhaps do additional searching if I don’t understand something or want to challenge something I’ve read.
So today, I started AP Seminar with that beautiful poem by Naomi Shihab-Nye. I put it in my students’ imaginary “Twitter feed” and waited to see who would click. We read the poem aloud together and then turned to our notebooks to respond and generate questions. The discussion that followed blended the poem with the current events they’d been following all weekend and was rich with potential research questions for my students:
To what extent is protest effective?
What opportunities exist for me–a teenager–to improve my shared world?
How can a country limit immigration fairly?
I’m not sure if all my students will pursue these research questions, but I’ll continue putting stimulus materials in front of them to catch more kids’ curiosity. The more chances we give them to be curious about the little things they run into on a daily basis, the more likely they’ll be to bite on something and really engage with a research topic.
What do you do to stimulate your thinkers? What are the favorite texts you use to spark interest? Comment below or connect with me on Twitter @TeacherHattie I’d love to hear what you’re using!