With the start of the second semester and return of students from Winter Break, we will be launching into our work on the research paper today! While I've taught the process for writing an argumentative research paper for six years now, I still find myself tweaking my procedure every year to account for and try to avoid areas of confusion or difficulty for students or myself.
Several years ago, however, I reconnected with a book called The Curious Researcher by Bruce Ballenger that I actually used in my high school English course. One of the main issues I was attempting to troubleshoot at the time when I discovered this old book, dusty on a shelf, was that my students were picking argumentative topics that were boring, irrelevant to the researcher, and completely overused by students. Ballenger suggested that students complete an interest inventory to help students gather genuine interests outside of the context of the research assignment, and I have had quite a bit of success with going about topic selection in this manner! With my district's conversion to 1:1 technology, I transposed Ballenger's Interest Inventory to a Google Form, which students will begin the hour by filling out. I will encourage students to complete this form with legitimate interests by stressing the fact that ANY interest can be turned into an argumentative research paper with creative thought and our topic selection process! For additional encouragement to take this prewriting step seriously, I will also set the requirement that the FINAL topic they choose to write their paper on must be on this inventory in some way, shape, or form. Without this requirement, students will be tempted to half-heartedly write down random "interests" just to complete the form, which is worthless for the topic selection process. I have included screencaps of the form in the Resources section.
Immediately following the completion of their Interest Inventory, students will need to complete the Research Attitudes & Attributes Survey, which I will use to guide my instructional focus throughout "research season" (as I lovingly call it). I have found that it's extremely helpful to get a baseline understanding of students' knowledge about research processes, their actual process when approaching this kind of task, and their confidence. I anticipate these results will be improved, as our earlier Mini-Research Presentation (completed within the Transcendentalist unit) should have served as a primer for this extended writing project. A document form of the survey is in the resources section, and a complete breakdown of the results of my classes' surveys is contained in the reflection for this section.
After students have completed their own explorations of interests and prior research knowledge, I will present my "Choosing a Genuinely Interesting Research Paper Topic & Thesis" slideshow to give students a better understanding of the requirements of the research project, the importance of choosing a great topic and thesis statement, and the format of arguments. My notes for presentation are included in the "Notes" section of the slideshow. I will also make this presentation available to my students on my website, because while I want to go over all of the things they should be thinking about while selecting a topic, it is not likely that they will retain every single piece of information presented here. This presentation is intended to act as a primer to get students to start THINKING about the research project in the appropriate way and to serve as a resource for students later in the project when they get into the nuts and bolts of the writing process. (While I do not include this information in the presentation to avoid freaking students out, ultimately, the argumentative research paper assignment is set up to be 8-10 pages of MLA-formatted text, using 5-7 sources, and pulling information from at least 80 notecards. While students occasionally ask about these specifics, I never offer it up on the first day without some kind of prompting!)
Once the presentation is complete, I will give students about ten minutes to pull up their completed copies of the Interest Inventory, choose the topics they are most interested in, then use the question & answer method we modeled in class to gather a total of five thesis statements (really basic is just fine!) from their interests. As in my example, they may have more than one possible thesis about a topic, or they may use five completely different topics to create their sample statements! They will probably not finish this in class, but I will use this time to walk around and answer questions while they get started with it. I included a students' sample in the resources, which shows her initial interest and then a "thesis statement" for each option. While her attempt at thesis statements was too complex for what I actually needed (and utilizes a format that isn't correct for thesis statements), it does illustrate how this approach helps students to think about a whole issue rather than choose statements at random, which was pretty common before I started using this Interest Inventory and inquiry-based format for topic selection.
As our final activity for the day, students set up an Actively Learn account to read Jack London's "To Build a Fire." I discovered this application over break when I was researching ways to increase class participation, active reading, and critical reading (instead of skimming without thought or using resources like Sparknotes to supplement reading!). The Chromebooks certainly have their benefits, but I do find myself seeking out ways to deter or prevent negative behaviors quite often. When I evaluated this application, I really loved some of the features available to users (detailed in my review video below!), so I am excited to see what my students think of it after interacting with the system today. I already set up a module on "To Build a Fire" within the system, leaving my own comments to model critical thought (much like "think alouds"), inserting Common Core aligned and labeled questions throughout the reading, linking extra supplemental informational texts (including an atlas entry on the Yukon, a WebMD article on frostbite, and a WebMD article on hypothermia), and even including a viral video clip of water instantly freezing to show how cold it is. The Actively Learn platform seems to me to be an ideal way to collect and curate resources for independent student work, collaborative work, and synthesis of information in a variety of formats, all of which are key to the Common Core.
I will provide students with the Actively Learn address, then instruct them to sign up with their Google accounts and enter a specific code to join my class. I will also explain to them up front that they are my guinea pigs, so while I think this platform could be AWESOME for them, I will really need their feedback about what they liked and didn't like about it. Then, I will direct them to review the characteristics of Naturalism and then begin on the "To Build a Fire" module in their accounts. They will be required to answer all 20 questions embedded in the story, and they can also leave comments, add to my discussion posts, or mark difficult areas with "red flags" if they want to discuss them in the next class period. I will include the questions I inserted into this reading in the resources section and a few screencaps. If you would like to have my actual module within Actively Learn shared with you, please feel free to leave me feedback or send an email and I can share it with you directly!
In the last few minutes of class, I will ask students to give me their "first impression" reaction to Actively Learn. Since I have never had students use this platform before, I have no idea what they will say! They will complete a "reflection" at the start of next hour so I can collect feedback more formally, but I want to get at least a little knowledge about the student experience before they leave.
Students should have completed the "To Build a Fire" module in Actively Learn and written up five unique thesis statements by the start of next class period. We're working with both of these topics next time!