Using Writing for Research in the Content Area: It’s Not Just for ELA

The following is a blog post from guest author Library Media Specialist, Shannon Betts:

Picture this: I’m working with a science class in the library at the beginning of a research project. Grade 8 students bend over their notebooks, scribbling furiously. A few gaze at the ceiling as if searching for ideas in the air. I wander the room to check for engagement and my attention settles on a boy slouching in his chair, blowing his bangs straight up. He waggles his eyebrows at a neighbor and seems reluctant to begin this open-ended activity.  I head over to his table to help him get started.

As the library media specialist, I’m working with a science teacher to incorporate literacy strategies into current events research. Students use brainstorming and think entries to spark background knowledge. What do I already know and what is important for me to know? They’re exploring connections to a broad earth science topic of their choice, beginning to unpack the parts of that topic and searching for a direction with which to begin research. Built in to this process at every step are explicitly taught minilessons. The big take-away? Scientists (and science fans like me) read and write to learn and express ideas clearly.

Energize

The structures we use today are straight out of Energize Research Reading and Writingby Christopher Lehman. Lehman’s ideas help transform research lessons from traditional lecture-driven type of instruction to more student-centered inquiry. Lehman’s advice is so spot-on and accessible that I’m excited to try the lessons. Running contrary to some impressions of inquiry as letting students loose in the library or on the Internet without guidance, the strategies Lehman and others like Anna Gratz Cockerille describe are of a practical, gradual release process, designed to teach students how to take charge of their own learning.

I ask the student, now chewing on his pen, how his think entry is going. His brow furrows as he stares at the blank page. “I don’t know what you want me to write”, he mutters. I know Rob (as I’ll call him) from last year’s lessons in seventh grade language arts; he’s an above-average student and active participant in class.  Yet, this activity has stymied him.

You probably know students like Rob: learners who follow directions and retain information for the quiz. They have a sixth sense about what the teacher wants. These same students can become anxious when asked to delve deeper into self-directed reasoning and reflection. Though this session began with a minilesson, the open-ended nature of a think entry makes him uncomfortable. There is no right answer; we’re asking students to take a first supported step in designing their own research experience.

This change in ownership is part of a role shift that Leman explores to help in the transition from teacher-as-director to teacher-as-facilitator. Honestly, I feel a little anxious myself in letting go of the lecture/application/product/assessment cycle. After all, it’s predictable and it works, right? Maybe it works some of the time for some of the kids, but how engaging can it be when a teacher goes on about what to do, how to do it and when to do it?   As teachers we all know there’s a tipping point in the length of time that an average middle schooler can absorb direct instruction. You probably can detect exactly where that point is. When the lights in their eyes go out, it’s all done.

Lehman Quote

So, to take the place of teacher-led lessons with all the rough edges sanded off, I’ve begun to explore other ways to develop students’ research skills.  I teach in a school which has moved to the workshop model in language arts. The minilessons and small group instruction routines already in place in ELA give me some built-in tools to teach research in any discipline.

In order to light a spark of motivation, I’ve learned that research needs to be deeply connected to student drive, curiosity and (ideally) have a real-world purpose.  Minilessons should be quick and highlight the teacher’s own curiosity. Teaching points are spelled out and immediately applied. 

I also think about time; in middle school, the pace of life is swift. Teachers plan lessons to conform to a a typical metered structure of 40-50-minute classes. In placing the learner at the center, we have to let go a bit. Inquiry-based research takes time: it’s a shift away from dictating topics, providing a text-set of resources and eliminating potential struggle points along the way. While inquiry models vary, they all have this in common: students need time to explore, to question, to go a couple of rounds in the ring with a compelling idea. Students should also be free to pursue false starts in a line of thinking and be able to regroup if it doesn’t pan out. As Lehman emphasizes, real research is messy and we should allow for it.Elaboration Prompts

Rob and I talk through his reluctance by looking at his science notebook together. His previous brainstorming entry is full of references to natural disasters and shows a strong interest in hurricanes. Rob shares that he’s followed Hurricane Irma’s assault on Florida in a daily briefing. His grandmother lives in Naples and his concern for her has driven this independent investigation. His eyebrows shoot up in surprise as the teacher quickly gives approval for this Earth Science topic. Rob now begins his think entry with purpose, writing from this background knowledge with some elaboration prompts for guidance.

I can see the increased engagement as I use student think entries as the basis for the next minilesson.  The keywords that we’ll need to search library databases practically leap off their pages. Students refer back to their entries to generate a variety of questions and predict different directions these questions might take them.

I emphasize throughout our work that research is rarely a straight line to a destination. It’s more like a series of cycles. We consider what our readers might need or want to know. We recall text structures from nonfiction books and how an author engages readers and organizes information. My colleague and I adjust student expectations about the nitty-gritty of information work. Scientists expect to revisit ideas, revise questions, to compare different sources, and yes, even to double-back to stable ground after a lead fizzles out! This is the work of researchers in the real world.

We continue to dip into Lehman’s book for bits of guidance and the teacher now takes the lead to model a note-taking technique. She encourages students to try on the strategy like a pair of gloves, to see how it feels. Does it fit their style? Use what works, she urges – there is no one-size-fits-all method of processing information – concept maps, Cornell Notes and annotating all have a place in the learning of a scientist. The goal is to sustain an ongoing conversation between the texts and yourself.

As classes rotate back into the library, I get to check back in with Rob. He’s consumed his article about the devastation of Hurricane Irma’s strike on Florida and is looking for more. Rob’s investigation has gone far beyond an understanding of hurricane weather systems.  As he discusses convection currents, the role of oceans in hurricanes and methods of disaster preparedness, the technical information and his passion for the topic reveal his growing expertise.  This passion will help him instruct his peers in the culminating artifact. Students create presentations to teach others and incorporate questions to check for peer understanding of the content. We’ll celebrate the project in a gallery walk.

Throughout this process, the science teacher and I have shifted from “sage-on-the-stage” into supporting roles of facilitator. We’ve revealed our own research and thinking processes multiple times to make our own cognition and curiosity visible. Rob and his classmates have applied half a dozen information literacy skills in their pursuit of real-world content knowledge, connected to their own interests. They’ve driven their own learning and made supported choices in the direction that learning would take.  Best of all, they haven’t  engaged in this research solely to produce a product for a teacher in order to earn a grade. 

Though I’ve taught countless research skills classes over the years, few have had this sustained feeling of camaraderie. I attribute the shift to creating – for a brief time – a community of writers exploring their own passions.  The cost of entry into that community was this: we teachers had to give up some control and the stage. We had to take some risks ourselves and live like learners alongside our students. Finally, we had to embrace the messy. 

Shannon Betts is a middle school library media specialist in Region 15 Schools in Middlebury/Southbury, CT. Shannon focuses on integrating information literacy and technology into classroom content, learning from students every single day. She holds a Master of Library Science and a Master of Arts in Teaching with a concentration in Middle Grades Education. Following classroom experience as a grade 5 teacher, Shannon worked as a reference and instruction librarian at the college level. Follow Shannon on Twitter @sbetts8 and read more at infoliteracyteacher.com