So, You’ve Been Asked to Write a 4,000 Word Research Paper: Where to Begin

As an IB Coordinator and long-time IB kool aid drinker, the Extended Essay (EE) poses an important, appropriate and formidable challenge for Diploma students. The EE is supposed to be the central experience of this program. In my mind, it’s meant to encapsulate everything about the IB experience: Inquiry-based teaching and learning, source-based writing, in-depth study, time management, collaboration with others and reflection. It’s an experience that all students should have a brush with, not just DP students.

This year, not only am I an IB Coordinator, but I’m also the parent of a rising year-one diploma student. Last night, as my family was sitting down for a dinner of enchiladas, rice and beans, and a salad, my daughter brought up the first hurdle in taking on the Extended Essay: “I’m not really sure how to get started.”

The first step in the EE process is settling on a subject area and broad topic that can start to narrow the sources to be consumed. For example, the IB EE website lists some examples of broad topics for Literature:

  • Marriage in the novels of Charlotte Bronte 
  • Comedy in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream and Twelfth Night
  • Autobiographical details in the novels of Cesar Aira.
  • A comparison of the main characters in Huckleberry Finn and Candide.

These are by no means final topics, but for me as a coordinator, they are a starting point that allow a student to create a preliminary bibliography and begin the process of research (and by this I mean reading). By June, I’d like my students to have settled into a specific topic. For example (and again from the IB EE website): 

  • The portrayal of marriages as imperfect in Sarah Water’s Fingersmith and The Little Child.
  • The use of the Clown archetype in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream and Twelfth Night
  • Satirical techniques and travel in Huckleberry Finn and Candide. 

In response, I thought I would share somethings that I would do if I had to write a 4,000 word research essay. Don’t see the list below as steps in a process. You could do them in any order!

  1. Start by thinking about subjects at school that I’m passionate about and that I might be thinking about studying in college. Then, I would go to the Extended Essay site and read the “Subject-specific guidance” and particularly “Choice of Topic” sections. These will give examples of the kinds of topics that are appropriate.
  2. Make an appointment to see AP and IB teachers of subjects you are passionate about. Talk to them about potential EE topics. Don’t know who in the building might know about something you are interested in researching, see your IB Coordinator or Librarian.
  3. Brainstorm lists of ideas your interested in. Use these as jumping off points to further reading and exploration.
  4. Surf Twitter, find blogs, podcasts and content aggregators who post interesting material and content. Read this stuff and add to your brainstorming.
  5. Read the Sunday New York Times. All of it. Take topics and stories from the issue that are intriguing to you, add them to your brainstorming.
  6. What are your hobbies? How might what you do outside of class lead to topics and research? I’ve seen great essays come out of a love of Ultimate Frisbee, or Violin playing, or War Movies, or Harry Potter.
  7. Talk to family. Have mom or dad or aunt or uncle help you brainstorm about your passions and interests. Talk to them about how their experiences with research and their passions. Maybe this will spark topics.
  8. Go to a museum or historical society. In our area, the George Eastman house, Strong Museum of Play, Art Gallery, Women’s Rights Hall of Fame could all lead to you thinking about interesting ideas.
  9. My English students write “Passion Blogs.” If you write in any way about stuff that interests you, go back and look at other writing and add to your brainstorming, Not only should you add it to your brainstorming, you should “content spin it” or “topic spin it.” What does that mean? Look at my example below.

Recently, I had a student write a mock “How-to” blog post on surviving a zombie apocalypse. To content spin it, with an aim of developing topics, I take the central topic and consider how different IB subject areas or disciplines would explore that topic.

English:  The presentation of the zombie in post-millennium YA literature.

History: The history of zombies in American culture.

Sciences: Necrotizing Bacteria.

Film: The presentation of the zombie in film.

World Studies: Beliefs about zombies in religion and the treatment of the AIDS virus in Africa and the Caribbean.

My last thought is schedule some time over Christmas break to meet with your IB Coordinator for coffee or a burger and have a chat about the EE. Get his or her perspective on this project and talk about your ideas.  

Learning from Learning: Documentation and Blogging

It sounded like a good idea at the time: The Documentation Project.

The end of August was rolling around and I was starting to think about the school year. What were my goals? What key pieces of instruction did I want to take on? What were going to be important milestones and projects?

In thinking about these questions, Angela Stockman (@AngelaStockman) posted in the Building Better Writers group on Facebook. She was offering a year-long session in documentation of learning, creating, a private group called “The Documentation Project.”

Currents were converging.

The offer of documenting learning would keep me honest about a goal, and perhaps help me to both step up my instruction and really learn from it.

At the end of August, all this sounded like a good idea. Last week, in the middle of a 20-point To-Do list, not so much. Additionally, Angela was pushing us along, asking What we were going to document and how we were going to do. Again, not so much.

However, last week and over the weekend, some stuff kinda gel-d for me. This blog is what I came up with.


I’ve decided to document the learning about writing that goes on in my IB English 11 class. We spent the first 4 days of class creating student run Edublogs, and populating them with several different kinds of posts and pages. Students will blog once a week, writing about either personal interests, mentor-text reading, or in further their thinking about current texts under discussion.

One of the questions that I’m asking about blogs is do blogs and blog writing create better writers.

I see the learning and documentation coming from weekly reflection on what I’m seeing in their blogs, and the lessons that I plan coming from this cycle or process.

For example, in the first round of blogging, I asked students to comment on each other’s blogs. Here, students are in groups of four, commenting on blogs in these groups to keep it manageable.

After the first round of blogs and comments were submitted, I asked students to reflect on what we’ve done so far. Flipgrid was an easy tool for collecting this feedback. The primary feedback I got was that commenting on other student work was the most difficult part of the process.

When I teach giving feedback–whatever kind of feedback that might be–I use the Stanford Design school technique of “I Like, I Wish, I Wonder.” This gives students a way of looking at student work and moving feedback from something personal to something constructive, and that is both positive and critical simultaneously.

Certainly, commenting on the work of others is a challenging task. No one would disagree. It requires us to carefully consider, to understand intention, to think about the effects of writing on our own experience as the consumer of a piece. Then, to articulate those noticings into writing.

Today, we’re going to look at some mentor texts by looking at public comments to the New York Times blogroll to see what we might learn about the moves we need to make as participants in a conversation.

I use that phrase, “participants in a conversation,” intentionally. From looking at blogs and my students reflection on them, my purposes behind blogging with them are clarified. Better writing means, for me, increased engagement in a conversation. I want them to participate with each other in a conversation of ideas and thinking.

Teaching commenting and giving feedback is one way to do this.

The other aspect that’s come clearer for me this weekend, was that blogging, for all its coolness, offers a challenge to today’s high school writer (and perhaps today’s high school English teacher): There is no right way to do it. In a Regents-exam driven classroom, where the answer for how to write the essay is clear and easy to teach, the blog form does not lend itself to “This is how you do it.”

Instead, the blog post is, perhaps, the most complex of rhetorical situations students might have to respond to. Worthy territory for writers, indeed.

Viewing Courses in Schoology

Welcome back!

As a tech integrator, my work during the first week of school fell into two categories. The first was helping last year’s Schoology converts to load courses and materials into their new live courses. And, the second category was helping teachers who are starting to convert materials.

Clearly, everyone’s realizing that Schoology is here to stay at CA and that it’s a powerful tool for managing courses.

As teachers become more comfortable with this tool, they inevitably start looking for greater customization.

My tech tip this week helped to show some features–both old and new–in Schoology that would help with how their Schoology home-pages look.

I forget to mention in the video that a great strategy for customization comes in changing the course profile picture. Schoology is offering us a greater range of choice, but I like finding something custom to my class that gives us our own brand identity.

 

Kingdom Come: A Short Pilgrimage to Kingdom Trails

On the first full day of my recent mountain biking trip to Kingdom Trails, in East Burke, Vermont, I was taking a moment to rest on Darling Hill Road, a main thoroughfare to the trail network, when a truck came along lazily, pulled up along side me. Inside was a grizzled sheep dog and his equally grizzled person with a dirty Budweiser trucker, holding down a mop of brown hair.

From inside the cab of the truck, the driver croaked something at me both inaudible and indecipherable.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“Want some marijuana?” and with that he extended his arm and at the end of it was a small glass pipe.

“No. No, thanks,” I said.

“Your loss.” And, with that, the truck pulled away.

Quintessential Vermont. A place of stark contrasts in it’s people, landscapes and possibilities.


Kingdom Trails & East Burke, Vermont

Every summer, we pack our daughter off to camp in mid-August. As soon as she’s gone, I’m freed from summer Dad-duties. I pack my car, and take off on my own adventure. Some summers it’s the Whites or the Adirondacks or the Gunks. But, as a new mountain bike rider, I wanted to go explore a place that I’d been reading a lot about.

Kingdom Trails is a network of 80 miles of mountain bike trails in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Located in East Burke, about 7 hours from Rochester, New York (my home base), Kingdom offers a playground for all sorts of riders.

I’m fairly new to mountain biking, and I’m a very conservative rider. I’m not into bombing down hills or shredding technical trails. What I’m looking for is a chance to be on my bike, outside, and to be able to experience a lot of nature in a day.

Kingdom accommodates. I’ve rode there about four days, covered much of the green and blue trails without repeating anything. But, for those looking for more challenge, there’s plenty of black trails for steep downhills or technical riding. I saw plenty of riders, like myself, rocking their dad bods. I saw groups of families with dads on full-suspension rigs with their kids on Walmart Huffies. I saw retiree couples getting rides in.  All are welcome.

East Burke also provides an excellent hub for travelers. I stay in a lean-to in the Burke Mountain campground, which was perfect for my budget and plans, as well as providing a central place for riding from. The first day, I drove down to the main parking lot in town (a 2 mile trip), but the second day I rode directly onto the trails from the campground. The campground is on a mountain directly above a ski resort. So, if you are looking for upgraded accommodations, this might be the place for you.

The campground the the resort are owned by the same people, so campers have access to the pool and hot tub at the resort, as well as the pub, which offered great food, and more importantly, a dozen taps of excellent Vermont craft beer.

In town, there are rentals, hostels, motels. And, for a small town, there’s several gastro-pubs, ice cream shops, and delis. Everything is very low-key and friendly. It’s a great mountain town.

In town a popular spot is the Tiki Bar, great for post-ride beverages. Atop Darling Hill, I found a bike shop-Espresso Bar-Beer Garden. To dip into my cliche bucket–a little heaven on Earth. Talk about contrasts–one minute you can be riding in what feels like the back country, but a few minutes later you can be indulging in the finer points of civilization: an espresso, or a cold double IPA, or a plate of house made sausages over piles of mashed potatoes. Or all perhaps all three.


The Riding

Pretty much anyone going to Kingdom is going to find themselves stopping in the Trail Network Office, where you buy a $15 pass to ride for the day and get a trail map. My first time, I told the person I was a first-timer and that I was fairly new to mountain biking. I got suggestions for a 20 mile ride on manageable trails, and with that, I felt pretty oriented to the area.

Some of my favorite rides from this trip took me to what felt like remote places. While I had to take the steep River Walk, a black-square route to get down to River Run, it was worth the risk. River Run is several miles of either old logging-road or groomed single track. There are several places to access the adjacent stream.

I started the blog post talking about the contrasts that seem everywhere for me in a place like Kingdom and in particular the riding here. Sometimes in open fields and others through tight forests. Sometimes down steady declines and others off the bike pushing up big slopes.

For me, the seven hour trip from home is too far for a weekend, so I’ll have to content myself with planning a trip back to Kingdom and East Burke next summer.

Blogging & Personalized Learning

The following are notes from a presentation I made on May 16, at Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES during a conference on Personalized Learning. The notes have been revised into their current form and to be read. 


Introduction

What I’d like to propose today that all teachers and students should begin to blog. Blogging, in all its forms, varieties, and definitions, its glorious uncertain malleability, is the perfect vehicle for personalized learning. 

While I’m doing this, I’ll also take a look at the teacher considerations for blogging with students, including a look at the platforms available for blogging [However, for the purposes of this post, I do not go into that part of my presentation]

I’ll talk about the how I blog as a educator, the roll blogging plays in the work of teachers and students, some look at various platforms and how I use blogs in several of my English classes. The talk will move every so slightly beyond blogging to look at how I use a variety of tools in working with students to teach writing and communication skills.

Using these apps–like those in G-suite or Flipgrid–in concert together allows me to create a classroom space where students have a high degree of choice over the topics that they learn about, are able to move at their own pace.

As I work to talk about my beliefs and practices around blogging, I want to begin with several disclaimers:

First, I have great reservations about speaking at a personalized learning confernece, because I don’t really know what it is, and if what I do with some of my students reflects what this is.

After the conference proposal for this talk was accepted, I went out onto the web, to see if I could figure out what personalized learning was. According to Sean Cavanaugh, associate editor as Education Week, personalized learning is teaching that meets students needs, there are competency-based progression, flexible learning environments, high expectations but choice in paths to follow, and works in conjunction with a learner profile that records student strengths, needs, motivations, and goals. And, while this was a jumping off point to me, I myself see personalized learning as a teacher creating an environment where students are able to learn and to explore what they want to learn about, while engaging in learning behaviors that enable them to become life-long learners, and autodidact in nature.

Second, I make no claims about the value or worth of my blog or my blogging or of the blogging that I ask my students to do. You might have your device in hand currently, and are looking to find my wordpress blog, read it, and say, there’s some real crap there. That’s true. And, what I would argue, is that this is good thing. Blogging isn’t about the perfect end, the finely editing, perfected piece. It’s about learning in all it’s glory. And, this is why we should do it.

What is a blog? 

There are 2 answers to this question. 

So, a blog is essentially a website which you have complete control over in terms of form and content. Its appearance, design, and layout are largely determined by you. In this context, there are blog posts and blog pages. Blog posts are generally more dynamic because they grow and scroll depending on how much content you put into them. Pages are static, and contain information about specific topics: for example, I have a page that I update on what I’m doing, a page about running in the Fingerlakes, and about lessons and projects that I do. Depending on the platform you are blogging on, you will have more control and options, and if you start to invest money, the possibilities of what you can do on your blog increase.

I think the best introduction to blogging either for yourself or to show to other people, I would recommend this video:

Second, there is the blog, or blog-post, this is a piece of writing that shows up on your blog, and that has some kind of message. A reflection on your day, on a lesson that you taught, an argument for an educational practice, a list of the best books for the first ½ of the 2018 year. While blogs share rhetorical characteristics of their analog counterparts–they are written for a range of purposes, such as informative, argumentative, analytical or evaluative–they are a communicative genre in their own right. The structure of the blog post is different from an essay, there is the ability to create posts that are multi-modal in nature and include video, audio, image, and because they are written for the web, they can be hyperlinked, include embedded documents, and provide an experience which allows for the readers to interact with the writing itself by access the media, but also, commenting and adding to what is written.

The Value & Importance of the Teacher-Blogger

But, one of the best ways we create pathways for personalized learning is through blogging as teachers. By creating a blog, we give ourselves a place to write down our thoughts, to reflect on what we are learning in our classrooms, to record lessons. But we also have a space where we can connect with others and follow and read their blogs.

As George Couros, author of the Innovator’s Mindset, writes that the value in blogging is “To share, to develop and to archive. “Couros goes so far to say that it’s the job of educators to blog. To quickly summarize his argument, he claims that if reflection is a key part of our practice, a required part of our practice, then blogging is a way to reflect, sharing our voice, and being accountable to others.

In a post from Couros’ “The Principal of Change” blog published in November of 2014, he says that blogs can:

  1. Focus on growth and showcase
  2. Opportunity to focus on literacy
  3. Use wide array of literacy
  4. Develop and auidence.
  5. Develop and nurture voice.

As teacher-bloggers, we are modeling an important process for our students, we are modeling the process of life-long learning and being auto-didactic, if personalized learning is the act of becoming auto-didactic.

Our blogs can act as models for student about the learning process. How we research and collect sources, how we curate these resources, the development of the products that we make for our classes. We can model for them how we ourselves create products.

So, a blog, the writing we put there is important in nurturing our own personalized learning, and to show students that we our learners ourselves.

Of course, this opens us to the exact kinds of scrutiny that we as educators don’t like. Many of us are private about what goes on in the classroom, we fear others coming to observe us because we fear the criticism and evaluation that can come from this.

There are other problems. If I’m reflecting on a lesson that goes badly on my blog, does this reflection include lack of participation from my students or their lack of engagement. As teacher-bloggers, we need to consider our content and its connection to our audience in ways that we might never have before. 

The Value of Blogging with Students

What can we do with blogs with our students? And, how does blogging help us to develop more personalized learning?

As with educator blogging I discussed above, blogs offer an opportunity to record their thinking, and gives them a reflection space.

Blogs offer students a research space as they might be exploring ideas for a project, they can write about what they spent their time reading, and what questions they have and what questions they found answers to.

Blogs offer students authenticity. They are written for a community or public (more on this in a minute) and they are going to be read. If you are not going to let students publish their blogs to be read by at least other students, they should write in a different format and venue. At least let other students read, but perhaps consider finding avenues for other teachers, parents, and other students in the building read. Edublogs makes this possible in the sharing settings of the classes you create.

Blogs can also be a portfolio space. Students can create project pages, these pages can contain picture of process, final products, a reflect that is either text-based, or in some other mode like audio or video.

Blogs with students become an important artifact.  Couros writes that all students leaving high school should have the following: a personal learning network, an about me page and x…We can help students cultivate their online presences and develop a digital footprint that represents the best about their academic selves.

Blogs offer a chance to write real-world texts for current trends in media. They are not essays. They are unique, and if students are going to be competitive in 21st century economies, they have to know how to produce real-world texts.

These elements are all possible by using a blog.

Things to Consider

When we are deciding to work with blogging with our students, here are the things we have to decide.

The following image sums up these considerations nicely:

Personalized Learning_ Blogging

Duration–for one unit or for whole year?

Privacy–Who will have access to reading posts? Commenting…required or suggested/asked.

Content–Does the teacher provide topics or do students find their own?

Reflection–How and when do students learn from the experience? 

Quality–Finely polished summative pieces, or works in progress as part of students process?

Control–Who maintains and supervises? Of course the teacher, but to what degree? 

What is the value in a student blog? Certainly, the value and the dangers and pitfalls are the same. When students are “naughty” we have problems with codes of conduct, there can be threats to security and to privacy. At the same time, we have the ability to raise these conversations with students within the context of them become makers for the web. We turn them from consumers of YouTube videos, and empower them by giving them a space where they can make and create.

 We need to look at the kinds of blogging we can do.

Are we going to create a class blog, one in which the teachers control all aspects. A teacher posts an assignment or question, and students post comments or responses to this. The teacher can moderate these posts, and as the posts go up, others in the class can view and comment.

Another way to blog with students is to create an actual blog for each student, where the student has control over the format, appearance, layout and content. What the blog gets filled with is up to the teacher, beause of assignments, but in open-ended assignments, we have the opportunity.