Saturday, October 31, 2009

Mission: Impossible

A FUN research paper? Surely, that must be an oxymoron.

But actually, my class has just embarked upon one of my favorite parts of the year: our research paper. And I'll tell you why.

1. The topics for their research papers are interesting & fun. They have some famous mystery to uncover. The list is about 50 items long and we're always adding to it. Topics range from Stonehenge, Bigfoot, and UFOs to Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, and Patty Hearst's Kidnapping. We've got myths, legends, the supernatural, and unsolved crimes. The kids truly love it. Every year it's interesting to see which ones are the most popular. My first y ear, the monsters and other supernatural were very popular. This year the crimes are especially popular. They dig into the research diligently because they honestly want to know more about the topic.

2. It is not an essay. When they actually write their paper, it is a creative account of their research. How's that? They can present it in any format EXCEPT an essay: short story, letters, journals, police reports, interviews, play, movie script, magazine article, newspaper article... the possibilities are fairly endless but those are the basics. Examples: I'm studying Stonehenge and I decide the most likely explanation is an ancient place of worship. I decide to write a short story, but then I have to choose my perspective. Will I write it from the perspective of: a teenager living in that culture, a religious official building it, an archeologist on site, or myself? They use their research to create a fictional story and then weave the facts into it. It makes the research paper SO much more interesting to read, and it prevents them from all sounding the same. Plagiarism is much more easily spotted, too.

They have a lot of questions at first, because it's unusual. Mostly they're not sure how they're going to put the facts in the paper. But I show them student samples (that helps) and once we start working, they get it. I even tell some of them to write the story first, then go back and figure out where you can plug in your notes & knowledge. There are also some introductory days where I do little things to help them prepare for this new approach. I think this is ideal for any grade level, but if I were to do it with 11th & 12th graders, I would also do some sort of formal research paper, so they are equipped with that formal analysis skill as well. It probably is best for grades 7th-10th.

Now, I haven't posted any of my resources here because a colleague of mine shared this with me, and she got it from a conference. The woman who presented it at that conference has a website; I don't have her name here with me, but when I get it, I'll post the link. I'm hoping she has links & documents there you can hunt through.

So, what do you think? It's different from the traditional research paper, that's for sure. And I promise you: it is so fun. And who ever thought you could say THAT about a research paper?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

parents in education? oh my!

I think I've decided that, at the very least, I'll be posting once a week on Saturdays.

I found an article this morning that relates to the last post about longer school years. Ultimately before we can truly talk school reform, we need to put our money where our mouth is and make education a budgetary priority. Everyone has an opinion about how schools should work but no one wants to give them the money apparently. Prime example: Hawaii schools are shortening the school week to save money because they suffered in a recent state budget cut.

There's a slew of issues here, but let me start by saying this ABCNews article made me want to throw a pineapple at Russ Whitehurst
" 'One could imagine letting teachers go, reducing staff, and increasing class size and retaining the best performing teachers,' said Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings."
Seriously?! So between these two options to save on budget:
A. Increasing class size and overworking what teachers are left (on a salary that already underappreciates them)
B. Reducing school days but maintaining current class sizes and teacher retention
he believes that option A is better? OK, so I've loaded it with contentious word choice. Still, the issue is there.

Part of the problem with American education is that there aren't enough teachers to go around as it is; if we could reduce class sizes all over the country, we would increase the quality of our education automatically. Research shows that class size makes a difference in learning - smaller classes have a more positive impact on learning. Doesn't it make sense then, Mr. Whitehurst, that teachers -- trained professionals -- could make better use of a four day week in the quality of student learning because class sizes would be smaller? By keeping the number of days but doubling class sizes, there is no guarantee - perhaps there is not even a chance - that the extra days would make up for the overcrowded classroom. I can also just about guarantee you would begin to lose more teachers, who would burnout at a faster rate from being severely overworked and underpaid. Both of those - overworked and underpaid - are already true, which is why the teaching profession has difficulty retaining and recruiting workers. But that's just a symptom of the larger problem. Good teachers - and really, why are you hiring & continuing to pay teachers who aren't? - can make use of a four day week and make it meaningful. It is much harder to do that with a doubled class size.

So that got me all riled up.

In my opinion, teachers can still make four-day weeks work. Is it tough? Do you have to give up some things you REALLY want to do? Of course. As I said before, I could probably teach 365 days a year and still come up with things I wish we could do. So, that's a given that there's never enough time. But could I make four days a week work? Yes. It would involve sending some work home on Friday - probably more than usual - but they have an extra day to do it.

Honestly, here's the silver lining I see: This is forcing parents to get involved in education. And in more than just "You didn't give my Johnny an A!" or "My Jane would NEVER do that!" This energy could be directed in a genuine way that can lead to healthy education reform. Furlough Fridays are a great example. My response as a teacher would be to send a letter home that said this: "If you are concerned about Your Child losing education time, here is a small review packet of work covering what we've done this week. You and Child can go over this at home this weekend. Child will be ready for Monday and on top of his game! Yes, I know you still have a job on Friday. But I know his education is important to you and you and Child will find time." (of course, I'd like to add "We're all making sacrifices during this difficult time, and I know you will do your part. At least your salary is still the same." But I think that would just be bitter)

Can you imagine?! Engaging parents to actually get involved in teaching their own children?! I'm getting giddy just thinking about it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

talk, shmalk

I've suffered from Writer's Block...and I haven't been practicing what I preach and writing through it anyway!

There's been more talk recently about upping the number of days we go to school here in the good ol' USofA, by our favorite spokesman, Arne Duncan. The motivating factor is that we're falling behind other countries, especially in math; one obvious difference between US & European schools is the number of days we go to school. Apparently very few countries go fewer than 200 days a year now, whereas 180 is the national norm.

First and foremost, I need to do more digging into this issue. My gut reaction, however, are these two thoughts:

A. Fine...but will you finally pay teachers what we deserve?
B. Quantity is not equivalent to Quality

Are there days I wish I had more time? Absolutely. This unit is one of them - we sped through Animal Farm which, in my opinion, is a shame. We'll come back to it in our persuasive unit with a focus on propaganda. Other things have been scheduled for the end of October, however, so we zipped through it. But (stop me if you've heard this one) I wasn't able to do many of the fun activities I like to do with Animal Farm . Even if we attended school 365 days, I would probably still be singing that tune; ultimately, teachers will ALWAYS feel like we don't have enough time.

Although if parents stepped in and did THEIR jobs, we could actually spend more time on curriculum and then maybe...well, anyway. You get the idea. Preachin' to the choir. I need to do more research, but that's my gut reaction to the talk them boys is giving up in the big house.

What do you think? Will more in-school days make US students more competitive internationally?

(source: picture courtesy of Eric Rice)