Saturday, May 10, 2014

Researching Research

Image from GEPlan
I am researching research.  I know, it all sounds very meta.  But following my tenth grade English students' completion of our 20% time research projects, I wondered just how much of a difference, if any, this type of inquiry-based research writing assignment made for my practicing writers. And so I ended up undertaking a type of research that was quite similar to the research writing that I was studying from my students.  I completed a 20% research project on my students’ 20% research project!  Recently when I was interviewing my former students about their work, this is how we both discussed my own research.  And so I have had an opportunity to learn not only from my students as I interviewed and surveyed them, but also as I engaged in the very assignment I had asked them to complete. In recognizing this connection to my students’ work, I strived to replicate for myself many of the same activities that I asked my students to engage in as way of better understanding how I had asked my students to engage in their research process.  I needed to get inside both their research and mine.  To do that, I have been using this blog to share my reflections on what I have learned along with the resources I have gathered along the way in much the same way that I asked my students to blog about their research.  And because I asked my students to share their research and reflections as a presentation at the close of their work, I, too, wanted to share my research in this way. I was fortunate to be able to present recently at the Philadelphia School of the Future’s Educator Forum on May 3rd. And by the close of my presentation, I realized that my research is not yet complete.  Not only do I still have more to learn from my students, but I also learned that I need to revise my presentation to make sure that my students’ voices speak more about their process than I do.  So before I present this research again at the end of July in Chicago at the EdTech Teacher Summit, I plan to interview more of my students. I am interested in hearing more from my students about their writing experiences.

In designing both my survey questions and my interview questions, I was initially interested in learning more about what writing skills my students endorsed as those we developed through our more traditional research writing project versus those we developed through our more inquiry-based 20% research writing project. However, what I discovered from the student responses to both the survey and interview questions is that my students wanted to talk more about the structure of the assignment and what that did to encourage (and sometimes discourage) their engagement with writing and reflection. In the survey portion of my research, I asked students to review specific writing skills that our Pennsylvania Common Core State Standards outline as assessment anchors for expository writing and reflect on whether our traditional research essay writing assignment or our 20% research assignment better helped students practice these particular skills. In reviewing survey responses, I could see that there was quite a bit of diversity in their perceptions of what writing skills we were working to develop.  The only assessment anchors that were endorsed similarly by all students were the first criteria, “Analyze the interrelationships of ideas and events in a text to determine how one idea or event may interact and influence another”, which all those responding students indicated that our more traditional research addressed, and the last two anchors.  The last two criteria, both focused on the conventions and grammar of writing, pulled unanimous responses from the students who took the survey.  All students indicated that “Both types of writing assignments equally helped me learn this skill” to the last two criteria. So if both the traditional and more inquiry-based ways of structuring research writing assignments equally helped students develop skills with grammar and convention, what differentiated the assignments?

In reviewing the open-ended survey responses to the questions of “What did you learn about writing from your completion of the 20% time research project?” and the related question about our more traditional SSR research writing assignment, I noticed a striking difference.  Students nearly universally responded that what they learned from the traditional writing assignment was what we typically identify as writing conventions.  One student responded, “I’m horrible at doing works cited, so this project cleared up a lot of questions I had in regards to citing my work.” Another responded: “I was able to incorporate facts and other information to make an overall essay that was still interesting to the reader.” These typified the strengths students identified in the traditional research writing assignment, one in which their writing steps were prescribed and students were given an outline for how to organize their writing.  Students identified that they learned how to incorporate facts, fix sentence errors, and cite information. However, no student mentioned learning anything about the writing process or about the craft of writing in connection with completing the traditional research writing assignment.  However, students responded quite differently to questions about the strengths of the 20% project.

When asked about the strengths of completing our 20% research project, not only did students give more specific and detailed responses, but they also spent more time talking about their writing process, the decisions they made as to what to research, how to go about their research, as well as how to share their research.  Student responses were more focused on the process of their writing.  One student responded in the survey by stating that the 20% research project helped her understand that “Writing is so much more than just an essay.  This project gave me the opportunity to write (and post) blog-style pieces which turned out to be really fun.  Also, by creating a project proposal video, I was given the opportunity to make a presentation with more than just words and pictures (but actual creative animations) and to my surprise, I actually enjoyed making it.” In reviewing my students’ survey, interview responses, and reflective blog posts that they composed during their research process, students repeatedly referenced the importance of choice, purpose, and audience on their decision-making and composing processes.  Students wrote more about the choices they made both in the research process and rhetorically in the composing process based on sharing their work with a real audience.  During interviews, multiple students cited choice, mentors, audience, and reflection as significant motivating factors for how they wrote and shared their work.

In pulling together their survey and interview responses and reviewing the blog posts and digital compositions that students crafted during the completion of their 20% time research, seven themes emerged.  As I thought through how I wanted to share this research with others, I sought to find a way to distill those themes into an easily understood framework.  So after listing out my themes and thinking through the words that students used most often to describe their writing, I stumbled upon the idea of empowerment.  Students were not simply engaged in writing, they described feeling empowered by the process of research and inquiry when they had choice and ownership over it.  Using the word “empower” helped me frame my findings.  EMPOWER is an acronym for the seven elements of our research writing that students identified as being crucial elements in their success:
  • E - empowering choice
  • M - mentors as models for learning
  • P - process over product
  • O - ownership
  • W - wonder
  • E - enabling connections
  • R - reflection
Many of the elements that my students cited as being critical to their research process have also been cited by others.  Daniel Pink’s popular book Drive, focusing on what drives our motivation, also speaks to the power of choice, ownership, and the role that connecting with other learners plays in our motivation.  Additionally, writing teachers like Peter Elbow, Kelly Gallagher, and Penny Kittle have been publishing about the influence of purpose, audience, and reflection on the composing process for student writers.  So my research bears out some of what others have already published about how teachers can empower their students writers.  However, what I have found most interesting and what is leading me to do further research is why then isn't more inquiry and process-based research writing done in the English classroom, especially at the high school level?

In initially starting our 20% time research project this past fall, I sought the permission of my principal. This seems to highlight just how unusual this inquiry-based writing assignment is for the high school English classroom.  But clearly, it shouldn't be.  Inquiry-based or problem-based learning is not just for the hard sciences.  Humanities classrooms clearly can benefit from this approach as well.  Engaging in my own research on the research writing that I ask my students to do has encouraged me to reflect and re-envision how I structure and facilitate the writing opportunities in my high school English classroom.  Teaching writers is not about teaching the writing.  As Lucy Calkins' suggests in her book The Art of Teaching Writing, “[We] are teaching the writer and not the writing. Our decisions must be guided by ‘what might help this writer’ rather than ‘what might help this writing’” (228). Both by researching my students’ responses to this particular assignment as well as engaging in it myself has me gain a greater appreciation for the context in which writing happens in the classroom.
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