For the past ten years as a Social Studies teacher at Vermont Commons School, working with high-achieving students, the quintessential history research paper has been a sacred staple of my curricula. A 9th grade student would write a 5-7 page paper, but by the time students were in my 11th grade 19th-century history class - look out! - they were expected to write 15-20 page papers. This was hell for some, and a great experience for others.
Why did I find this to be a worthwhile use of student time? To be honest, at first I assigned these papers because it just seemed like the Social Studies class thing to do. Heck, I had to write my share of research papers back in school, and I gained a great deal from the experiences! As I assigned and graded papers for the first couple of years, I began to refine the process and see what kinds of higher-order thinking were happening:
- Students were choosing their own topics, within the parameters of the course material. This was giving the students a rare opportunity to choose what they wanted to dig deep into, in their learning. This idea of student voice and choice in pursuing their interests and passions in school has become a really exciting issue for me, and I'd like to explore it more in a future blog post. In the meantime, if you're interested, check out Dennis Littky's Big Picture Schools.
- Students engaged in a process of identifying important questions and then figuring out how to find the answers, and organize the information they found.
- Students practiced making a persuasive argument. I required them to present a thesis and then defend it throughout the paper with arguments and evidence.
- As part of learning to be both persuasive and scholarly, students were required to cite all their sources with footnotes & bibliography. They learned about assessing credible sources.
- I required an outline to be submitted before writing began. We all know our penchant for diving straight into the writing without a clear plan. Creating an outline can seem like an unnecessary step . . . though it's probably the most valuable step in the process. The outline also gave me a chance to catch any problem papers before the students went too far down the writing road.
- I required a draft that I spent significant time reading and giving feedback on. The first draft emphasized the importance of iteration and revision. Again, something so valuable that both students and adults avoid at all costs.
For all these reasons, and more, I have always valued the research paper process.
But over the past year I have started to wonder if there are more relevant ways to practice these same higher-order skills. Long research papers are great . . . but who actually reads them in the real world? Are research papers the vehicle by which my students will use these skills after finishing school - or are they simply an intellectual exercise? Is their generation informed and persuaded by long online research papers, or by other mediums?
I started hearing about and observing the prominence of video in the real-world learning of students, and immediately thought that it would be fun to do with students. But it would also take LOTS of time. Would it be time well spent?
My weeklong summer course with RETN answered that question for me. Video, I realized, could practice every skill I listed above. In addition, video is inherently more fun and engaging for students, resulting in more learning. Video also necessitates group collaboration, thus incorporating a crucial 21st century skill. And video requires concision. Make your point, make it clearly, and cut the frills. Paralleling the above list:
- Student groups choose their topics.
- They research and organize their information.
- I required the students to make a point to the viewer in their video. Teach us something!
- For lessons on copyright and credibility, video includes everything that a research paper requires, but also includes images and music. Of course they want to use their favorite pop song, but sorry, no go!
- The video version of an outline is the Storyboard and Script - used by every professional in the film industry. All the elements of an outline plus sketched scenes. Beautiful!
- And as for iteration and revision, groups presented their drafts to the class half way through the editing process for group critique. The students all learned the process of peer feedback, and learned that there's always more you can do to improve your work!
I recently finished my first attempt at video production in the classroom with our Odyssey Video Project and, while there are a LOT of kinks for us to work out for future projects, I have come away from the experience convinced that video production is a powerful way to nurture the time-tested skills of scholarly research paper writing - in a way that can engage students and develop additional skills that may be far more relevant and useful in their lives.