Friday, January 14, 2011

Research in the Creative Writing Classroom

Instead of pausing our creative momentum to teach the traditional research essay, we're trying something a little different this year.  Students will be writing a creative nonfiction piece based on their research of a specific topic.  Simply put, students will be under the same research standards and objectives as the students in our traditional English classes, but their final product will be more of a story as opposed to a point by point essay.

We will still be using graphic organizers such as index cards as well as compiling and completing a works cited list, citations, etc.  In addition to submitting their creative nonfiction (which I set at a minimum of 500 words) they will also submit a short expository essay which demonstrates why they are an expert on this topic (or became one)--I am borrowing a term from the publishing industry and calling the essay their platform.

With a month to work on this assignment, part of my job in the earlier going is to inspire them to select topics which lend themselves to this type of assignment or to help them modify an existing topic.  I encouraged students to look into their own lives, vacations, and communities for opportunities--they have been challenged to add an interview or a first-hand account to their research bank.  So far, some of the interesting topics which have emerged are the following: A migrant farmer in our community in the 1970s started his own winery--a student is able to visit for him/herself as well as conduct interviews; a student visited family in Estonia this summer so she is researching the fight for Estonian independence and planning on writing that story from a young girl's perspective...she is able to correspond with family in Estonia for details and support; a student is interested in the living conditions and daily modern life found on Native American reservations is working on contacting various experts in the field (museums, cultural centers, universities) and is even trying to establish contact with author Louise Erdrich for some answers and guidance.  I'm pushing them to go to the source of information--make yourself an expert, read and see and hear all you can.  If you can visit, great!  If you can not visit, then find someone who them...write them a letter.  Ask!  Reach out to people.  You might hit some walls, but you might hit some open doors.  I'm hoping to devote some class time to their sharing their experiences in trying to access this type of expertise.

The purpose of the additional paper, the platform, is twofold.  This is a creative writing class and I wanted them to have a little taste of the experience of being made to defend their expertise...which does happen in the publishing industry.  Usually an author's platform consists of things beyond expertise--how many readers follow you, etc.  However, for my purposes it also keeps the students grounded in the fact that this is research and it is what is going to drive our story--they cannot make up random facts or details in their head.  Everything in their story must be factual and research-based and I am asking them to demonstrate this and defend it in a short platform essay.  The platform will follow the standard expository essay rubric; the creative nonfiction be held to its own rubric strandard...and, surprise, the works cited page gets its own rubric as well.

What has worked out nicely is journalist and author Mark Bowden (Black Hawk Down) will be visiting our school for an assembly with just the creative writing classes.  A perfect time for students to ask some specific research driven questions.

As we move through the assignment I will post an update or two here.  I will certainly post both some of the successful topics and some which flopped.  I also think it would be good to share some of the success they had in expanding their research effort out into their lives or communities.

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