Friday, March 09, 2012

Blogging the research paper

Open Education Week, Day 5

One of the staples of the language arts classroom is the Research Paper. I wrote them when I was in high school, I still assign them as a secondary teacher, and when standardized testing permits, a lot of other teachers still assign them today. Even in my pre-Internet classroom, though, I struggled with the end result. I mean, after the research has been drafted, workshopped, revised, polished, and the paper graded, what becomes of it? For the most part the scholarly research ended there. Never really got much farther than that myself.

But lately I have to say that blogging about the research on Youth Voices has opened up a whole new perspective on the process. Composing in an open, networked public has added value to things like argument and information writing, which are becoming increasingly important in the current standards movement. I follow Bruce Ballenger's research essay approach (a book I highly recommend) with the addition of blogging about the research through the six-week process. Here's an example of a student blog entry and a productive discussion about it that really helped this student with his research. Below I outline some of the more significant moments in a more open approach to writing research.
  1. Beginnings. Ballenger's book, like much of what I've learned through the National Writing Project, is based on an inquiry approach. Real learning and authentic writing come directly from students' interests and passions. It's true for students, it's true for teachers. What else motivates us to even want to begin the research process?
  2. Accessing databases. There is a lot of valuable information that's only available through subscriptions ... or if you have a library card. Is all information free? No. But the fact is that libraries are still wonderful places to visit and having access to library databases is a means to information that isn't openly available. I require my students to obtain a FREE library card before we delve into databases.
  3. What's a researchable topic? Students need at least a week to talk about ideas that will keep them interested for the next month or so. Again, Ballenger's book is worth it for this stage alone.
  4. Surveys/interviews, and library database research. By week two students are zeroing in on their topics and it's time to do some preliminary searching through library databases and through interviews and research.
  5. Note taking. I don't spend enough time in my classroom talking about the process of gleaning information and keeping track of it during the research process. Ballenger describes a few different approaches. Since I didn't have enough time, I had my students try the double-entry journal and the research log.
  6. Real time info. I have my students search Twitter, blogs, and news to find the most current information about their inquiry. 
  7. Converse. One of the significant affordances of open discussion is the ability to have conversations about the students' inquiries with others who are outside the physical classroom. Students provide substantive comments for one another in three ways: via chat, in-doc talk, or comments on blogs. These conversations should be happening frequently in the research process not just once in a workshop.
  8. Leads and structure. Sometimes students spend an inordinate amount of time crafting and revising their introduction – at the expense of diving into the draft. Having students write three types of introductions (out of a possible nine), loosens up their writing. I also think students need to think about structure more consciously. The five-paragraph, three-point essay is one type of structure, but there are many others that students begin to appreciate once they read widely and write fluently enough to become cognizant of different structures.
  9. Face time. Even though students have access to an wide array of communication tools, there's still a basic need to talk face to face (F2F) without digital mediation. Ballenger suggests a couple of ways to conduct F2F conferences – how to direct the reader's response etc.
  10. Wrap it up. I gave this sequence six weeks of class time. I probably could have spent even more time in the revision page, but time marches on. 
  11. Publish and Share.
In the end I still have a stack of papers to grade. There are those who disagree, saying that all writing should be done electronically. Call me old-fashioned, but I still appreciate the tactile experience of ink on paper. And I think my students are still are straddling two worlds: the analog and the digital. I believe that the future I'm preparing them for will require fluency in both print and digital literacies.

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