Published Online: April 2, 2014

Engaging Students in Research Writing

—Ross Brenneman

It started with chocolate milk.

I was planning a research unit for my 7th graders, but I wanted to do something different—something that would flip a traditional research unit on its head and be more relevant to students' lives.

So I started with a question: Who should be responsible for children's nutrition at school? This was a real issue that would allow students to write authentically. But instead of having them write research essays, I had students carry out a letter writing campaign to leaders in our community.

The premise of this unit came from an 'Aha!' moment I had a few years ago at a Teachers College Reading and Writing Project event. During one of their Saturday Reunions, I learned that research writing doesn't need to be limited to a dry, book-report style. Students can present their research in a wide variety of creative formats.

Eventually my co-teacher and I narrowed our topic further, having students research the chocolate milk debate in schools. Here are some ways I approached the unit so students could understand the controversy surrounding the topic and write about it:

1. Identify a nuanced topic with two sides. Since this was our first research unit, I had students study the same topic because it was easier for me to support them with resources. Starting with a broader topic also allowed them to gradually understand its nuances as they learned more.

When I introduced the chocolate milk debate, I set up a two-column chart and labeled the two main perspectives (_________ is good. / _________ is bad). Before we started researching, we brainstormed reasons that would lead people to take different sides on the issue. This immediately activated students' critical thinking.

2. Provide initial sources for students to take notes. I used news broadcasts and YouTube videos to jumpstart the note-taking process and introduce students to the topic. For students with a nonfiction phobia, watching brief videos was an easier hurdle to jump than reading articles. I tried to find videos that represented different sides of the argument.

I showed each video twice: first so students could listen for general ideas and then a second time so they could take notes. Students wrote the main ideas from each video on individual sticky notes and added them to the appropriate column of our topic chart. They also noted the videos in a legend in their notebooks (labeling them Source 1, Source 2, etc.) and tracked which sources corresponded to the notes on our chart.

After watching the videos, we talked about our initial opinions and biases and the importance of setting them aside until we collected actual research. This helped students open their minds to other perspectives.

3. Study an example student essay. After we gathered notes from a few sources (both print and digital), we paused in our research to read a student example of a persuasive, research-based essay. We created a bulleted list of criteria that these essays should have: a catchy hook, rhetorical strategies (ethos, pathos, and logos, which we had learned beforehand), vivid word choices, and quotes from experts. Although my students ended up writing a persuasive letter instead of an essay, they learned that the fundamental components of both were essentially the same.

4. Set up opportunities for students to do independent research. My co-teacher and I created a few days of station-based researching so students could gather additional information. One station featured nutrition labels for several different beverages alongside a science textbook diagram about how to read nutrition labels. Another station was set up so students could visit the websites of local school-lunch programs and alternative lunch providers and answer guiding questions. A third station had printed articles and statistical reports from a variety of sources. Because students had already practiced note-taking, they were able to quickly find information and update their legends with additional sources.

The ultimate goal was for students to drive their own research and begin to finesse the broader research topic. We also reviewed the concept of "preponderance of evidence" so students would understand that claims should be built upon solid foundations of research, not just observations and gut feelings.

5. Emphasize the importance of reliable sources. After finishing our station-based research, we asked students to step back and consider the scope of information they had encountered. We asked them to think about whether or not they could trust each source. Then we taught them questions for determining source reliability. Sample questions: When was the article written? (If it's more than five years old, it might not be accurate any more). Did the author include his/her name or the name of an institution? (If not, we have no idea who the author is and what his/her qualifications are).

6. Present an opportunity for students to write for a real audience. We framed the assignment as a letter writing campaign to the Child Nutrition Board of our county and state. We designed a template for students to organize their sticky notes (which could be easily removed and arranged into paragraphs). This helped students organize the main reasons in support of their claim and address any counterarguments.

7. Make time for revisions. Our students received a grade on their "flash drafts." But before we mailed out their letters, students were required to make revisions based on our feedback.

8. Collaborate with staff to make the unit come alive. Part of what made this unit so successful was collaborating with staff members at my school. For example, I reached out to the science teacher on my team to find out what students already knew about nutrition, as well as how they had been taught to approach science reports. I also spoke with our cafeteria staff and arranged for a school chef to visit our class and talk about nutrition. For this particular visit, we gave students a crash course in interview techniques and question types—and they got a living source to use for their letters.

Final Takeaways

It was rewarding to see students improve their writing and note-taking abilities. But it was remarkable to see how engaged students were, particularly the struggling writers among them. Because students felt that their voice mattered and were given the opportunity to write something other than a boring essay, they took more ownership and pride in their work.

After we finished the unit, my co-teacher and I decided to capitalize on students' newfound skills by having them do an independent research unit. Students were extremely engaged and creative, presenting their research as brochures, children's books, faux magazine editorials, and blogs. They came to realize that persuasive pieces are convincing not just because of their content but also because of their format and tone.

As my students and I wait to hear back about their chocolate milk letters, I'm starting to think about research topics for next year. There are countless issues that students could investigate beyond overdone topics like school uniforms or school start time. Here are some ideas in my back pocket:

  • social media and parental controls,
  • video games,
  • potatoes in school lunches,
  • children's toys and marketing to gender roles, and
  • dystopian literature

Do you have any other ideas for research unit topics? Please share them in the comments.

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