I took my son Jack to Serenity Animal Sanctuary last week to do some research for my second YA fiction book. After months of sitting at my desk, wrestling with the sights sounds and smells in my head, I decided that it was time for this city slicker to get out in the country and see a real animal sanctuary.
“Why are we here,” Jack asked after an hour of weaving down a winding two lane highway.
“It’s research,” I told him, as we pulled onto the dirt and gravel road that let to the shelter’s gate.
He nodded, a serious look on his face.
After we road around on the John Deer for an hour, fed the chickens and horses, and meeting a giant pig who could sit on command, Jack turned to me, his eyes wide with the strain of taking it all in, and said, “Research is fun!” I couldn’t agree more.
I love research. I love the itch of new information in my head. I love finding out what someone else knows and trying to link it to what I know. So why, when it comes time to write research papers in school, do I dread it? I could blame the looks of pain and loathing on the kids’ faces for my poor attitude, but I think it is more than that. I dread it because I struggle to integrate real-world research into a traditional classroom.
Here is what I know about research:
Authentic research happens when there is a spark of fascination. Most of the research we do in life is motivated by curiosity or fascination. My first book, The Fire Horse Girl, is about a teenage girl living in China in 1923 and determined to immigrate to America to escape her curse and find freedom. When I started this story, I was waiting to adopt a child from China. When my writing teacher pointed out that I would have to do a lot of research to write this story, I was thrilled. I practically ran to the library. Why? When your child is in China, waiting for paperwork to pass through enough hands, there is nothing more fascinating than the people and country caring for your child.
Research is a journey. While research doesn’t have to involve a trip down rolling country roads, it is a journey, and it is difficult to assess a journey. I have torn myself away from note cards and outlines (yes, I am one of those oddballs who liked that part, it was so predictable, so neat, unlike the rest of research). So what am I left with? A lot of stuff going on inside my kids’ head. Tricky when it comes to grading. Too often I end up assessing dictated, and sometimes arbitrary, points along the journey.
So, keeping that in mind, I am going to try to focus on make research real. Here are my goals for this year.
Make research organic. The spark of fascination happens all the time in the classroom, not just during our research unit. I like Alan November’s idea about planting a researcher in the classroom – assign one person each day to sit at a classroom computer and research any questions that come up during class. You don’t really need a classroom computer to do this. Kids can pull out their cell phones and find answers. With more people researching, we might find out different or even contradictory information, which brings up another research skill – discernment. So, I am going to try to act like a researcher throughout the year, just like I do in my own life.
Assess the synthesis of information. When I was learning research skills, I had to learn to find information. It wasn’t easy all you digital natives. First I had to walk uphill to the library…in the snow…being chased by wolves. Okay, it wasn’t that tough, but it was buried in books which were buried in selves. I had to use things like indexes and card catalogs, and here’s one for you – microfiche. It was always exciting when something was on microfiche. Now, I can sit at my computer and find plans for a garage organizer, what Thailand was called in 1923 (Siam), and the most common boy names in 1938 in Germany. If my students have all of that information at their fingertips, what can I teach them? Discernment and synthesis. Basically, it boils down to integrating that information – into their thinking, into their writing, into their world. What I would like them to do is gather information from different resources – books and websites along with first hand accounts, interviews, maps, charts, and even their own observations – and form their own conclusions based on that information. I have had a little success with this. Last year, with the help of my district’s global liaison, my classes researched human rights, talked to people from Ghana about their human rights concerns and exchanged letters sharing research and conclusions. They kept a record of their research and how it changed or fit into their existing thinking. Then, with their newly integrated information, they wrote letters to policy makers to share their new ideas based in research.
This is something I still struggle with. If anyone has any books or articles (or field trips to exotic locations) that might help me better understand how to make research relevant, please share.