Writing Centers, Research, and Junior High

I originally thought to write under the title: “Eulogy [or Obituary] for the Research Paper.” However, any paper that contains research could be labeled “research paper.” I never quite know what to do with that term. So, I went with that perhaps now cliched “three main thoughts” title.

In the chapter on Researched Writing, Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson make a compelling argument for the end of the traditional research paper, instead focusing on the process of writing the research paper. The idea of research is of vital importance for today’s information-flooded students, and it is one that I personally attach much significance to. Why? NDSU’s Center for Writers.

I only worked one semester at the Center for Writers–the fall semester before I student taught in the fall; however, working there that one semester led me to a firm resolution: the students walking out of my classroom (whatever level that was) would not be one of those students who had never had to do research before. I had been shocked at how many students (in 2007) came in because they had never written a research paper (or at least they claimed) and had never had to use MLA or APA in their high school careers.

Working at the Center for Writers helped me to have a vision for what my students might be struggling with and how I could better help them as writers. My one semester at the Center for Writers was beyond helpful in shaping my teaching philosophy, especially when it came to teaching research.

The next fall I found myself teaching juniors and junior highers. I saw research as one of the most important skills to teach.

The skills needed to do research well are vast. Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson put forth the “component research practices” as “finding, evaluating, reading, comprehending, synthesizing, and talking about (not just quoting from) complex, lengthy sources” (235).

It is not just about the skills, but about having the right research “mindset” as well. In my mind, research is about thinking critically. Also, thinking about it as a “mindset” rather than a set of fixed conventions is helpful because those conventions shift from discourse community to discourse community.

What is the “mindset” of research? Asking questions and knowing where to look for the answers.

Too often students get in the mindset of “what do I need to do on this paper to get an A?”

Use three secondary sources? Check.

Use MLA format? Check.

Have a thesis statement? Check.

And it quickly becomes not a parody but reality of what research can be.

I’ve always maintained that the process of using the correct research style guide is easy, but it is in the working with ideas that is hard. So why is there so much conversation about students not doing citations correctly? Is it because those are the “easy questions” to ask and answer?

Helping students understand the “why” of research and research conventions is an important piece. (There it is again: A return to that “meta” strand that keeps coming up throughout this course.)

The idea of the research paper being a dying practice first arrived upon my brain when I did the Northern Plains Writing Project Summer Institute. There I was introduced to the idea of the iSearch paper.

At first I did not like the idea, but when I tried it with my eighth graders the next school year I was sold.

There is this paralysis–this fear–of the term “research paper”, but not of an “iSearch paper”. The premise is students choose something that they really are interested in and want to learn more about; then they follow a guided writing process to help them think through it and eventually produce a synthesis (One version can be found here: http://www.readwritethink.org/professional-development/strategy-guides/promoting-student-directed-inquiry-30783.html)

The atmosphere of the class, since they were all really interested in the topics, was really positive and my students seemed to learn a lot about not only their topics but the process.

One other successful moment with research in the junior high classroom involved a tow rope.  (I use this same analogy in my 120 classes, but I do not have my tow rope any more…)

Before starting the tow rope activity, I would display a “kidnapped” sentence and tell them it was somewhere in the room. I would have purposefully scattered more books around the classroom so that they were not all crowded around the bookcase. Little by little I gave them more clues that someone would have written in a works cited entry. Eventually, someone found the book and then I would have to give them the page number.

We would then write a works cited for the book and the tow rope entered the scene. One student would come and hold the book at the end of the tow rope, and another student would come and hold the works cited entry in the middle of the tow rope.

Next I would have (for the sake of time) someone write a direct quote with a parenthetical citation. That person would hold the opposite side of the tow rope.  I would then have them move about the room, demonstrating that they were all connected.

Then I would have a “Writer” come up and talk through the process of how to cite a source

Then I would have a “Reader” come up and be interested in the information and want to find the book and talk through the process of finding the book.

Then we would talk more about research conventions.

It was my favorite day of all year.

One final thought:

I know that these conversations are happening within the context of what can composition classes in higher education accomplish; however, I am continually struck by the fact that I firmly believe that students should already be coming to college with these skills. I know that a lot depends on the quality of the teachers and schools from where these university students arrived from. But my seventh graders were able to understand and use MLA formatting with guidance (and a tow rope) and they were able to transfer it to my classroom the next year as eighth graders.

Question: If you were able to communicate one thing to secondary English teachers and it was guaranteed to change, what one thing would you communicate?

Question: What other metaphors/analogies/strategies do you use to help students understand the research process?


One thought on “Writing Centers, Research, and Junior High

  1. I’m intrigued by your question here: If you were able to communicate one thing to secondary English teachers and it was guaranteed to change, what one thing would you communicate?

    I say intrigued because I have spent much of the past three years as a graduate instructor in two different programs lamenting my students’ poor writing skills. What I find them missing most is precisely what Howard and Jamieson explore in their chapter on Researched Writing: the lack of understanding first-year college students seem to have about HOW and WHY we do research. Given a guarantee that it would change, I would encourage secondary English teachers to focus less on the grammar and mechanics side of things–as you’ve pointed out, these things are the easy things to learn and fix–and focus more on the HOW and WHY of research.

    I personally believe college is a little late to be learning these concepts for the first time. I have been writing research papers of various lengths and depths since elementary school, and even I didn’t fully grasp the how and why of the projects. Yes, I chose topics that I wanted to learn more about, so perhaps subconsciously I was engaging with the why side of things; however, I can’t recall ever actually being taught clearly HOW to do research. As I remember, it was more of a trial-and-error task, involving many outside meetings with my teachers, even in elementary and middle school.

    Granted, this is just my personal experience and that of the schools in my hometown, but I’m sure the same things happen elsewhere as well. Perhaps teachers of primary, middle, and secondary school should be focusing on actually teaching research practices, as well as the how and why of research, in the classroom rather than only helping students with this if they seek out extra help outside of class. This, I think, would help better prepare students for college writing; yes, they would still have more to learn, would need to refine their research and argumentative skills, but they would have a much firmer foundation than first-year writing students seem to have now.


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