Moving Writers’ Top Ten: Making Research Relevant — Beyond the Research Paper

Moving Writers' Top Ten

As is our habit, we are taking the summer away from the blog to read, write, and recharge. We’ll be back in late August with new content, but for the summer, let’s take a journey down memory lane as we visit our ten most-read posts from the previous school year! 

Since the beginning of the school year, I’ve been writing about the different ways I try to make research relevant for my students. We have to help them build context so they can research effectively and ask nuanced questions, we have to support their reading and give them strategies for wading through these complex texts, and we have to get them talking throughout the entire research and writing process.

The one key piece I haven’t written about, though, is really the most important one for making research relevant. We have to use the research to create real stuff, answer actual questions, and do things beyond research papers.

Part of my day is spent teaching AP Seminar and the “realness” of my assignments comes from the College Board Assessments that the students work on all year (check it out if you aren’t familiar–it’s a cool program and very different from traditional AP). That one is easy.

What about our other courses, though? Not all kids want or need AP (shhhh…don’t tell CB) but they DO all need opportunities to develop that researcher’s curious mindset. They need to leave our classrooms eager to find answers to questions and armed with the skills to do so. For some, traditional research papers alone can do that. For many, though, they need to see how research can impact real world situations.

The Incubator

When I’m not teaching AP Sem, I’m teaching a new class at our school called The Incubator. It’s a team-taught course where kids spend the year developing an individual idea/product/service with the guidance of an industry expert. They will “hatch” their ideas in May. They’re also working on a group project with Macy’s department store. They created, pitched, and developed two products (@OnPurposeSocks and @QuestBrand)  that hit the shelves in our local Macy’s this past Monday (they even made the news!). 

Teaching this class has given me daily opportunities to give my students authentic research opportunities and constantly reinforce the notion that when you don’t know the answer to a question, you better start digging.

For formal research–digging into databases, using formal citation–we asked our students to research their products and ideas. At first they balked. I know this is a great idea! Trust me!  But when they started to dig, they reluctantly admitted that they were finding out valuable info that changed or enhanced their ideas. For example, one student is working on creating a nonprofit to re-purpose old clothes. He was pretty certain that people are motivated to donate clothes out of the goodness of their hearts. His research into the psychology of giving revealed he was totally wrong. People donate clothes to reduce clutter. It changed his whole model.

Though the formal research has given me lots of opportunities to reinforce traditional research skills, informal research is where we’ve made the most progress with creating the researcher’s curious mindset. Early in the process, the @OnPurposeSocks team realized that they had to  figure out where to source their socks–overseas or the United States. It was much cheaper to produce in China, but were they okay with the labor practices of the manufacturer? Lots of research had to be done. Last week, a Macy’s PR person emailed us and asked for a “boilerplate” about our school and our class. I assigned the task to two students. First they had to figure out what a boilerplate was, but then they realized they needed to research our school district itself.  

These are just two examples, but the informal questions that need concrete, research-based answers pop up almost everyday. When we give our students opportunities to engage in the work of the real world, research is built in naturally.

How can you recreate this without an Incubator?

Well, you could just create an Incubator. (Seriously. Email me if you want to get one going in your school. It’s awesome.)

That’s a pretty big undertaking, though, so I’ve been thinking a lot about how this could be woven in on a smaller scale in any class.

Tweak current assignments to put real stuff at the center.

If we truly want our students to see research as relevant, we have got to stop dictating what they research. It’s hard because we want them to care about The Important Things, but if they’re not ready for those topics, they won’t see the relevance anyway and the research will end up not having an impact.

When I taught 10th grade English a few years ago, we had a research based essay assignment in our Art of Protest unit. We thought it was pretty cool–kids visited the Detroit Institute of Art, looked at bunch of protest art, and then researched an issue motivating one of the pieces. Some of them were totally into it, but for many, it was a giant flop.  The next year, we shifted the assignment a little. We still went to the museum, we still talked about what motivated those artists, but then we asked them to research and write about an issue from today that they’d like to protest. Better, but still not there yet. The third year, we still followed all the same steps, but then we had them make their own protest art and write about it. We set up a museum, they wrote artist’s statements. Boom. Suddenly it was relevant. Engagement was there and kids dug into the research.

Make time for small,everyday, informal research.

But just like in my incubator class, I think our best chances to foster that researcher’s curious mindset come in the daily, relentless attention we must have on seeking answers to our questions. My teaching buddy @ZigThinks wrote about this as “squishy research” and argued for the need to show kids how to fall down rabbit holes to answer questions.

In my AP Language class, I am constantly amazed by the gaps in my students’ knowledge base. For example, almost every year a casual reference to politics in a speech we might be analyzing quickly reveals that the majority of my students (juniors and seniors!) don’t know the difference between Republicans and Democrats. Usually, it’s one shameless soul that admits his ignorance, but if I wait a few seconds and withhold my judgy face, easily over two thirds of the class will fess up that they, too, have no idea or a very wobbly idea.

That’s a time to stop for informal research. “Get out your phones, kids. Google it. Be ready to tell me what you found out in five minutes.”  Sure, I could fill in that gap quickly and move on, but if I am dedicated to helping them become curious researchers, I must stop, take the time, and show them how to do it.

Find ways to support cross-curricular research writing in your building.

Finally, we need to look beyond our classrooms. Our colleagues in many other disciplines want and need our help with research skills for their students.

Several years ago, our 10th grade ELA teachers teamed up with our Economics teachers to do a combined research project. Organizing a project with 14 teachers from two departments was definitely cumbersome and messy, but it created an opportunity to show our students that their writing mattered in another discipline. They were studying the Great Recession in Econ and we were able to support that work with a deep dive into some of the reading in ELA and then help them dig into the questions that bubbled up from their work in Econ. Kids had heard just enough about Obamacare or the Stimulus or the Auto Bailout to have an opinion, but they also had lots of questions.

By teaming with another department, we had time to support them while they dug into those questions.


However it looks in our classrooms–and it will likely look slightly different in all of them–we need to start thinking seriously about research and how we teach our students to engage in it. All the reading strategies and vocabulary in the world won’t help our students if they can’t approach their questions with a researcher’s curious mindset.



What do you do to inspire research in your students? What real world research opportunities have you created in your room? Share in the comments below or connect with me on Twitter @TeacherHattie

1 Comment

  1. Hello! Thank you so much for this post! I love the spin on the annotated bibliography! My sophomores complete a Sophomore Advocacy Project– they write an Opinion Article, make an infographic, and I want them to start writing activist poems.
    The research portion of this project is always the most difficult one for me to navigate. Do you have a requirement for how many sources your students need? And, do you have them take research notes? If so, how do you ask them to structure them? I’ve tried so many things in the past and haven’t quite found one that works as much as I would like it to.

    Anyway, thank you so much for this fantastic post.

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