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.  

Update on the Single Point Rubric

Forty-eight hours away from taking my first writing project in my English 101, fresh college composition class, and those single-point rubrics are coming into play heavily. As my students and I come into the finish line, there are lots of questions:

“Do I need to use dialogue?”

“What should I include in my writing process folder?”

“What’s in the cover letter?”

The easiest thing for me to do is to point students back to the project’s single column rubrics for either process or paper. It’s a quick reminder for students of the qualities that the work should show to be “At Standard.”

For ambitious students, such a rubric provides a clear starting point for how to excel and go beyond the basics to achieve mastery. Furthermore, it prompts students to figure out for themselves independently how to achieve this level.

For struggling and reluctant writers, a teacher no longer needs to enter a debate about the levels necessary to “pass.” Nor do teachers need to enter into a pseudo-debate in an attempt to goad students into writing more.

In both cases, a teacher has a clear, direct rubric to form the foundations of a conversation for improvement.

The last several days before a writing project comes due are given over to “workshop” days. I turn the classroom space and time over to students to finalize projects, collect process materials, reflect on their writing in a cover letter. I don’t teach anything new, and I may only review certain concepts as I move around the class and look over shoulders and see what patterns I see in work. At this stage, it’s more important to just be there as a resource to students.

On a final note, the use of Canvas has been invaluable. While I’ve used the tool the past two years, making use of the “module” function has been essential in keeping this writing project super organized with all of it’s materials, pages, files–and giving students continued access to all of this media. Awesome.

College Essays in the Spring

While Junior’s heads are stuck in spring break plans, prom dresses and upcoming AP and IB exams, counselors have begun seminars to get them thinking about college application plans. Not only is it important to get recommendation letter requests out, but it also can’t hurt to be thinking about essay plans. Drafts of the new common application questions are out now. Take a few minutes to read the questions and brainstorm some possible responses.

However, at the beginning of the process, I would suggest to stay away from answering the questions. Using an empty notebook or your word processor, make some lists about things that set you apart. Recall some interesting events from your recent past. Think about what you want to sell about yourself. Don’t self-edit. Instead, just scribble out some lists of potentials. Share with mom or dad. Then put the list away until July, with perhaps one or two return visits to add to your earlier thoughts.

My advice to juniors planning to apply to multiple four-year schools, both public and private, is to plan to write at least four different essays. The first one written will be absolute drivel, and will be easy to plant with your tomatoes in the backyard. The second one may be slightly improved, and you’ll be able to work with it. By the third and fourth, you’ll be on a roll and will be writing on topics and with material that colleges will care about. With three really good essays, you’ll have one for the central Common Application question and two others for the supplemental applications. You should prepare have the malleability to move those between the 250-300 word count and the 50-100 count.

Occasionally, I work with students who decided that the college search process means applying to all schools on the East coast, something in Texas and one school in California. If this describes your own college plans, double the amounts I’ve laid out above.

And, before you get writing, look at some of my earlier posts about the essay to both save yourself some pain in rewriting and to get started on the right foot.

 

 

Desperately Seeking, Part II

Seniors,

You’ve done what I suggested from the previous post and brainstormed a list of topic that you might find use for the common application question. Shared them with mom and dad, but your list feels dead. Nothing is inspiring you to write. You’re also nervous because as I said in a previous post, you’ve got to showcase something unique about yourself: no soccer or band camp stories, no deceased relatives, and no family trips to Myrtle Beach. Oh, and by the way, no essays about how you’re not going to write a college essay.

Before committing to a first draft of the essay, something else for you to try that would make for getting to a good topic.

One of the most famous writing workshop exercises comes from editor Gordon Lish, who asked his writers to write about a secret, should it be known would change your life. Amy Hempel, our great American short story writer has said that this exercise lead to her much anthologized “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.” This story should be required reading for every English major or future English major. It is perhaps the finest short story of the contemporary era. However, I’m off topic.

The point of Lish’s exercise is to dig into meaty topics and consider something small and personal about yourself that can be the focal point for the essay’s narrative to spin on.

Now, were not looking for deep, dark and evil secrets. Abuse, drug abuse, criminality are the kinds of college essay errors similar to writing about deceased relatives. But, let me share examples of topics of two of my students who struggled until I used the Lish prompt with them.

The first student said, “Sherlock Holmes. My dad has had me reading Sherlock Holmes stories since middle school.” The rest poured out of him, writing about what he learned about life from read about the famous sleuth. This student is now at Union. The essay topic was great because it was about reading, reading something that very few people do these days (and wasn’t about those stupid movie adaptation with Downey and Law), and showed something unique about the student.

The second student said, so quietly that I didn’t hear her at first, “Knitting.” She had never shared her love for knitting in the evenings after homework and while watching the TV. Knitting became an extended metaphor of her way of coping with stress and problem solving. She’s now a junior at SUNY Fredonia.

Who thinks that something small like Sherlock Holmes or knitting would be a topic, but there it is. The small and particular about you is what is really important. It’s not the big Himalayan pilgrimages you’ve taken, it’s that everyday thing that nobody knows.

And, if you haven’t read “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” then that’s your homework.