Researcher’s Workshop

I have been trying to figure out how to make our daily experience at school more like genius hour. In my science and history classes I have wanted to experiment with “researcher’s workshop.” I want to allow students to choose their topics, based on the essential concepts and skills in the Core, and then let them loose, exploring and researching topics of their choice.

My idea is different than a typical research paper. Students have always had some topic choice when they write a research paper. So, what was different about my new idea?

I asked my students to find a topic ala Carl Rogers, who said:

“I am talking about any learning in which the experience of the learner progresses along this line: ‘No, no, that’s not what I want’; ‘Wait! This is closer to what I am interested in, what I need’; ‘Ah, here it is! Now I’m grasping and comprehending what I need and what I want to know!'”

My request was simple: Don’t start your research until you get to that third point–“Ah, here it is!” Then enjoy asking and answering questions about that topic.

They were then given three hours to research their self-generated essential questions. Not three hours to write a research paper. Three hours to immerse themselves in the learning that they assured me they really wanted and needed to know. I had to keep reminding them to not start their final project yet. “Just learn now. Become an expert.” “You may change your mind later.” “The game you are planning may take an unexpected turn during your research phase.”

I was really pleased with the level of engagement. They watched History Channel DVDs, Learning 360 clips, and an occasional YouTube video, taking notes. They moved from website to website, noting the URLs of their sources. They read children and adult nonfiction. They noted the conflicting information between sources they were reading and viewing. And perhaps the best part? As they learned something amazing, they spontaneously told someone sitting near them. (Or the most enthusiastic told the whole class!)

As I watched them work, I realized most people aren’t often given time (or for adults, take time) to do research just because they are passionate about the topic. Oh, to be sure, we all do research. When we or a loved one have a stake in the learning. When knowing it will get us what we want. For instance, years ago, prior to a job interview, I looked at the web site of the school. It seemed to me, they were overly-interested in reciprocal teaching. It was new to me, so I read everything I could about it before the interview. I just knew it would come up, and it did. I do research sometimes to help myself or another person, but less often for the pure joy of learning.  What I wanted for my students was joyful learning.

I told them the project at the end was less important than the research itself. I wanted them to have time to learn what they wanted to on a topic of interest. However, I did want them to use what they learned to be productive and creative (genius attributes), so there was a product due too. Some of the project ideas I floated:

  • a web site or wiki
  • a Fakebook page
  • a narrative or documentary movie
  • a poetry collection
  • a photographic essay
  • a Twitter account of a personality tweeting
  • an illustrated children’s book
  • other
One group made a slavery simulation that we participated in around the neighborhood.

As we finished this two-week unit and the presentations began, there was quite a variety. We had an iMovie with music created on Garage Band and a web page. We had a simulation activity, a board game, and a Fakebook page, which really showed her learning. There were two paper posters and one of my favorites, an animap of Sherman’s March to the Sea. In addition, there were several Google Presentations. For the most part, students were creative. I’m sorry to say, though, given the excellent experience with the research, I was a bit disappointed in the quality of some of the products.  Some were exceptional, but many were mediocre. (Maybe part of that is the fact that school is out for summer in three days!)

The exciting part for me, though, is that I can honestly say during the research time, 100% of the students were engaged for the majority of the time.

In addition to the Social Studies standards we were working on, there were many English Language Arts Common Core Standards introduced or practiced:

  • RI.8.1. Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • RI.8.2. Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to supporting ideas; provide an objective summary of the text.
  • RI.8.8. Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; recognize when irrelevant evidence is introduced.
  • RI.8.9. Analyze a case in which two or more texts provide conflicting information on the same topic and identify where the texts disagree on matters of fact or interpretation.
  • W.8.6. Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and present the relationships between information and ideas efficiently as well as to interact and collaborate with others.
  • W.8.7. Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.
  • W.8.8. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
  • W.8.9. Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
      • Apply grade 8 Reading standards to literary nonfiction (e.g., “Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; recognize when irrelevant evidence is introduced”).

9 thoughts on “Researcher’s Workshop

  1. Thanks for sharing these insights, Denise. I love the idea of the researcher’s workshop and would like to use this in my classroom. Hearing about the 100% engagement is inspiring and your project choices were impressive. On a different note, Your disappointment with the quality of the projects reminds me of my feelings when I initially taught writing workshops in my class. With practice, guidance, and editing, they improved but it was a process. I look forward to reading more as you continue this journey.

  2. Andy,
    Thanks so much for the comment and the encouragement. It really was spectacular hearing kids spontaneously share what they were learning. It makes me realize if we let them follow their interests (and guide them to their interests within a discipline), they will thrive in school.

    I actually feel better about the projects today. You reminded me that it is a step-by-step process, and they will continue to grow. The students who did a really good job are always inspiring to me and their peers.

    Thanks for visiting, leaving a comment, and RTing my post.


  3. My name is Jamie Cunningham. I am a enrolled in an Education Media course at the University of South Alabama. I am new to blogging and recently started my own blog feel free to Visit My Blog The University also has a class blog which you can also Visit. I found your post “Researchers Workshop” extremely interesting. It seems like your students really enjoyed being able to choose their own topics, and using different resources for information. I must agree with you that most people in general do not take the time to research before just going in full force. I’m glad your students enjoyed the task at hand while also learning something new. I will be summarizing my visits to your blog with a post on my blog on 6/9/2012

    1. Thanks, Jamie, for the visit! I just went to your summary. Great job on your blog: I hope you keep it going and join the conversation that new teachers are having. Be sure to check out the hashtag #ntchat on Twitter (New Teacher Chat) and here’s a good blog to try too:

      I just read a book called Nonfiction Matters, which gave me much more insight into what we did in our researcher’s workshop. It will just get better and better! Since nonfiction is such an important part of the Common Core now, I suggest you check that out too!

      I’m sounding like a teacher, so I best just say thanks again for the visit and telling me you read!


  4. Dear Mrs. Krebs,
    My name is Mary Anderson and I am a student in EDM 310 at The University of South Alabama. I have been assigned your blog for a project called “comments for teachers” in which I must read and comment on a post you have written.

    I really enjoyed reading about the “researchers workshop” you tried with your students. What a wonderful way to engage the students while learning. Having done a research paper or two in my day, I think I did what most people do and that’s read about the topic and burp back the facts on paper. I very seldom retained too much about one particular topic due to the fact that
    1) I was in high school, very immature, young and didn’t care to
    2) I had back to back papers in 3-4 classes here in college.

    Thanks for sharing your findings from this project and I hope you continue using this method. I only read your thoughts about it and I already have assignment ideas popping into my head for my future classroom.
    Please feel free to check out my blog or follow me on twitter @marymack1983 as I archive my way through the EDM 310 experience. My assignment to summarize your post with my thoughts will be published by 6/24/12.
    I hope you are enjoying your summer.
    — Mary Anderson

    1. Mary,
      I’m glad you came to visit! There is something crazy about trying to cram in so many research papers, isn’t it?

      I’m trying to encourage inquiry and a love for lifelong learning in my classroom. I do, however, worry at times that I am preparing my students for a future in school that doesn’t yet exist. Perhaps we are due for a very major reinvention of the education system. What do you think about that? It’s been over a hundred years since we’ve had one!

      I’ll look forward to your visits and blog posts during your course!

  5. Mrs. Krebs,

    I think a reinvention of the education system is exactly what we need. But by “reinvention” do you mean more technology involved with student’s daily lessons/learnings? I think I catch a lot of flack because I’m not 100% sold on making the classroom fully run on technology. I am a FIRM believer in technology, I love it, I’m a texter, I’m writing this fr my iPhone phone while listening to Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture for the 3rd time in a wk
    I get that it’s needed bc our students are evolving bc of the technology they’ve been exposed to since birth (for most of them). I have my reasoning for loving the “old school” classroom. I think it goes back to my childhood dream of becoming a teacher. Being that teacher’s pet, safety guard, peer helper, etc throughout my life has obviously prepared and lead me in my journey. So with that being said it boils down to that reminder of happiness “old fashioned classrooms” gives me.

    1. Mary,
      That is a great, reflective comment, and I thank you for your honest response.

      By reinvention, I do not at all mean technology as an end. It’s much more than that. I have a list of articles I’ve been saving in a Diigo folder called “Beyond Best Practice to Next Practice.” It would be a place to browse and see some education reformers explaining it like I can’t!

      Here is one business article from Forbes from about a year ago that sums it up well. Business management has changed, so education has to change too. You can see in this article–the things that need to change may be enhanced by technology, but none are “use of technology” per se.

      I’m afraid some of the things you liked about school as a student, and are looking forward to as a teacher, may be gone if you choose to “reinvent” your classroom! However, the rewards of being a lifelong learner side-by-side with your students will more than make up for it! You will have a room full of teacher’s pets, and they will all be engaged and growing! What fun!

      Best wishes to you, Mary!

      Denise Krebs

      P.S. See more here.

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