My students and I began our research project a little over a week ago. On the first day of this unit, I gave each student a manila file folder for this project. On the tab, students write their first and last names and class period. I then briefly explain that our research folders will do the following:
- keep us organized (we keep handouts, notes on research terms, etc. within it)
- make it easy to locate our research
- help us with our prewriting, note taking, and citations
To help guide my students into choosing solid research topics, I model how I want them to begin this process by dividing the front exterior side of the folder into four squares. Then we label each square in this order:
- Things I Like
- Things I Do for Fun
- Things I Care About
- Things I'm Interested In (or Things I Want to Know More About)
Once we have each box labeled, I create lists under each box. As I write my own lists, I ask my students to watch first. When I finish, I give them the opportunity to write theirs (we go one box at a time and share out ideas as we write them). I try to avoid giving them a number of "things" but, inevitably, someone always asks, so I ask for a minimum of 5-7 things in each list (of course they can add more).
After we've compiled these lists, I equip my students with highlighters. I show them the process of looking for connections within these lists. I do this by highlighting things I can connect together. For example, in one list I have: Muslims; in another, Afghanistan; the Middle East in another list; and teaching English.
Once I've shown them a few ways to connect the "things" I've listed, I allow my students time to highlight similar topics with those they can connect in some way. For example, one student highlighted: music, playing the violin, Julliard, and studying music in college.
I have students do this for the following reasons:
- We eliminate topics that might not work out in our research.
- We also eliminate topics we're really not interested in.
- We focus our thinking to find ways we can connect possible topics together (ways that we might not have otherwise thought of).
Narrow Topics by Connecting to the Curriculum
Anyone who has taught research in a K-12 setting knows that many kids need help choosing topics that aren't too broad, but teaching the concept of what is too broad can be a bit challenging.
To combat this issue, I teach my students how to use The Topic Equation Formula. I take my research folder and flip it over to the backside (exterior) and divide it into three columns: Interests, Subject, Possible Research Topic. I ask my students to do the same. The Topic Equation Formula allows us to narrow interests and subjects we've studied into potential research topics. It works like this:
Interest + Subject = Possible Research Topic
Then, I model how the formula works with a few of the items I listed in our first step:
The Middle East + World Languages = The Arabic Language
I practice with 5-7 items from the first step and explain that if one (or more of these topics) doesn't work out, I have a few backup topics. Here area a few examples I came up with:
Jeeps + World War II = Vehicles used by the U.S. in WWII
Gardening + Arizona = Gardening in desert climates
Teaching writing + urban schools = Writing strategies that produce results with native English and ELL students
Notice that the Subject part of my formula doesn't restrict me to a "Subject" or "Class" (history, biology, etc.). Sure, students can use class titles as Subjects to grasp the concept, but I'd prefer my students think more deeply about the specific subjects taught in these classes. To grasp this concept, we make a quick list of Subjects students study in school covering anything from Civil Rights and historical figures to parts of the body and diseases to the solar system and careers. The deeper we think about the Subjects we have studied, the better our chances are of choosing a possible research topic that works.
Once I've modeled how to use the formula, I give my students time to practice with their lists. Sometimes this runs into the next class period, and I'm okay with that. I'd rather us spend a couple of days (or several days, if needed) testing out Possible Research Topics than randomly picking something that doesn't work and students will easily lose interest in.
This formula has worked for us because:
- students already have some knowledge of what they're interested in.
- it allows for students to choose something they're interested in knowing more about.
- students have carefully thought about how their interest connects to something they've studied.
- we all feel more confident about the topics we've chosen.
Test the Formula in a Database
Because I limit my students to conducting their research in databases like Arizona Career Information System (AZCIS), EBSCO, Encyclopedia Britannica, Galenet, and Teen Health and Wellness; I want them to choose topics that they can research successfully within these databases. I also want them conducting academic research written by authoritative sources. Before I say, "Yes" to a research topic, I want my students to test it within one (or more) of these databases to ensure they will have success with it. Once it works, I give the okay.
This year, a number of my students have used the Topic Equation Formula with success. For struggling students, I redirected them into choosing a different topic they'd written in one of their initial lists by re-teaching the formula in individual or small group settings. In doing so, I have more students who feel confident in the topic they've chosen and they've been able to find enough information to write a 1-3 page research paper. For freshmen, I'd say that's a great start!
Pop culture topics like Air Jordans, Niki Manaj, or Kobe Bryant cause my students difficulty. Because I simply don't have time to teach students how to correctly cite anything they find on the web in MLA format, I restrict them from using search engines like Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc. Our research should be academic, their research outside of school doesn't have to be. As I explain this, I tell them that I'm going to approve their topic. If I say, "No," they must take my advice and switch.
Our Librarian gives an amazing presentation on research terms and how to use the research databases over the course of 1.3 class periods. We co-teach how to navigate the databases together, which allows my students to quickly determine which topics will work within the databases and which ones won't. I encourage you to reach out to your Librarian or Media Specialist as well.
For more information on teaching research, check out the following pages in The Writing Teacher's Strategy Guide:
- pgs. 18-19 Discuss The Six Principles of Research
- pgs. 20-24 Help students choose good topics by connecting them to the curriculum with the Topic Equation Formula (there are handouts and examples here)
- pgs. 63-72 Discuss The Definition of Writing along with Content-Purpose-Audience (C-P-A), which is a great prewriting tool for research. Also look at pg. 78 for Tips on Using the C-P-A strategy.
Portions of this article are © Copyright 1995-2012 by Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., and are used by permission. For more information, and free teaching materials, visit www.ttms.org or contact Margot Lester at firstname.lastname@example.org.