On a recent trip back from Texas, we sat behind a couple of teenagers who were having the most incredibly mature, well-rounded, rich conversation about everything from politics to travel to education. As the plane prepared to land, and their conversation came to a close, the 15-year-old boy said to his new plane mate: All education needs to do is teach kids to love learning.
Our hearts leapt out of our chests and sunk at the same time. This statement was so hopeful and profound and somehow freeing, yet it also implied a failure on our part as educators…
How do we teach kids to love learning?
In three words: keep it real.
Make it authentic.
Less like school.
More like life.
As writing teachers, and in a world where writing for many different occasions and purposes is becoming increasingly critical, we have to plan and teach and reteach with this core principle in mind. In general, here are a few questions we can ask ourselves of any writing study to “keep it real”:
- Does this kind of writing exist in the real world? Where can I find it?
- How do real writers approach this kind of writing? What techniques do they use? What does it mean to gather information and ideas in this genre?
- How might a real writer’s process shift and change when writing in this particular genre?
These questions provide crucial focal points for us in any writing study, but particularly in a genre study that has become as artificial and dumbed down and formu-lized as “the research paper.” You smartly put this “genre” in quotation marks because you, like us, know in your heart that it isn’t real…that it doesn’t exist in the wild.
On one hand, every piece of writing ever written is a research paper… in memoir, writers research their experiences by talking to relevant people, visiting places of interest, looking through photographs, and other exercises that will help bring their memories to the surface. Poets operate similarly. When analyzing a sports game, writers have to research the game by watching a clip or recap, looking into coach’s tactics, and tracing players’ patterns from game to game. When writing a news article, journalists have to research their topic by reading other relevant articles, interviewing people of interest, and gathering background information. There really isn’t a kind of writing out there that doesn’t require some amount of research.
But our students have come to associate the terms “research” and “information writing” with one particular experience: that required piece of writing that occurs once a school year, usually over the course of an entire quarter or more, and in the library, on a set of notecards or with the help of some kind of research platform like Noodle Tools.
Not only do we limit our students’ understanding of research when we limit students’ information-writing experiences to the extensive, academic writing assignment described above; we completely dumb down their understanding of the complex, multifaceted world of information writing.
So what do we do?
To keep it real, we’ve got to shake it up.
The First Step
Asking students to gather information and use it to create a piece of writing is like asking them to dive into the deep end of the pool before they’ve practiced swimming without their floaties. It’s not a great plan.
Before students can begin to write with information, they need to learn to deal with information — that is, doing the messy work necessary to read, understand, and make meaning out of the information in front of them. (Come to think of it, a lot of adults need to learn this skill.)
When they don’t, when we leap frog over this step, we get listless Wikipedia-worthy writing strewn with anemic statistics and not-quite-right quotes tossed in.
We can do better. Instead of leaving students to their own devices to pull information into their writing, we work all year long to help students critically examine data during notebook time. (You can watch our 45-minute workshop on notebook time here!)
Once or twice a week during our writing warm up, we project a chart, a graph, an interesting statistic and ask students to consider a few key questions as they jot in their notebooks:
- What do you notice?
- What do you wonder?
- What does this data say?
- What does this data not say?
- What writing might bubble up from this data?
And then they observe the data, turn it over in their heads, and write. On occasion, that notebook-jotting does give rise to a larger piece of writing — a piece inspired by the data presented, a piece incorporating the data presented. And sometimes it doesn’t. And that’s okay, too.
Because regular exposure to information and the chance to explore it without risk make an enormous difference down the road in students’ ability to use information in their own writing
Here are three pieces of data we’ll be using during notebook time when school starts.
From Harper’s Index (August 2017):
From “We Analyzed 1,000 Fortune Cookies to Unlock Their Secrets” (FiveThirtyEight):
From “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” (The Atlantic):
Four Authentic Information-Writing Studies
When it comes to bigger, processed pieces of writing, we still want to keep our cardinal rule — Keep it Authentic — the main thing. So, what are some authentic, real-world ways for students to use information and research and data to create meaningful texts? We’ve got four ideas for you.
Infographics, or data visualization, combine language and images to represent information in a meaningful way. Infographics provide a wonderful foray into the world of data because of their highly accessible and engaging formats. In fact, some teachers have begun to replace and/or supplement the the “research paper” with a study of infographics because it hits on many of the same research skills…and more. In fact, some might argue that the study and creation of infographics is much more rigorous than tossing facts in a research paper because students have to actually think about what the data means and how the audience should understand it in order to create the design.
“What My Phone Says About Me” by @bymariandrew:
The Modern Farmer Pie Chart (via @voxmaps)
“The Shape of Stories” from Infographic Guide to Literature (this book is a gold mine!!)
“The World of Food,” National Geographic
Guides are the big sister of the “how to” piece so many of our students compose in elementary school. These guides — often informal and casual in tone — pack a punch in the streamlined information they provide. The mentor texts below run the gamut and show the sheer variety of writing in this genre: guides to places, guides to completing simple tasks, visual guides that lean toward the world of infographics. Every student can write a guide to something.
- The New York Times’ 36 Hours
- “There is a Right Way to Wash Your Hair”
- “How to Transition from Winter to Spring: A Mental Style Guide”
- “The Geography of American Confusion: A Visual Guide”
Podcasts, you say? It’s a different kind of text, to be sure, but one that is still planned, researched, composed, polished, and delivered to a real audience. Instead of writing about a researched topic of interest, what if our students gathered in small groups, researched together, wrote a podcast, recorded it, and shared it with the world? How might this energize research projects in your classroom? Some of these mentor texts are made by kids for kids, and others are appropriate adult podcasts that would provide excellent models for students.
- Wow in the World
- But Why
- Book Club for Kids
- Stuff You Missed in History Class
- Stuff You Should Know
Histories & Evolutions
Take a few seconds to scan the titles of the writing below…would you be interested in reading these “research papers?” All of them seem intriguing to us — far more intriguing that the typical, trite “research papers” our students have submitted in the past. Articles that present histories and evolutions of a person, group, movement, event, or product interweave interesting anecdotes, facts and statistics, and quotations from experts to reveal a unique and rich perspective on a fresh, relevant, and sometimes edgy topic. Isn’t this the kind of writing we’d love our students to be able to do?
- Superman, Batman, and the Evolution of the Perfect Male Body
- Flopping in the NBA: A History of Non(Violence)
- A Short History of the Google-Uber Beef (theringer.com has a whole “short history” series…)
- The Tampon: A History
- A History of North Korean Misadventures
- The History of the Ramen Noodle
- The History of “Loving” to Read
Thanks for asking such an important question, Larken. Information writing is important and real — maybe now more than ever. Our students must have regular opportunities to process information and create “researched” texts. Far more than once a year, far more than one time in high school when they “write the research paper.”
Let us know where you decide to start, and have a wonderful school year!
— Allison & Rebekah
What other kinds of authentic information or research writing do your students do? Do you have other mentor texts you can share? Comment below, find us on Facebook, or catch up with us on Twitter @allisonmarchett and @rebekahodell1.
I love you all!