In my previous post; I outlined the work we did to:

  • brainstorm topics
  • narrow our topics
  • conduct pre-search
  • use that pre-search to finalize a topic choice
  • generate questions about our topic using the question lenses chart
  • finalize our research questions and complete an investigation plan/research contract

In this post, I’ll explain how we targeted these skills with our research/inquiry mini-project:

  • Adding sources to your bibliography in EasyBib.
  • Taking notes with the notecards in your EasyBib notebook on your two research questions in EasyBib.
  • Writing a strong introduction to your essay (the three sentence method).
  • Writing body paragraphs with the Schaffer two chunk method that helps you use your research/evidence to answer your research question with concrete details and commentary.
  • Showing where your information for your concrete details came from using parenthetical references in the body of your paper and using EasyBib to correctly generate your parenthetical references.
  • Using paraphrased and directly quoted information correctly as concrete details.
  • Using appropriate transition words in your paragraphs.
  • Writing a strong conclusion using our template provided to you.

Once students had their top two topic choices finalized, these questions served as our lens for moving into more formal and strategic research with our research questions serving as our compass.

Using EasyBib to Add Resources To Answer Our Research Questions and Take Meaningful Digital Notes

With the help of our school’s subscription to EasyBib, students could easily add sources to a working bibliography and begin taking digital notes with the digital notebook tool.  Most of my students had not used our subscription, so my previous experience as a librarian and extensive use of EasyBib helped me immerse the students into the platform and provide them resources and instruction on how to use EasyBib.

Once they got started, most were pleasantly surprised by how simple it is to use EasyBib and became enthusiastic users.  EasyBib also reduced my paper flow since students shared their projects with me electronically, and I could easily monitor and assess their progress with their bibliographies and digital notes.  We devoted about a week of class time to researching and taking notes; this in-class work time was important because students could ask for help with their research or EasyBib in person as needed.  I also gave students video tutorials so that if they needed assistance after hours or wanted to self-help themselves with EasyBib, then they could access the help videos.

Our target goal was to find at least four viable sources and to complete 10 digital notes.  Because students could share their projects with me electronically , I could easily and quickly check their work and provide feedback with the comments tools available for both the bibliography and the digital notebook.

Differentiating for Learners with Checklists and Instruction on Demand

Once I had checked a student’s work, given him/her feedback, and rechecked any research work that needed revising, he or she then received a learning pathways checklist to help him or her move through our next series of learning tasks.  I devised this checklist to help students have a path to instruction on demand since I widely varying ability levels in each class and wanted to have a way for students to work through the learning tasks at a personalized pace.

The first task for students was to do a self-assessment of his/her work in EasyBib using the reflection tool below:

Students were then ready to move through the mini-lessons and resources to help them begin writing their draft. Here is our writing plan for both grades 7 and 8:

Though I am not a fan of “essay formulas”, I have learned through experience this past year that most of my writers needed an “anchor” to help them compose their academic writing.  Our writing plan is a blend of structures from a fellow teacher and the Jane Schaffer “two chunk” paragraph writing method.  I felt the Schaffer “two chunk” paragraph writing structure would give my students a way of organizing their research into their essay and help them develop their ideas with evidence and their own analysis of the information.   This writing plan was introduced in one of three “instruction on demand” videos I created with my personal Screecastomatic account and inserted into our Canvas learning platform for both my 7th and 8th grade writing courses.  I no longer have access to my Canvas courses and do not have a saved screenshot of how the resources were embedded in that platform, but the resources are also crossposted to my LibGuides project page here:

Most students accessed the videos through Canvas simply because that was our space where they lived as learners, but I wanted to have a backup available through LibGuides.  In addition to the instructional videos on demand, I did provide students hard copies of each instructional handout—I learned quickly last fall that most of my students needed a hard copy of any handout because that fits their current learning style.

Once students reviewed our writing plan handout (posted earlier in this post) and watched Video 1, he/she was ready to craft the introduction.  I do not have permission to publish the introduction template, but it mirrored a structure we had used for earlier essays, so students were familiar with crafting the following elements for the introduction:

  • an effective hook (we had three primary strategies for composing the hook)
  • an additional sentence or sentences to further explain the information presented in the hook
  • our thesis statement

Once students drafted the introduction, I checked the work in class and then helped students set up their essay document in Google Docs.  Once students had typed the polished introduction, he/she was ready to the next step:  writing the body paragraphs.  Students received this handout, and I reviewed it with them before turning them loose to watch the custom tutorial video that explained the Schaffer Two Chunk paragraph writing method.  This example is one I wrote as I wanted to model for students the writing I was asking them to do.

Once students had finished watching Video 2, they received the third and final help handout to prep them for the third video from EasyBib.

As you can see, there is a good deal of frontloading between writing the introduction and writing the two body paragraphs, but I wanted the students to have a solid foundation before they attempted to compose the body paragraphs.  Once students finished the third video, I provided each one a copy of the composing checklist to support the students as they began drafting.

Once students were cleared to begin drafting, students moved forward by:

  • Composing the first body paragraph using the Schaffer Two Chunk method.  Students did all drafting directly in Google Docs and once the paragraph draft was completed, the draft could be shared with me for virtual feedback.  Many students also took the approach of composing the topic sentence and first “chunk” and then sharing the work with me to make sure they were on the right track before writing the second chunk of the first body paragraph.  These approaches made it possible to engage in meaningful formative assessment with students and to identify any areas that needed help or reteaching either with 1:1 instruction, additional resources shared through the Google Doc, and/or redirecting the students back to Videos 2 and 3 and the supporting help/model writing documents.
  • Once the first body paragraph was cleared, students could then compose the second body paragraph.  We repeated the same process and approaches for body paragraph 1.
  • Last but not least, students crafted their conclusions.  I do not have permission to publish the text structure template for the conclusion, but it was one we had used earlier in the year along with our transition words to help us compose a strong concluding paragraph.

Once students had finished revising and editing their work with my assistance and that of peers if they desired, we used Kidblog to publish our papers.  I love Kidblog because students can publish their work easily and Kidblog has Google Drive integration making it easy to publish writing created in Google Docs.   If you are working with younger students where privacy is a concern, Kidblog is the perfect solution to address that need.  One piece of advice to consider that I’ve learned in the last few days:  when I registered for Kidblog, I used my district email and signed up with the “register with Google” option that tied my Kidblog account directly to my work Google account.  Unfortunately, my access to my work email and portal were cut off earlier this week because I’m leaving the school district, but I didn’t anticipate it would be shut off before my current contract expired.  If you need access to student work after the fact, you may want to register with a personal email account instead of your work account.

Reflections:  Successes and Stumbling Blocks (Glows and Grows)

Successes/Glows/Celebrations

  • Students gained tremendous confidence and experience in selecting sources, evaluating information, and taking meaningful notes in EasyBib.
  • Students were able to work at their own pace and access instruction on demand.
  • Checklists helped students stay on track and practice new writing skills.
  • Google Docs and our “learning pathway” approach helped amplify the possibilities for real-time formative assessment and feedback at the learner point of need.
  • Students investigated meaningful questions that could not be easily answered with simple facts; students generated deeper level research questions to go beyond regurgitating facts.  The Schaffer Two Chunk writing method also pushed students to incorporate their own analysis or interpretation of the information they used as their concrete details.
  • The model text I crafted and supporting instructional video for the Schaffer method seemed to be helpful to most students.
  • Students were interested and invested in their topics they self-selected.
  • Students saw the connections between their notes and the body paragraphs they composed.
  • Though not every student completed the entire paper, they still had rich learning experiences they grew their research and writing skills.  Those who did finish expressed tremendous pride in their work.
  •  I felt fairly comfortable with the flexible/rolling deadlines and timeline I established with the research and drafting pieces of the project.  Because each class had such varying groups of learners, I felt the way I designed this part of the unit and the “instruction on demand” helped me better differentiate for everyone.

Stumbling Blocks/Grows/Regrets

  • Many students did not complete the entire paper because we simply ran out of time.  I didn’t anticipate losing some of the instructional time I did due to end of year activities and the Connections teachers being used for end of year specials the last three days of the school year (I had no instructional time with my students the final week).  I didn’t realize this would happen until it was too late though I don’t know we could have started the research project any earlier than we did due to the state testing.  I now wish I had integrated the research work with our informational writing in January and February.
  • Because I realized (too late) not every student would finish the paper in spite of his/her best efforts, I had to calibrate and rethink how I would fairly assign a final or summative grade (each piece of the project counted as a formative grade).    This challenge only added to my growing discomfort and angst over assigning grades.  {Readings that are adding to my internal conflict about grades and grading are here and here.  I also recommend this post as well.} I desperately  wanted to reward and recognize process and progress for all students, not just those who finished all the pieces of our project.
  • A 40 minute instructional block of time felt awfully insufficient all year, but it felt especially short with this particular unit of writing; even students would comment they wished our class was longer.
  • Not all students had an opportunity to publish their work (even if incomplete) on our project blog because again, we simply ran out of time.
  • Because I didn’t realize when my actual last day of instruction was with the students (the end  of the year is markedly different in middle school from high school), very few students had an opportunity to engage in any self-assessment of their project (grade 7 and grade 8 or their reflections on their work over the last year.   Even though school has been out nearly two weeks, I still feel rather sick about this glaring hole in our final unit.
  • Even though I tried to build in what I felt was ample time for all pieces of the project, I misjudged what students needed by about a week.  Gauging how much time was sufficient for my students in all three grades I taught (6, 7, and 8) was an ongoing challenge for me all year.
  • Though I’ll be teaching 11th and 12th Language Arts classes in another district next year, I want to introduce research skills in small doses earlier in the academic year.

Even with the challenges I have outlined, I am still happy with the outcomes of the project because the students had meaningful learning experiences that emphasized depth and process.  They also picked incredibly interesting topics including:

  • Fragile X syndrome
  • Exoplanets
  • Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963
  • 2017 Nissan GT-R
  • Chattahoochee River Water Wars
  • Effectiveness of Adidas Adiprene
  • Assorted endangered animals (causes, issues, solutions)
  • German Shepherds as superior police dogs
  • Best treatments for breast cancer
  • Medical therapies for depression
  • How to get a job at ESPN
  • How to safely enjoy off-roading activities
  • Advances in forensic science
  • Syria/chemical weapons used on children
  • Bermuda Triangle
  • Climate change
  • Concussions and soccer
  • Photography
  • Lowrider culture
  • Career research on becoming an Army Ranger

I was impressed by the breadth of topics my 7th and 8th graders chose!

How This Writing Project Will Inform My Work as a Teacher Moving Forward

I also felt that of all the research projects I’ve done with the students, this is the one where I had the most day to day hands on involvement because I was able to give so much formative assessment and feedback on demand with every student.  The day to day work, conferencing, and examination of work together (as well as feedback provided after hours in advance of a face to face conversation the next day) really helped me to know my students as learners and the work they were doing.  Though I did not quite get the point that Rebekah O’Dell did after her first year trying a gradeless classroom, the intense focus on feedback and regular interaction fueled our work even though we were all fighting the end of the year weariness that comes even in the best of circumstances.   I found myself feeling a bit bereft and not wanting the year to end because these experiences made me realize there was so much still left for my students and I to learn together.  Even as I write this statement, I feel tears welling up in my eyes and though I’m looking forward to my adventures at my new school, I feel sadness that I will not have more time with my War Eagle writers again.

Though I know it is not possible for me to enact a gradeless classroom next year, I do want to be more intentional about these kinds of rich, regular interactions and the emphasis on feedback because I’ve had a taste of what is possible and the shift that can happen for both teachers and students.  As Rebekah O’Dell shared in her post,

“Changing the way I graded changed everything in my classroom.

Many of my hopes for this project were realized — as I gave up bits of my control, students found their voice in the classroom and in their writing. Students became risk-takers in all the best ways. They accounted for their mess-ups and  for their enormous victories. They learned to tell me what they needed.

But something even more significant happened.  Somehow, as a result of removing grades on individual assignments, I developed the deepest relationships I have ever had with students. Changing the grades didn’t just change the classroom atmosphere or the students’ work ethic or my paper load. Somehow, changing the grades changed our hearts— theirs and mine. More than ever before, I knew them and they truly knew me.

In a career of experimentation, this particular change — this heart change — has been the most profound.

The biggest reward for me was this: relationships, which led to community. My classroom finally felt the way I’ve always wanted it to feel. I walked into class daily with the freedom to be the teacher I always want to be.”

Isn’t that what we all want for ourselves and our students?  I am thankful for this last year that has given me glimpses of what could be for me and my students; I am forever thankful for my War Eagle Writers at Chestatee Academy and my principal, Jennifer Kogod, who gave me freedom to try and innovate in our writing studio.  I am thankful for the growth spurt I had this past year as a teacher and want to continue on this path in 2017-18 as I keep growing into the teacher I want to be.

One thought on “War Eagle Writers in the Research Sandbox, Part 2: Crafting Learner Ready Instruction, Scaffolding Writing, and What We Learned Together

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