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
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”).