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.  

Blow It Up

It’s raining.

For several days, I’ve been trapped while working on revising my opening unit of my IB English 11 course. The opening unit is on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Ur-text, A Handmaid’s Tale. It was a bad trapped. Like coffin buried six feet underground and running out of oxygen with mud seeping into the pine box trapped. I was ready to stop. I was ready to fall back on the old unit plan. I was ready to…yep, go all old school and traditional. You all know what that looks like: stand at the podium, point at them for a few questions, write words on the board or Smartboard, read assignments to them, collect to the in-basket.

But, this morning, my run postponed by some much needed rain falling across Upstate New York, I had that moment of clarity. Staring at the Chromebook, it finally came altogether. Maybe in the hero’s journey of unit planning and lesson design, I had the archetypal moment where the rain comes, purifies, and the sun rises on epiphany and enlightenment. Ha!

Old me did the classic AP/IB English teacher move: Pack it all in. When I taught Atwood’s book, my students studied “A Modest Proposal,” “Rape Fantasies,” “Siren Song.” We looked at satire and satirical techniques, tone, formation of tone through diction, imagery, details, language quality and syntax. We looked at conservative social movements in 1980s America. We had three essential questions that we looked at. We looked at feminism. Kids wrote a commentary and did a visual essay. We looked at current events like social movements in the Middle East and declining birth rates. Man, I was good at giving them all a lot of college level content.

After the last time I taught the book, I knew something had to change.

Oh, and I also wanted to add readings from Richard Wrangham’s Demonic Males and Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy. I loved all this stuff, and I was sure to impress upon my students how much I loved it. Deep down, I knew I wasn’t embracing the change.

I’ve had a lot swirling in my head around change: Starr Sackstein’s book Hacking Assessment, stuff from the Buck Institute for Project Based Learning, George Couros’ Innovator’s Mindset. I was looking to leverage the power of Schoology, my desire to flip my classroom. How to bring in Edublogs to my IB students? And, I really wanted to bring sincere inquiry to the process of learning between myself and students in my room. My understanding of from all of this is for me to stop talking and give students the opportunity to do it themselves.

How could I combine all that great stuff that I used to do with all the new approaches that I wanted to embrace? Thus, the coffin-like stuck that I found myself in the past few days.

Then, the rain came, and my run was still postponed. I was in Schoology fiddling with the calendar, unit outline, essential questions. I stopped and deleted it all.

I had to burn it down. Blow it all up.

I made a simple decision. We would look at one question in this book. The essential question were going to focus on: Is satire an effective form of political commentary to promote social change?

From this decision, and really this moment of clarity, everything else is falling into place.

The first thing that came after that was the final project. Students will create some kind of satire of a social ill or problem that they’re passionate about. They’ll integrate satirical techniques. They’ll comment on each other’s work. They’ll pick a genre for their satire and a mode to display that satire in.

From there, I was able to start to backwards design the necessary lessons, calendar and timeline, and then figure out what needed to stay and what I could cut away. Then, I was able to design a Grading Outline to show students what needed to be completed to earn a grade in each grade band.

It’s still not all done, yet. I had my moment of clarity about 90 minutes ago, and then I’ve spent about 30 minutes writing this reflection and post. I’m working on it.

Anyway, rain’s stopped. Time to go log some miles!