Thursday, February 9, 2012

Research: a Hydra Reconsidered

Particularly at the middle school level, why is research often treated as an isolated event in our lives?

Because it is isolated we tend to think in terms of 5-10-more? page essays chock-full of research, footnotes, bibliographies, and cautions of plagiarism.  We promote gorging ourselves on so much information that rubber bands, index cards, and stacks of books become more important than what we say.

In my experience research papers or speeches from a middle school student often falls into the abyss of reporting back what others have said--sans voice, sans synthesis, sans everything.

Believe it or not, just as we all make mistakes in today's in classrooms, our predecessors also made mistakes.  Many of us (teachers) have been trained to promote research assignments as unwieldy products--much of our training is best suited for English majors and so we (unwittingly?) train our thirteen year-old students at times as if they are English majors--and disguise it in the voice of "best practice" or "preparing them for high school."

Research is a real-world skill and tool used every day by writers and non-writers.  There are plenty of opportunities out there for us to find mentor-texts built upon research.  Some day soon, our middle school students will be consumers.  They will need to learn to compare one product against another--doing our due diligence, we read Consumer Reports, reviews by experts and the average Joe, and promises in advertising.  We learn to discern which expertise can be trusted...and we make our decisions.

Everyday, people research hobbies, DIY projects around the house, and vacation destinations.

Which is more important--the skill of research, or the product?

Addressing writing, and the teaching of writing, Lucy Calkins, Founding Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University's Teachers College, suggests, "Teach the writer, not the writing."  The most important thing a teacher can do is focus on the person and the skill he/she develops.  When we create large research projects we feed the Hydra--and once we awaken that beast, where do we turn for mentor texts?  Where is there an example?

Can you ask your students "what have you read that is like what you are trying to write" when it comes to your research assignment?

I know no of mentor text from the real world that I can show a thirteen year-old that looks like what we try to teach as a traditional monster research project or paper.  Yet, I can find many relevant examples of research in the real-world.

The research project is as much a cliche as the five-paragraph essay--well intentioned, neither addresses much of what occurs in the real world.  Are we training young people who can leave our schools with the belief that they can be anything they want, or are we training them with a tool just in case they want to be an English major?

I think that is an important distinction to make and ask ourselves.

I propose teaching research (citations especially) as a skill as fluid as focus or organization.  Keep it manageable and encourage our students to cite what they've gathered and learned--yet, this also allows us to teach them to develop a fire in their belly, to have something to say about what they found, and to say it in their own way.  Average middle level students can do this is one or two pages--I really believe we lose them if we ask them work too much further when pulling in research; the balance shifts from the work about skill development to the second labor of Heracles.

Research can be, and should be, encouraged throughout the year--it is a habit of good writing.  Citing other people does not demonstrate laziness or a vapid mind; it shows us that you have done your work, that you read, and that you think.

Research is an important life skill...use it in small chunks so that you can also better evaluate it and their development as a writer.   It is far better to send them off to the high school with research developed as a writing skill, instead of as an uncomfortable and distended memory of something as unwieldy as the slaying of the Hydra.

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