One of our ongoing goals this academic year as instructional designers has been framing the importance of process in research projects and emphasizing the frontloading of presearch experiences as a critical point of helping students select and narrow a topic of authentic interest. As we tried to collaborate with our 11th Language Arts teachers earlier this semester, Jennifer and I wanted to experiment with the learning structure Connect, Extend, Challenge to see if we could nudge student thinking about the overarching research theme of The American Dream. We decided to do a modified written conversation read and discussion starter that incorporated Connect, Extend, and Challenge. We were able to schedule Linda Katz’s two classes for the activity and felt they would be a great group to pilot our first efforts since they had spent some class time discussing and brainstorming as a group what they felt The American Dream meant and individuals or events that might represent some aspect of it. Below is their initial conceptualization:
After seeing their list, Jen and I wondered if we could use the activity to introduce some contemporary issues related to The American Dream through the critical lenses of socioeconomics, class, race, and gender to push their thinking beyond contemporary individuals and to broaden their event/issue menu from the initial list they developed. In our minds, we thought the activity would help them focus on a timely issue and hopefully be inspired to inquire about it. It took me about a day to find articles I felt were a right fit, and I organized them into eight folders (one for each table). Each folder contained two sets of articles:
- A common set of readings that usually was an overview of a working definition and explanation of The American Dream. These were designed to be quick reads that each group member would read (I envisioned four students per table, so I had four copies of the common read in the folder); they all came from our Gale and EBSCO databases.
- A set of four different articles so that each group member would have a different article to read.
Our game plan was for the students to have 10-12 minutes to read the articles; they would then discuss/share out their readings and reactions to those readings. We then wanted them to collaboratively respond to the prompts for Connect, Think, and Extend so that they could draw on the prior knowledge they had started building in the classroom but hopefully grow or expand through the group readings. Each group would then share their responses on a large sticky note before rotating to another table and set of readings for a second round. On the day of the activity, Jen reviewed the protocols and helped facilitate the activity; we tried to reinforce the conversation protocols by taping the guidelines on each table.
The outcomes were a bit mixed. Quite a few students discovered new information and some different directions for researching The American Dream and contextualizing it from a modern perspective. Some even expressed surprise, especially around statistics and data, about what they read in the articles. We were impressed some students developed their own coding system while annotating the articles to tie directly into the thinking/learning structure of connect, extend, and challenge.
While Jen and I were happy to have put these topics and issues on the students’ radar, many still chose to go with their original focus on how an individual embodied an aspect of The American Dream; others, in the spirit of the research assignment, picked 1-2 concepts from the list and then researched multiple events and/or persons that they thought represented their chosen aspects of The American Dream. We realized that some students would have benefited from the activity taking place over two days so that they could have had more time to:
1. Read (the articles were of varying length and complexity, and we noticed some students needed more time to engage with the text).
2. Share as a small group and then craft their collaborative responses to really go deeper with the connecting, extending, and challenging aspects of the activity.
3. Share out as a large group and then help students think through the connections of what they had read to their initial class-generated list as well as new possibilities for inquiry. Dr. Katz agreed that the extra time and the chance for a large group discussion would have been more optimal.
Now that we’ve tried the activity, we know that we might want to build in a longer or extended activity time window to help students immerse themselves in the texts, the conversations, and thinking without feeling rushed. Jen and I also realized that because the final details of the research assignment didn’t come together in the original time frame any of us (media staff as well as 11th Language Arts) anticipated, we were not cognizant that the teachers were focusing more on students looking at different issues or individuals through one or more of those class generated aspects of The American Dream. While the activity did not result in our (Jen and I) goal of generating enough excitement to shift the research focus to a specific present day issue and a deep dive into how that issue related to the viability of The American Dream, hopefully from a critical literacy inquiry stance, we still feel this learning structure has great potential and hope to use it as part of presearch with another project. What types of presearch learning activities or structures have you tried to nudge students’ thinking about topics related to a particular theme or to grow how they conceptualize a particular topic?