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If you found yourself clicking on this article, you probably don’t need a lecture on why the traditional “research paper” is problematic and downright painful to teach. My biggest reason for wanting to ditch it? The lack of passion. The lack of passion students have about writing it, the lack of passion their actual writing reflects, the lack of passion I have about teaching it, and the severe lack of passion I have about grading it. Seriously, it’s like a black hole over several weeks in my plan book every year.
For the last few years, I’ve tried to switch it up a bit to not only avoid some of the common issues I see in students’ research writing, but also to try and ignite some more passion (in students and in me). I’ve tried different types of activities to get students to develop research questions they’re more excited about. I’ve tried beginning with recent news articles so students will write something that’s more “in the now” rather than the same old topics. And while these changes have helped ignite some passion, it seems like it always goes out the window once it’s time to do some more research and write. I get the same result when it’s time to put it on paper every single time.
It took me several years of trial and error to realize this, but eventually I came to terms with the fact that I could modify my process all I wanted, but not much was going to change if I kept asking for the same product. However, I didn’t think there was much I could do about it. I had to teach the “research paper” because I was teaching a dual credit course, and this was part of the requirements.
Or…was it? Hope Kasten, the librarian at my school and my personal friend, encouraged me to look closer at the course requirements this year. Here is the community college description of my course:
This writing course (1) develops awareness of the writing process; (2) provides inventional, organizational and editorial strategies; (3) stresses the variety of uses for writing; and (4) emphasizes critical skills in reading, thinking and writing. The writing course sequence must include production of documented, multi-source writing in one or two papers for a combined total of at least 2500 words in final version.
Okay, so yes— there had to be writing, and it had to involve information from outside sources. But nothing in there specifies the final product has to be a traditional essay. Seriously, how did I go three years of teaching this class without realizing this? But— I also think teaching is all about learning the lessons the hard way sometimes and using those hard lessons to reflect and learn. So that’s what I chose to do.
If you’ve read any of my posts in the past, you know I place a lot of emphasis on having non-honors students (especially those labeled as “struggling” learners) develop writing that resembles a product that can be found in the real world. It’s more engaging, and it produces better writing. Hands down. So why the heck wasn’t I doing the same for my honors students? It’s like I had this notion that honors students didn’t need assignments to be framed as applicable to the real world to be engaged and produce excellent work. But that simply isn’t true. And furthermore— all students deserve to write something they feel matters.
So I started thinking… What is something that real writers produce that checks all the boxes of my course requirements?
My brain immediately went to the work that had to happen to develop back-to-school plans during the pandemic. The administrators at my school put in so much research before even beginning to draft our plan. I was thinking about all the documents they had to work through first— guidelines provided by the CDC, guidelines provided by the public health department, and guidelines provided by the state board of education are just a few that I can come up with off the top of my head. That more than takes care of the requirement of using critical skills in reading.
Then, the writing process started. Based on what they had read, my administrators drafted some different options for our school, which used critical skills for thinking and writing. They presented these plans to different groups for feedback— administrators from other schools, parents, teachers. The plan evolved from there, meeting the requirement for inventional, organizational, and editorial strategies. Once one plan of action was settled on, a lot of thought went into how to present this information to the public, so a variety of uses of writing was considered here. Eventually, admin wrote out the plan and pushed it out to the public; this was the final product after months of actively engaging in the research writing process.
After realizing how real and applicable research writing really can be, I got back together with Hope to figure out how we could create a similar academic experience for our students to what our administrators had gone through in the spring and summer when developing a back-to-school plan. Hope mentioned that she used a very similar process when she was assigned to write an “action plan” as a requirement for her master’s degree. She still had to do research, but instead of simply presenting the research through an argument via a traditional essay, she applied her research to coming up with a plan for improving a publish library.
Why could our students not do the same for something they care about? Hope and I had recently been awarded a grant to purchase a multitude of recently published young adult books of all genres with the goal of exposing students in my honors classes to social justice issues all around them. We decided together— why not use what students learn about these issues through their novels and additional research to develop a plan of action for minimizing the issues within our local community? Thus, the “Teens Take Action” project was born.
Here are some of our grant project books, funded by the Back to Books Grant through the Illinois State Library
After several critical conversations, we decided to divide the project (and semester) into six sections. The sections are meant to build on one another toward the ultimate goal of a product that could potentially be used within our community to tackle the problems studied by the students. This is currently a work in progress (my class is currently working on revising the second section and moving into the third section soon). However, I plan to use my writing space on the blog this semester to go through the steps of our project and discuss what I’ve learned along the way. In my next post, I plan to dive in deeper into the first two sections of the project. For now, I’ll leave you with a preview of the six sections we developed and a brief description of each.
- Objective– We felt it was important that students established an overarching goal for the entire project. What did they want to find out? How did they want to use this information? (More on this in my next post.)
- Background of Issue– We wanted to make sure students had a firm understanding of what their social justice issue really is and what it looks like for different people. This is the part of the project where we required students to examine academic articles and call on the expertise from someone in the community to provide insight on the problem. (Again, more on this next time.)
- Data Analysis– As consumers of information, we are constantly exposed to all kinds of statistics. But what does it all mean and how can we use it to draw our own conclusions? This is what we want students to consider during this section of the project.
- Case Study– The “Background of Issue” and “Data Analysis” sections invite students to look at the social justice issue through a research lens. We also wanted to dedicate space for students to examine the issue through the human lens. In this section, students will do some literary analysis by considering how their issue impacted a character (or characters) in the recently published book they read. (This is where the books we were awarded through the grant come in.)
- Plan of Action– This is ultimately the product students will work toward. Once they develop a deep understanding of their issue through the other parts of the project, the goal is for them to develop a plan for addressing the issue that attempts to diminish it within their local surroundings.
- Reflection– At the end of the semester, we want students to look back at the process they went through and identify their biggest takeaways after engaging in this type of research. And because this is so new to us, we want to know how the project felt in the students’ shoes so we can reflect on our own practice.
In what ways have you broken away from the traditional research paper? Have you ever had your students develop an action plan? I would love to hear your thoughts on Twitter @TimmermanPaige!
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