Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Teacher's Research Rant

Time for a teacherly rant. 
I hate teaching research.  Hate it, hate it, hate it. 
It’s taken me only a year of experience to come to this realization.

Let me back-track.  When I started teaching, writing a research paper was one of the things I was most excited to teach.  When I was in school, I loved finding information, organizing it in a different way, putting my own spin in it, and spitting out a research paper.  In my opinion, writing a research paper is simply a process—and one which requires very little deep thought, especially when you’re in middle or grade school and aren’t really expected to add any ideas to the research of others.

Here’s what I’m learning: writing a research paper DOES take extensive critical thinking skills, and it’s not as easy for everyone as it is for me. 

My Saturday.  

Step 1: Find scholarly sources of information for your topic.  Check.  This is pretty easy for my students, after I guide them about how to identify sources they can trust.

Step 2: Highlight the important information from the source, and then take notes on notecards.  One paraphrased fact goes on each notecard. 
This is currently the step we’re on in class, and it’s a beast.  No matter how much we practice paraphrasing similar articles in class, many of them either don’t get it, or get lazy when it comes to taking their own notes.  To prevent unintentional plagiarism, I’m going through each of the students’ notecards and checking them with their sources.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written, “This is a quote, not a paraphrase!  Re-word.” 
The problem is that much of the time, my students don’t really understand what they’re reading.  They see words they don’t know, and rather than looking them up, they just write down the sentence—assuming it must be important.  This results in two problems.  One is obvious; they’re quoting rather than paraphrasing.  The second has to do the actual information they end up taking notes on.  Because they don’t understand the whole article, they miss the most important parts!  I’ve read notes on Anne Frank that never mention she was in hiding for two years, and notes on other Holocaust survivors that never explain what happened to the person during the actual Holocaust. 

Step 3: Organize your notecards by subtopic, and then put them in a logical order.  When I write a research paper, this is the fun part for me.  I love combining information from multiple sources in a way that makes sense, and the notecard method makes it so easy to chop up the info. and re-compile it.  It’s harder for students to grasp.  All their notecards are labeled by source.  Mixing up information from each source is sometimes hard for them to do.  Also, going back to the fact that they don’t understand what they’re taking notes on, sometimes their organization is severely lacking.

Step 4: Write an outline.  This should be easy, because all the facts are there already, in order, organized by subtopic (which is essentially organized by body paragraphs).  And yet it takes them forever.

Step 5: Write a rough draft.  We’re not there yet.  I can’t comment on this year’s difficulties.  Last year I had a lot of plagiarism because students didn’t understand paraphrasing, though.  I’m hoping they take my comments on their notecards to heart and it’s not such an issue this year.

Step 6: Peer-edit.  Always a borderline waste of time…students aren’t the best at catching each other’s errors and leaving constructive criticism.  They’re pretty good at complimenting each other, which is a good thing, though. 

Step 7: Revise and edit and complete a final draft. 

Step 8: Revise again and turn in a 2nd time to get a better grade on the final draft.  I believe in letting students do this, because the point should be that they’re creating quality work, not that they’re getting it right by the deadline, or on the first try.  Of course it makes for more grading for me, though.  That’s the trade-off.

Second semester’s poetry unit can’t come quickly enough. 
This unit is worth it, and I hope they each take something from it and remember how to write a solid research paper in the future.  I will probably teach a research unit every single year that I am a teacher. I will continue to hate it, unless I eventually discover the magical way to present the information so everyone “gets it” right away.  But I know it’s a skill my students need to have—especially if they have any desire to go to college one day. 
So, I plod along.  Giving up my Saturday in favor of banging my head on the table at the misquoted and mis-paraphrased information on student notecards. 
Cheers to the weekend!  

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