Genius Hour + Writing Workshop: Broadening the Definition of “Research”

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This semester I’m sharing my experiment with bringing Genius Hour into my writing workshop. You can catch up on the rest of the series here.

I don’t have many crystal-clear high school English class memories, believe it or not, but one of them is sitting in the library with my 11th grade class, a stack of index cards before me, working on my big, rite-of-passage research paper.

The paper needed to discuss an American author. Because all my favorite authors (then, now) were British, my English teacher, Mr. Gibrall, the first person to give me a notebook as “a place for your powerful words”, chose Sylvia Plath for me.

What does this say about 16-year-old me?

Plath, who we hadn’t studied in class, was far beyond my ability to dissect alone as was all the Freudian analysis of her work that I sifted through in those giant compendiums of American literature. But I dutifully did the work. I wrote my source cards. I copied my facts. I didn’t know what they meant, but I had hundreds of notecards that I somehow strung together in what I can only imagine was a mess of utter nonsense. I wish I still had that paper.

I bet your high school research paper experience was a little bit like this, too. And, while the sources of research have changed with the Internet, I can tell you, I’ve taught in schools where this is still the case — kids are compiling facts they don’t entirely understand about subjects on which they don’t have authority. They go through the motions of research to check off the box “Has written a big, fat, important research paper”.

(The “research paper”, by the way, doesn’t exist outside school any more than the five paragraph essay.)

In many ways, this boils down to the same arguments Allison and I make in Beyond Literary Analysis: it all becomes fake work. I’m sure you can guess why this isn’t the best plan of action, but I’ll give you a few reasons myself:

  • If kids don’t have subject-matter authority, they won’t know what is a good source, what is a bad source, what is useful information, what information is contradictory and complicating and interesting.
  • If kids are thumbing through reference books or scrolling through scholarly articles without content knowledge to hang that onto, they won’t understand what they are reading at all.
  • If kids haven’t actually engaged with the research, they are merely copying words from source to paper — they aren’t understanding. They aren’t learning. They aren’t learning about research (because research is all about how you wade through the tough stuff and synthesize it), and they aren’t learning about the content because they don’t understand it.

This has been a bit of a rant, hasn’t it?

All of this is to say:  before I started Genius Hour, I knew I wanted to use this as an opportunity to check all of those research skills boxes in a more engaging, more authentic way. And here’s the thing about authentic research — in real life, research is experiential.

You might remember the graphic to the right from my very first Genius Hour post in this series. This is how I explained research to my kids at the

read (1)beginning of our project.  Yes, research is reading. But it’s also taking a class online and seeing what you learn. It’s applying that learning as you try something new and reflect on the process.  It’s talking to someone with expertise and using their knowledge to advance your own. 

Research isn’t just passively copying words from one place to another. It’s thinking. It’s doing.

Compiling a Works Cited

A very research-paper thing to do is let students practice those all-important MLA citation skills by compiling a bibliography or works cited. I often teach citation through hyperlinking when my students write with research in op/eds and other pieces of argumentative writing.

But there is something to be said for that beautifully left-aligned giant list of sources all in one place. Each of my students has a Works Cited tab on his or her genius hour blog. An old-school, MLA-formatted Works Cited. They get grades on this periodically!

But what’s not old-school is that we are citing every research source. So we didn’t just talk about citing a book or article, we also practiced citing an interview, citing a Skillshare course, citing a podcast.

Let’s be honest: parents like seeing that Works Cited. In some ways, it’s legitimizing this project to the naysayers. But I like the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment the students feel when they reflect upon this tangible record of all they have done. “Research” feels so big, so hard to wrap our arms around. But the Works Cited shows all of us exactly what has been accomplished, and it lists a podcast as equally “researchy” as a reference book.

What might students do with a bigger, broader definition of research?

To show you what this might look like, I want to share interesting examples of what some of my students did with each of these routes to research.


  • Hutton’s project focuses on using his drone for aerial photography. To broaden his understanding of the daily lives of photographers, he read the war journalism memoir It’s What I Do by Lynsey Addario.
  • Reid’s project on improving his own basketball game has morphed increasingly into sports writing. He’s going to choose a sports writer and do a little author study, making noticings about that writer’s key moves and tricks of the trade.


  • Carter’s project is about how to start a business (at week 10, the kid has already written a business plan and launched his own graphic design business and sold some logos!) Each week, he listens to an episode of NPR’s How I Built This.


  • Cameron’s project on cooking led her to watching Samin Nosrat’s Netflix mini-series Salt, Fact, Acid, Heat.  She kept a glossary of new cooking terminology, tried Nosrat’s recipes, and tried an ultimate recipe to incorporate all four elements: cannoli!


  • Morgan received a set of oil paints for Christmas years ago and never opened them … until her Genius Hour project. Her ultimate goal is to recreate an iconic classic painting with an African-American girl as its subject. To learn more about oil painting at large, Morgan met with a curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts!

Taking a Class: 

  • Anna and Peyton are both doing projects about recording original songs using a variety of technologies. Both girls have gone through courses on Skillshare to help them learn software that no one else in our school could have taught them!

Making / Creating / Trying Something:

  • Lots of my students working on cooking-related projects have been doing oodles of cooking; one has taken over cooking dinner for her family.
  • Ben & Slate have both been doing lots of woodworking projects — Ben made a headphone stand; Slate made a side table. Ben is selling his hand-carved wooden pens on Etsy.
  • Katherine has been working on a jewelry-making project — she has made stone earrings, various friendship bracelets, and a necklace so far.


I surveyed the kids a couple of weeks ago what they are learning — not about their topic but about research itself. Here are a couple of responses that are representative of the whole:

  • “I am learning that in real-life research you have to really dig deep in order to get the end result you want. It involves a lot of work, but it allows personal growth of knowledge.”
  • “That it’s a bit trickier than it looks, but also that research takes a while when the sources aren’t just being handed over to you.”
  • “I am learning that to get real authentic information, there is a time-consuming and tedious research process. But, in the end the better and higher quality information is worth the effort.”

Real research means something to kids — it’s hard and messy and exciting and invigorating.

How do you engage students in authentic research? Leave us a comment below and join our conversation! 



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