Friday, April 18, 2014

Feeding curiosity and writing questions to guide research

I had the pleasure of working with eighth graders this week on an activity that had two clear and important goals.  When I met with my colleague several days before, she showed me examples of final products from years past and explained that she was trying to build much-needed background knowledge on the Holocaust and WWII before beginning a novel study unit on the Holocaust novel Night.  She also planned to hit target standards that focus on research skills.

My role as a reading specialist is generally one of reading support for struggling readers, but another part of my job is to support teachers with best practice instruction, support for implementation of the Common Core standards in English Language Arts, and to give our achieving readers strategies to become more independent learners.  Collaborating on this research project was an exciting prospect, and I couldn't wait to get started!

After establishing our goals, we decided that I would come in to do a mini lesson on creating good questions for research.  Research instruction has changed significantly over the years.  Because our kiddos are inundated with information from all angles, our job is to teach them how to retrieve the information and then process it.  When I was a kid, we researched one way - encyclopedias and books, card catalogs, and index cards.  Today we have brain research to thank for the dozens of organization and note taking techniques that we can teach along with millions of cyber-resources, making teaching research more challenging than it has ever been!  Stephanie Harvey discussed this same idea in March when I attended her session at the IRC Conference.  Kids think they can just hop onto Google and type in a question, click on the first link, and voila! Question answered!  Next!  To avoid this, teachers make lengthy lists of previewed websites so that students can use them like books - scanning the documents for information and reporting their findings.  Why are we not teaching them how to scan the web to find the information for themselves?  Time is always of the essence, and teaching web searches is a time-consuming process.

I opened my lesson with the Observe, Infer, Question activity that has had me smitten this last few months.  Clearly, students were engaged, as we saw them write and discuss, ultimately beginning the process of asking good questions.  We used the photograph to the left to get the students thinking about our topic for the day - Adolf Hitler.  Next, we moved into the real purpose for the day, which was to write research questions that would help us to understand Hitler - my colleague called it biographical information, which it is, but with a spin.  Gone should be the days of writing reports where we simply talk about something.  Hitler was born on April 20, 1889, in Austria might seem like important information if we were gathering biographical information on Hitler, but for this particular assignment there is no purpose for it.  Project CRISS would call these questions right there questions.  They're quick to ask and quick to answer, and they take about as much thought as 1+1.  We wanted to push our kiddos to do more "thinking and searching" in their research.

In order to do research like this, we had to look at the purpose.  My colleague's purpose for research was to build students' background knowledge on the Holocaust so that they can better pick apart the themes and literary elements of the novel Night.  That being said, the Holocaust is where we needed to head, so anything that she wanted students to research ultimately had to connect to that.  Once that was established, she asked the students how they could connect World War I with the Holocaust.  After some discussion, the class was able to come up with How did the events during and after World War I effect what later happened, causing World War II and the Holocaust?  This is exactly what we did with Hitler, then, the next day.

I posed the big question How did Hitler effect what happened during World War II and the Holocaust?  From that I demonstrated how I would write more questions that led us to a better and clearer understanding of Hitler and what his part was in the Holocaust.  I wrote questions like What was Hitler's path to power? What events in Hitler's life may have impacted his decisions while in power? and How did the citizens of Germany view Hitler and why?  We organized them in a two-column note and started reading the synopsis of the article on Adolf Hitler from  Instead of skimming the article looking for the answer to the first question and then the second question and so on (which is so often what I see students doing), I encouraged students to just start reading, and what they found was that we could begin to answer three questions in the first paragraph, but those answers made us ask more questions, so we wrote the new ones as well!  In that short twenty minute period we had written eight pretty good research questions that would easily give us a handle on who Adolf Hitler was and what his role was during the Holocaust.

In hindsight there are a few things I would have done differently during this lesson, but I was pleased with much of what we had done.  A few things to consider when taking a stab at a research activity are below.

  • Be absolutely clear on what your purpose(s) is(are).  Be certain your final product will align with the purpose.  It is always refreshing when a teacher takes a look at his original vision of a final product and realizes he has made it way more complicated than it needs to be.  If the goal is the research process, why go on and waste time with publication?  If the goal is a final published work for some purpose, then, by all means forge ahead!  My colleague wanted the students to organize their notes in a booklet-form for easy reference and connection during the novel study, which was a meaningful and purposeful final product.  If you are a content area teacher, you will probably have a two-fold purpose - one skill-based purpose (ie. - asking good research questions) and one content-based (ie - What was Hitler's role in WWII?)
  • Once your purposes are clear, establish a "big question" that can be answered by all students.  I'm working with another colleague right now on a biography unit, and, after lengthy discussion, we  finally decided to ask students to prove that the person they chose to research was a major influence in whatever industry he/she was in.  This is a great way to introduce informative writing with the argumentative purpose.  Our big umbrella question was What makes people influential? So the big question became, for the students, What made so-and-so a major influence in the such-and-such industry?  Once the big question is established, everything leads back to that question.  It's like a foundation.
  • Require students to ask loads of questions before allowing them into the resources.  I make this mistake over and over and over again - I let my kiddos into the resources, and the first thing they do is abandon the questioning.  Then it's days of clean-up as I watch them start randomly writing down unimportant information, and the entire process crumbles before my eyes.  Once your kiddos stop asking questions, their purpose is blurred and they lose focus.  Make questions mandatory, and do not give up!  If these kiddos get into the habit of asking questions, their entire educational career becomes more focused.  Imagine if your students opened a science book to chapter 12 and started immediately asking questions before they began reading!  How much more focused their learning would be!
  • Teach note taking strategies and allow students to give input on strategies that have worked for them in the past.  Pick one.  Ask the teachers in grades below what they use and the grades above what they use, and build a bridge.  Wouldn't it be fabulous if a sixth grade student used one type of note taking for research in sixth grade and repeated it in seventh grade and then eighth grade? Or even better - what if sixth grade teachers taught multiple note-taking strategies and allowed students to choose which one fit their learning style better?  And then seventh grade teachers built on those same strategies, and then eighth grade teachers did the same??? Kids are adaptable, but jumping from strategy to strategy every year never allows them the spiral effect where they can build upon acquired skills.  
  • Pique curiosity.  Allow students to choose.  Appeal to their emotions.  Get visual.  Use their five senses.  Nobody dreads a research project more than a person who researches something that has no interest or connection to their lives whatsoever.  Brain research tells us negative feelings impede learning. Some of our kiddos go through their entire day with a negative outlook on school.  No wonder these kids make so little progress!
Really, I could go on and on about the research process, but I will quit now while I am ahead.  The chances of me discussing this same topic next week are pretty high, as I have begun an exciting research project with two seventh grade teachers and a retired library media specialist this week, and we are all pretty psyched so far with what we have done!  Research has never been more challenging for students, so our job as educators is to help them to use their current reading and writing skills to make the task easier.  This is a daunting challenge, but one that can be conquered with the proper planning.  

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