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.  

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Combining Launch Cycle with the Writing Process

The writing process has always been one of the core elements of my classroom instruction. Whether teaching Regents-level classes or International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement or other college-level courses, using the ideas of Peter Elbow, Lucy Calkins and the writers the the Bard Institute of Writing and Thinking.

In the past year I’ve read A.J. Juliani’s Launch and Empower. Both books have pushed me to consider the connections between the design-thinking cycle and the writing process.

Both have much in common. They each begin in generating ideas, then developing drafts or prototypes, and moving through revision, before ultimately sharing that work with the public.

As contemporary composition research suggests that we should spend more time with students working with real-world audiences, the design thinking process puts an important focus into its process. It asks us to consider what problems we’ll attempt to solve, who we’re solving them for, and how what is being created will address the needs of that group. It’s for this reason that looking at ways we can bring this into the writing process can ultimately benefit students.

Every year, I start my English 101 class with an introductory lesson on the Writing Process. This lesson will get some tweaks by incorporating design-thinking vocabulary that my students and I will use throughout the year.

Below is my preliminary thinking about where the two processes overlap and what writing activities might be part of each part of these processes.

Trashing the High School English Classroom

In the traditional High School English classroom, there two ways that essays come to be assigned and written. First, the class is reading of a novel, and at the end of the unit of study, it’s time to write an essay. Second, there is a unit of study–Argument Unit, Persuasive Unit, Research Unit, Personal Narrative Unit, Comparison Contrast Unit–and the students work to produce a product towards one of these modes.

I’m going to suggest 2 different approaches to writing and re-imaginings of these traditional approaches, one I’ve tried, and the other, not.

Re-Imagining #1

My first re-imagining, and one that’s probably not a re-imagining, but just a spin on writing workshop models, is the idea that students generate their own topics and ideas for writing. However, I’m going to go much simpler. Student need just one idea or topic to write about. From there, the teacher asks the student to use that idea again and again in different genres, modes, and media forms.

While I didn’t consciously take such an approach, it happened naturally for many of my students in the second half of my English 101 class in the past semester. We started by writing information-based essays on closely related topics such as industrialized process of food production, what makes food organic, the barriers to local food economies. From there, students revised and re-purposed essays into arguments, blog posts, podcasts, infographics. They moved from information-based essays to persuasive pieces, academic research to personal letters. They took eight-page essays and cut them into 30 second Public Service announcements. They created reflective essays on their processes and used their own work as models and templates for others, students in my future classes, to follow.

A student’s struggle, often with writing, is two-fold. The first struggle is to read and to master the content of what he or she is writing about. A second struggle is then to write about it coherently.

The single topic approach may cut away with the first struggle. After a while, there comes to be an intimacy with a topic, the conversations around it, a fluency with the conversations in progress, a knowledge of the details. They develop familiarity and comfort.

Thus, they can focus on the moves of the coherent communication.

Re-Imagining #2

In this idea, the English teacher has no responsibility to create writing assignments, to figure out what students should write about, or to do any of the other traditional approaches to writing instruction as I’ve described in the introduction above.

Instead, the other High School subject area teachers are required to assign reading, and set writing tasks associated with the reading.

In the English classroom, then, the teacher works with students on these assignments. Time is provided, perhaps, to write these assignments, to process, to conference, to revise and to rewrite and to edit. As a person trained in the writing instruction, something that High School teachers in other subject areas are not and a significant stumbling block to cross-curricular writing instruction and the idea with the Common Core that “All teachers are teachers of writing,”these teachers now provide instruction on writing in particular disciplines, towards different purposes, focuses lessons targeted to student needs.

At the same time, it also solves the “All teachers are teacher of writing” conundrum in High School, because it forces math, science, history, business and art teacher to think of assessment in terms of written products.

Infographics: One Genre with Multiple Uses in the Writing Classroom

A year ago, I wrote a blog on my first foray into having students create infographics in one of my courses, and the benefits of those texts as part of synthesizing sources before writing longer, source-based essays.

A year later, I’m back in and kicking it to the next level. Since then, I’m coming back having done some further reading and work on teaching this text. In terms of research to prepare for this, here’s what I read:

In these sources, the authors put forth a convincing case for the power of using infographics for their malleability to a variety of writing situations and purposes. I would highly recommend them, and I say this as I am quickly shredding my copies from overuse.

Back to English 101:

For several weeks, students are reading and watching sources on food systems in the United States in preparation for writing an essay with the purpose of informing. I use the infographic as one step in a process–it brings students to synthesize their sources around a focused topic.

Returning to this assignment for the second year, I made several upgrades to the assignment. First, students would ultimately produce these digitally. Second, I used our LMS, Schoology, to create a page of resources and suggested process for my students.

On this page, I included a mentor study with accompanying texts, Youtube videos on design principles and using PowerPoint to create these texts, as well as links to other free web tools for designing. The page breaks the creation of the infographic into (suggested) discrete steps, with check-in points at each stage so I could monitor student progress. I made a significant design change to this page, which I’ll discuss later.

screenshot-2016-12-15-at-12-16-51-pm

My Schoology page for Infographics

 

We spent a little less than a week working through the creation of these texts. Here are some of the products:

infographics

illegal-immigration-

101obesity-101

Moving on:

I was pretty pleased with the assignment, the process I laid out, the resources students were accessing to help them.

I decided to assign this as a task in my elective, Media Maker, as one part of an unit on the Role of Technology in education. Students had already written blogs on their ideas of the value of on-line classes and coursework, engaged in creating various media texts on this subject. However, I wanted them to keep going, and to have them re-purpose their largely text-based writing into new a new form. The infographic would push them to think about how to convey information visually.

However, in this class, students got quickly lost in the steps laid out on my Schoology page. Quick fix: I turned each step into an assignment in Schoology, with something concrete to submit. I also added one element to the student assignment. Because we’re a class that functions completely digitally, we created survey questions, and used student’s social media to distribute the questions, collect responses, and create drafts of the graphics in Google Slides.

What I’m seeing in working with infographics as a student-produced text is that we can use them at any part of a writing process. They can be a formative tool used to synthesize information before turned to more in-depth, formal essays. Or, we can really see them as a valid summative assessment tool that students produce at the end of research, or a way for students to repurpose or re-genre their work.