Nothing instilled fear and disgust in a room of 30+ high school students like the word “research.” As an English Language Arts (ELA) teacher, I dreaded the designated grading period when we had to conduct the mandated research paper.
My own personal distaste for research papers goes back to my high school days. I blame those blasted note cards. Those little, taunting 3.5 by 5 rectangles of frustration. I loathed them! I loathed the fact that they were color coded. I loathed the fact I had to turn in a certain amount every week while conducting research. I loathed the fact that I absolutely NEVER ended up using them when I actually wrote my essay.
The reality is my brain does not organize information that way. What worked best for me was either making copies of the pages I wanted and highlighting what I needed or just jotting down a bulleted list of what I wanted from a source on a piece of notebook paper. I figured I would fake my way through the note cards for that grade and use my note-taking system to write my essay the way that made sense to me.
Then one day I watched my husband get ready to write his first essay for graduate school. He purchased a bunch of notecards and used them! I stared on in disbelief as he laid them all out on the floor of the office and arranged them by topic in neat little rows. That is when I understood why someone would think that would be helpful. I also realized that different brains process information differently.
As a teacher, it was my turn to assign the dreaded research paper. Right there in black and white in our district curriculum, it said that students were required to turn in notecards. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t ask my students to do what I was barely able to remember how to do. Plus, I certainly didn’t plan on grading them. After all, was the skill my students were meant to learn how to collect information properly or how to write on a notecard? It turns out nowhere in my state’s ELA requirements does it say students need to create note cards. I made a chart to check.
I do understand there are students, like my husband, who might find notecards really useful. It was important to me to provide choices. I didn’t spend an entire class on just one system especially since there are plenty of videos out there willing to teach research notecards to them.
The second problem I faced when I conducted research as a student was that all the topics I was told to research about were so boring. How could I be forced to spend so much time learning about something I had zero interest in? In college, choices were offered, and I quickly saw that research could be fun. I could decide what I wanted to learn and connect back to the classroom. Add that to the fact my professors were only interested in the end result and not the process eliminating notecard grades, and I actually began to look forward to writing essays.
Often, designated curriculums give one topic that all the students are supposed to research. Therefore, all the students wrote the same essay from the same bank of resources in the school library. Honestly, why would anyone want to read 150 identical essays? That is what happened time and again. Had I stayed in the classroom a little longer, I believe I would have taken the risk and stopped forcing a topic on them. Instead, I would let them select what interested them most and connect it back to the classroom.
Now let’s bring all of that into 2017. My eight-year-old son had a research project due for his second grade Talented and Gifted teacher. I am determined to keep research from becoming a chore to my children. I want them to enjoy the search and synthesis of information because those are skills they will use the rest of their lives regardless of academic pursuits.
He had to research a special place in our city: Old Red Courthouse which is now a Dallas History Museum. We made a trip to both Old Red and the downtown city library. At Old Red, my son walked around with a camera and took pictures of whatever he wanted. If he wanted in the picture, he let us know so my husband or I could take it. Having that kind of ownership got him excited to learn more about the building itself.
I prepared for the trip to the library with a pocket of change in case he needed any copies. We also took a Chromebook for him to use for notes. I explained to him how he could ask the librarian for help, and though hesitant, he was the one to ask for the resources he needed. We installed the EasyBib Add-on which helped him keep track of the sources he used and created a Works Cited for him. He used the Voice to Text feature in Google Docs to record notes from the sources he got from the librarian. My job? To help leaf through sources and keep his younger brother from running loose in the library.
I was even shocked to realize my old-fashioned ways of copying sources to reference later was replaced by a scanner that simply emailed the scan to you. Even though that meant I had a pocketful of quarters weighing me down, I was excited to see that my son could just have these things emailed to him (yes, he has his own email monitored by me) to insert into his project later. The project was a digital book created in Google Slides. He used Voice to Text to tell his story. I hopped onto the Slides only if he had a question about punctuation or spelling something. After showing him how to insert pictures, he put in all the images he had taken from our trip to Old Red and the library. We even discussed why it was important to include the Works Cited page at the end in order to give proper credit to his resources.
There will still be teachers who read this and scoff. What happens when my son doesn’t have the tech available to help with citing sources or taking notes? How will he know what to do? What happens with a literary analysis or science project where it isn’t about a jaunt to a fun location in town? How will he know what topic to pursue? I just want to remind those teachers that research is, according to Oxford Living Dictionary, “the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.” It isn’t about putting the colon in the right place on a Works Cited page or turning in the correct number of note cards. It isn’t even about the tech. If I can get him excited about learning, my son will be able to find something worth exploring in any subject area and a way to record that information. The same goes for our students.
In the end, my son and I both enjoyed this experience. Every time we drive by Old Red, my son points it out and gets excited because he knows so much about it. That is the value in research. Finding what excites students so that they want to brag about what they learned. It stops being a chore and becomes an opportunity to engage in and take ownership of one’s learning. Research is a great way to empower students if we simply give them the tools they need and get out of their way.
iTeam Lead-Instructional Technology
Richardson Independent School District
Google Certified Educator⭑
Remind Connected Educator⭑