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In my last post, I discussed a new approach I am taking to research writing this year. Instead of the traditional essay, I opted to go with a semester-long exploration of a social justice issue through multiple angles, with a research component being one of those angles. To review, Hope Kasten, my librarian friend/collaborator, and I created a project called “Teens Take Action,” which consists of these six parts:
- Background of Issue
- Data Analysis
- Case Study
- Plan of Action
My class is currently about halfway through the project, and today I’m excited to share how it got off the ground and reflect on the beginning stages. Hope was such an integral part of planning the project with me and pitching it to students, so I invited her to guest author this post with me. She’ll begin by explaining how our vision for the project began with our decision to incorporate recently written young adult literature to expose students to social justice issues in the world around them. She’ll also discuss how we introduced the books and issues to the students in order to ignite their passions and steer them toward a topic for the project. I’ll pick up after that and explain how I guided my students in setting a goal for the semester (Objective) and how I lead them toward looking at their social justice issue through a research angle (Background of Issue).
Our Vision and Introduction to the Project (Hope)
Paige and I are obsessed with YA literature and we want our students to be, as well. We believe that exposing students to fresh, exciting, and timely YA literature can lead to lifelong readers. Last August, when we returned to the high school building, we held some–no a lot–of trepidation for the school year. We just didn’t know what to expect, and after experiencing what we now realize as just the beginning of the pandemic and seeing several injustice movements along the way, we knew we needed to provide our students with an opportunity to process the turmoil, the hardships, and the emotions that they were witnessing and living.
All of these teacher-librarian discussions manifested when I learned about a grant opportunity through the Illinois State Library. The grant provided books in any format to school librarians who wanted to implement a project. Paige and I combined all of our best ideas and began drafting a plan for the “Teens Take Action” project.
We had several criteria for the selected books (see link below for full list of titles and topics). The books needed to (1) tell authentic stories, stories in which characters observe or experience a social justice issue. The books needed to (2) represent diversity in issues, characters, and authors. The books needed to (3) be contemporary, written within the last five years, to be specific. The “newness” of the books was of utmost importance because they capture the social justice issues as they are now, not when our students’ parents or grandparents were growing up, and we really wanted students to see their friends, neighbors, and even themselves in these stories.
The way we piqued students’ interests in these books is a tried-and-true method: book talking. Paige book talked the texts she had read and was most passionate about and likewise for me. Originally, we had hoped that students could participate in a more interactive book activity, but COVID guidelines, and the fact that most students were learning remotely, forced us to adapt.
Luckily, book talking was a regular activity in Paige’s classes (which is why they’re always great readers!). Students were familiar with it. It also demonstrated that we the educators had read and loved the texts, so our excitement hopefully caught their attention. Additionally, book talking allowed us to address the question of which social justice issues does this text cover? We were cognizant to show the many opportunities with each text. For example, the novel A Very Large Expanse of Sea mainly focuses on discrimination, but there are also moments of violence and mental health challenges. We explained to students that we purposely chose not to assign one topic to a text because topics like these overlap in critical ways. This emphasized how one text could inspire many different research paths, how many factors contribute to social injustice, and gave students room for flexibility. What if a student chooses a book assigned “police brutality”, and then realizes he/she is much more intrigued by the family breakdown after a brutal incident? We would say, go for it!
You can find a list of our texts and topics here.
Identifying an Overarching Goal: The Project Objective (Paige)
You may recall from my last post that one of my teacher-goals for this project (and in my practice in general) was for students to write something real and authentic. Real professionals use research and writing all the time in pursuit of accomplishing a task. I used the example of school administrators gathering information from a variety of sources in order to make an informed decision about how to tackle the 2020-2021 school year and what guidelines should be in place.
I wanted my students to engage in the same process, and that began by setting a clear goal for the semester. Now that students had identified a social justice issue of focus for the semester, what was it, exactly, that they hoped to learn about their issue by looking at it through research and human lenses? I wanted them to zoom in on a specific angle of the issue that would be in the back of their minds as they examined the issue in different ways throughout the semester. Enter: the project objective.
Just as I would with any other writing unit, I began with some mentor texts (in this case, mentor statements) to help guide students in understanding how to set a narrowed goal. I began class one day by showing them this sampling:
- To investigate how to best prevent gun violence amongst youth.
- To explore why racial discrimination is often denied or ignored by citizens of the United States.
- To discover the best ways to aide and assist victims of sexual assault.
- To examine the impact one’s sexuality has on long-term friendships as the individuals grapple with adulthood.
- To study the impact one’s decision to undergo a teen pregnancy can have on mental health and wellbeing.
- To learn how poverty can affect family relationships and dynamics.
Students read this list like writers and noted the patterns among the mentor objectives. They first noted the short length of the objectives, which led to a discussion of how, when setting goals, oftentimes less is more. When we get bogged down in details and try to incorporate multiple branches, it is easy to lose sight of the original intention of the goal. When we keep our goals broad, however, there is flexibility to allow our findings to take us down avenues that may not have originally been on our radar. We also discussed the strong action verb each objective contains, and how the verb encourages inquiry and exploration that is possible by reading both academic articles and literary texts.
Once students read the mentor objectives and we had a discussion over what we noticed about them, getting them to set strong, focused goals was a piece of cake. I had students post their objectives to a discussion board I set up on Schoology, and I collected them and put them into a collective Google Doc that everyone could reference throughout the semester. I made it clear, however, that the objective was tentative and could always be modified once exploration of the goal began to take place through research.
Back to the “Basics”: The Background of Issue (Paige)
One of the aspects of the “Teens Take Action” project I love most is that it allows students to write in so many different ways. The ultimate goal of the project is for students to use what they’ve learned about their social justice issue to create an action plan for tackling the issue within the community, which requires the skills of analysis and application. However, before my students can get to that point, I decided they needed to spend some time simply getting to know their issues through academic research and reporting their findings via informative writing. I provided students with the following list of questions:
- Provide an overview of the issue. What is the social justice issue you are studying? Why is this a problem?
- Who does this issue affect and in what way(s)?
- What has caused, contributed to, or magnified this issue?
- What strides have been made to try to resolve this issue?
- Why should we care about this issue?
Students then went to our school’s databases to find information that could help them answer these questions in conjunction with working toward meeting the goal of their objective. They were also required to conduct an interview with a member of the community (preferably a professional) that has worked closely with their issue of study. I did a quick demo of Google Keep and encouraged them to use this tool to store and organize information from their interviews and the articles as they read them. Then, their writing task was simple: Answer the questions in paragraph form, incorporating quotations, paraphrasing, and citations from the academic articles within the responses.
At first, I was disappointed in myself at the simplicity of the writing task. One of the characteristics of writing workshop I love the most is the challenge students face when they figure out the best structural approach to their writing task. But here I was, providing them a structure in a cookie-cutter, Q&A style format. However, keeping in mind that this was the first time I tried this project and the fact that we’re under a unique set of challenges and constraints this school year, I decided to keep it simple.
And I’m glad I did. Because little did I know, this Q&A style writing would call attention to a weakness in my practice I didn’t realize existed.
I often teach primarily seniors, so I spend a lot of effort getting my students to think critically through analytical writing. I didn’t realize I was carrying the perception that older students have mastered informative writing skills. When I introduced the writing task, I didn’t spend much time talking through the questions and discussing the type of information needed to answer each question because I didn’t feel this was necessary. However, conferring with students as they attempted to answer these questions showed me this was actually a big challenge. What I noticed was that even some of my strongest writers really struggled with reading the questions carefully and providing an appropriate response. Over and over, my one-on-one conferences and mini-lessons revolved around helping students re-organize and move information around in their writing in order to logically answer the questions.
I also noticed that students struggled with being objective and holding a firm grasp on an objective tone. They are so passionate about these issues they are exploring, and this passion should not be squelched. However, something needed to happen (that didn’t happen) in my instruction to show students how passion may look different when writing for an informative purpose as opposed to a more persuasive purpose.
So my big takeaway from tackling this section of the project in this way that I didn’t see coming? There are so many types of writing, and students need consistent, level appropriate practice with all of it. Upper grade level teachers cannot expect lower grade level teachers to work on “basic” skills with students that won’t be touched later. Conversely, lower grade level teachers should not leave the “higher order thinking” skills up to upper grade level teachers. It’s all important, all the time. Because real writers use all of these skills for different authentic purposes at different levels of thinking.
One more realization– while I originally teacher-shamed myself a bit for incorporating such a simplistic, Q&A style writing task, I came to realize that this is an authentic writing task, too. Yes, real writers are often given the freedom to choose their structure from scratch, but sometimes they’re not, especially in the professional world. When Hope and I applied for the grant, for example, there were specific questions we had to answer. However, it was on us to make sure we understood exactly what each question was asking and provide a response that appropriately answered the question. In doing so, there was freedom in deciding how we would answer the question and how much information we wanted to include in our responses. With that said, when we ask students to write authentically, we need to recognize all of the different tasks that are truly out there.
The book talks proved to be so integral to the project because they got students excited about examining a social justice issue and gave them ideas on research possibilities. Discussing the issues through the lens of a character was hands down better than giving students a list of “controversial issues” and having them select one at random. It connected impersonal terms to human experience, and that really motivated our students to set strong goals in the “Objective” section and to use inquiry to explore research about the issues in the “Background of Issue” section. Hopefully this will continue to improve as we are able to try other ways of sharing stories with students in the future!
In the following post, the next section of the project (“Data Analysis”) will be discussed. This was one of our favorite sections of the project, as it allowed students to get creative by developing infographics based on data surrounding their topics of interest while asking important questions. Lots of great thinking and writing happened during this stage!
–Paige and Hope
How do you get your students amped for research? How do you get students to create focused goals for research? How do you have them report on their research in an informative way? We’d love to hear your thoughts on Twitter @TimmermanPaige and @TheCheerful19!
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