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Evolving the Research Paper

It is a magical moment when the hard work of lesson plans meets passionate students who view their work as important. During the second year of our interdisciplinary 8th grade project, IC (Inquiry Communities), we asked students to identify an issue they felt was something that was critical for our school community and to spend time in bi-weekly meetings working with their groups to learn about the issue. The ultimate goal of each group was to create a media message for their peers that shed light on the topic and urged the audience to take action. 

Over the course of the project, students read articles, watched videos, deciphered graphs and charts and prepared and conducted interviews with experts on the topic in an effort to raise awareness and move people to action. With issue ranging from coping with economic hardships to dealing with concerns about body image to the dangers of drug abuse, students dug into their topics and attempted to make meaning from the vast, and often conflicting, information and messages in the world around them. 

What resulted were Public Service Announcements, written and produced by students, that highlight key issues related to a particular topic. Students connected these issues to our local school community and offered a specific call to action for their peers and members of the larger school and town community. Proud students presented their work in a gathering of the entire student body in June. 

In this second year, the project underwent an evolution. As a participant in the National Writing Project Literacy in the Common Core Initiative, I have been working with the Literacy Design Collaborative Cohort group to examine a planning structure that develops curriculum materials with the Common Core State Standards at the center of work that is deeply infused with specific reading and writing experiences. 

The LDC Task that framed the evolution of this work is:

Task 1 Analysis

ELA Argumentation/ Analysis                                

After researching and reading informational texts on an issue of your choosing, create a television PSA that argues your position on the issue and provides a call to action.  Support your position with evidence from your research. L2 Be sure to acknowledge competing views. L3 Give examples from past or current events or issues to illustrate and clarify your position.

In applying the LDC system, I moved to address Writing Anchor Standard One as a organizing principle for the task students would work toward. Other specific reading and writing standards, delineated by the “Built In” standards outlined in the LDC module template, served to further enrich the learning experience of students and focus their work on locating and utilizing specific supporting evidence to support claims about the topic.  

My assumption in doing this work was that students would very neatly follow the prompt and write a research paper with some careful scaffolding. I thought the next logical step would be to ask students to mix these words with images and music to help generate an impactful message. This is not at all what happened. The text the students began with quickly became only a jumping off point for the digital creation process.  As students were developing their pieces, they began to notice a tension between the relationship of words and images and struggled with how to make these elements complimentary. Quickly, students realized that words and images need to work together. They came to understand that if they were serving the same purpose, it became redundant and was less effective. This led to massive revisions of the text as students evaluated the new effects their work would have on the audience given this new medium. 

These decisions involved really deep critical thought about their writing and how to best represent their ideas. The close read of their own text and thinking about audience and effect got students to think about their work at a deeper level than before the digital composition step. 

The power of this work was evident in the incredible amount of time and effort that students put into their projects. As a teacher, I really appreciated the dedication and attention to detail that groups brought to their work. This was a powerful learning experience that I am excited to recreate. 

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