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Authentic Inquiry Leads to Better Research

Somewhere along the way, I learned to become an independent researcher. When I have questions, I seek out sources that will be helpful in answering that question, and I learned to discern and ignore unhelpful resources. And when I'm really into that question, I find myself losing track of time and immersed in information. This is part of my "problem" with inquiry into my professional practice. Before I know it, I've requested a dozen books from the Michigan Electronic Library or purchased them via Amazon. I know Amazon's evil, but two-day shipping is so attractive when you have a burning question that you just need answers to. (Before you scold me, know that I just placed an order with a local independent bookstore about a half-hour ago.)

This year, I learned a transformational lesson when asking students to research: They need to develop their own questions.

I only learned this through trial and error. During our second marking period, we use Elie Wiesel's Night to prompt student inquiry. Only this past year, we assigned topics and didn't give students very much choice, even when they complained that they had already been exposed to the Holocaust via their reading of Anne Frank in middle school. And after reading paper after paper that appeared to be a litany of fact after fact, I learned to not make the same mistake again.

Aimee Buckner makes this brilliant point in Nonfiction Notebooks: Strategies for Informational Writing: "Kids do not need to research what they already know. They need to research what they don't know yet" (31). This is one of those epiphanies that made me jump out of my seat and shout, "Woohoo!" This is the guidance I had been looking for. And it's also a good reminder of why we sometimes encounter boring writing. If we don't give students a chance to be creative, to wonder, to explore, we will get things we already know or the same information repeated nearly the same way.

Even before reading Buckner's book, I somewhat stumbled into this train of thought during the second-to-last semester of the school year. When leading students to write their own identity research papers (this is an assignment that I desperately need to rework it this summer), I wanted to give students plenty of practice for finding and utilizing sources.

Leveraging Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I asked students to develop a question that they had in response to the novel. I told them that Alexie has openly said it was autobiographical, and I encouraged them to question the author's claims. Classes watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TedTalk, "The Danger of a Single Story," to get them to consider how limited narratives can be.  And then they selected a moment in the book that had genuine questions about. Students proposed questions like the following:

  • Are Native Americans really poor? 
  • Do most Native Americans drink?
  • Are Native American schools really that bad? 
Students engaged in this research over two days, using the graphic organizer to keep track of their notes. I then went on to model cohesive writing, using my own question about Native Americans. The writing that came about after this research was, in every way imaginable, better than the writing that was produced during our first round of research writing. 

After noticing this improvement, I also realized that students need to conduct shorter research assignments more often. Partially inspired by Kelly Gallagher's "20 Question" activity when beginning new novels, I realized that positioning students as natural inquirers all the time will help them become more independent learners in and beyond my classroom. And for that, I am excited to implement Genius Hour this fall in my classroom. 

Comments

  1. Nice! I like what you did with PTI and intend on adapting your lesson. May I please borrow your book by Buckner?

    ReplyDelete

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