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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?
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
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.