Part of the concern of doing short research is that there’s only so much time in the school year. I wrote about the idea previously when I discussed looking at your skills as a ladder to climb rather than disconnected projects.
Building in short research projects into the classroom can be sometimes less manageable than the long, sustained research project. Perhaps, this is due to the fact that when we think “research”, we think of the sustained project full of multiple trips to the computer lab and drafts of lengthy essays. The hurdles with short research are how to make research opportunities that are:
- time-worthy but not time consuming
- not easy to copy or quick regurgitation
- placing the student in the driver’s seat
Short research doesn’t need to be superfluous and doesn’t require that the teachers take on some of the tasks of a full research project. Let’s walk through structuring a short research project using a project inspired by the Letters to the Dead tumblr by Celine Song.
On the Letters to the Dead tumblr, you can find brief letters written to famous dead people. Many of them have a humorous side if you know who the famous person is. But, many of them wouldn’t necessarily be known by students or to a detail that would show the humor, or meaning, of the letter. I started with the project outline and a reflection page based on the students’ given letter, as seen in this attachment Letters-to-the-Dead-Project.* Then, they had to use our databases to find the answers to their questions, decide on 5 great things about the person, create a mind map of the information, and write a letter to the person ala the letter to the dead style. The project can take 2-6 days, depending on how many skills you are frontloading with students.
No Biography Regurgitation
When students ask me about using Wikipedia, I always say the same thing. And, no, it’s not that Wikipedia isn’t reliable. It’s that as high school students, their sources need to be more robust than an encyclopedia, which also means that our projects must expect more than an encyclopedia can offer.
Learning about famous people or cultural people is important to accessing our academic world. But, if I assigned students the task of writing a biography of their person then I knew I would be handling more instances of “copy and paste” papers rather than original student thinking. Instead of a straightforward biography, I had students choose the 5 most important things about the person, according to them. And, I stressed the “according to you”.
The most telling way that showed that students had effectively researched came in the students’ personal letter to the dead. One boy who had been assigned Henry VIII wrote a lengthy letter dismissing Henry VIII’s treatment of his girls and abandonment of his wives (when he didn’t, of course, kill them). Then, personally, related his story of being abandoned by his dad and how his family was better off without a dad who didn’t care and extended that Henry VIII’s family would be better off emotionally without him in the picture. What emerged from my assignment was a revelation that I hadn’t realized about the boy’s family situation. One that came from research and not the stand-by personal narrative, which more and more is getting pushed out of the high school curriculum.
I culled a list of letters to the dead that were acceptable for student use, relevant to our work or a good person to know culturally or academically. I analyzed the letters to see if they were easy to understand, about a major event in that person’s life, and more likely to be known by students. I also thought about the individual student and whether they might connect with the person. My emerging, high achieving feminist received the Virginia Woolf letter, which resulted in the student letter in the picture.
Finally, I sat down and did the research for students on the well-known. Using the databases, I entered search terms that I thought students could create from the letters and see what results were available. One database, eLibrary, has portals for major topics that gather basic information and 8-10 relevant articles. Did the person have a portal? Yes, well then I’m going to give that person to a student who struggled more in class. Did the person have a digital source that I could provide like the A&E biography of Napoleon? Yes, well then I’m going to provide those students to some of my lower ELL students. Same expectation for using search terms, analysis of a letter, and writing of their own letter. But, perhaps an easier path to sources and information. In fact, I threw out some letters because they were too convoluted or dense to understand given the resources found in our databases. Imagine if I had given those letters to students and sent them to research!
Heavy Lifting without Spoon Feeding
On the Smarter Balanced assessment, students are provided research texts simply due to time and resource access constraints, I assume. However, we are preparing students for research in their college, career and everyday life. No one provides your sources in those world. In fact, college professors will probably say “use the databases. Find this many sources” and let students loose. Can you say with confidence, right now, that your students will successfully navigate their college library’s databases and find the sources they need?
Many students will fail at this independence because we as teachers will give into the Not Enough Time Monster. My students don’t have enough time to do everything: write questions, find sources, read sources, revise questions, find more sources, and synthesize sources. But, all those steps are important if we hope that students are successfully beyond the Smarter Balanced test. All those steps can be accomplished in short research. We don’t need to provide sources to them as a way to make “shorter research”, which is actually just a writing assignment at that point…not research.
Remember when I said that I did all the research on the people to make sure I set my students up for success? Well, I didn’t save the research, take notes, print off sources. Except for the movies that I checked out from the Public Library, I kept none of the work that I just sat down and completed. It wasn’t my job to provide the research to students and remove them from the driver’s seat. But, I could say with confidence that “you will find something. I did the search myself and find things”. I made sure that my students who would struggle the most had a person with a portal in eLibrary like the Abraham Lincoln portal shown. But, I made them come up with questions and find their search terms and type in their searches.
*Post updated to add clarity on what the project entailed and where to find my student handouts.
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