Rethinking Research Part #2 (Finally)–Using Student Research as Assessment and a Tool For Critical Literacy

I warn you now, this might be my longest blog post ever (which is saying a lot). If anyone actually makes it through this thing, I am going to be really impressed!

Many months ago, I wrote a blog post explaining the very beginning stages of our inquiry circle research. In that post, I discussed how my students chose topics that were of interest to them. The parameters that I gave them were that they needed to choose a current social issue that they wanted to learn more about in order to develop a belief about the issue and take some action to create positive action connected to that issue in the world outside of the classroom. Once their topics were chosen, I asked them to identify their current knowledge AND work to identify potential biases they were carrying about that topic. I wrote about that entire process in the last blog post.

Now that several months have gone by and I am just now finding time to get back into the swing of writing here, I wanted to continue the series of Rethinking Research. In this post, I want to take some time to think about how we can rethink the research process that we ask our students to go through so that we can use the process itself as a form of assessment and also as a way to teach our students a process of critical literacy that they can walk through on their own in the world outside of our classroom.

When I set out to plan the work that we would do in our inquiry circle unit, I thought about our Common Core Standards, I thought about our district reading and writing units and learning targets, I thought about Teaching Tolerance’s Social Justice Standards, and I also thought a lot about how I WISH that people in this world would go about learning about the complex situations that we are living in. From all of these places, a list of learning targets was born. I shared these in the previous post, but here they are again: img_5554

I written a lot about how important I feel that it is to take the literacy curriculum that we are required to bring to our students and wrap that work in something bigger, something more meaningful, something that can change the world. I’ve started to call this a type of revolutionary reading and writing. So I have worked to weave as many reading and writing skills into our inquiry circle work and raise the level of that work by also working in social justice standards and the skills that I wish people out in our world had.

But within all of that, I am still responsible for assessing my students. At times, these goals seem unwilling to coexist. The idea of meeting the common core, making sure that I assess my students’ meeting of the common core and also doing the kind of work that makes me believe that I am preparing my students to use reading and writing to make this world a better place. For many years, it felt as if these things could not occur simultaneously.

And then recently, I have shifted my thinking. I have seen that once I have identified my learning targets, assessment REALLY becomes simply collected evidence that shows that students are meeting these learning targets. We get so caught up sometimes with the world “assessment.” It feels so dirty. But if we can pull ourselves away for a moment, from the big business of standardized testing, if we can pull ourselves away from the noise and the nonsense, and look at assessment as simply collecting evidence from student work to show us how our students are doing or not doing what we want them to do, then it is suddenly possible to see how all of the things that we want to do can occur at the same time. We do not need a separate task, a final product, a manufactured scenario in order to gather evidence of student learning. That evidence can be gathered within the work itself.

This requires two things. 1) A specific knowledge of what you want students to be able to do and 2) A space for students to provide you the evidence over time of how they are learning to do those things.  And the beauty of this is that ALL of this can be wrapped into meaningful work. So as I am working to teach my students how to responsibly learn about complex social issues while considering multiple perspectives and centering the voices of those directly affected, I can also be gathering evidence of how they are learning to do the things that they will be assessed on in our district’s report card.

So how does that all happen?

Well, once my students have chosen topics and worked to identify the biases they might hold about these topics, it is time to dig in to their research. And as soon as this research begins, I work to collect evidence of what they are learning how to do.

The first learning targets that I introduce are:

I can synthesize new information WITHIN one single text in order to grow my understanding of a complex topic.

I can recognize how specific information affects my understanding of a topic.

If these are the things that I want my students to be able to do, I need to first model for them how to do them and then guide them through the work of doing these things themselves.

So, each year, I chose a topic that is currently being talked about in the media and that none of my student groups have chosen. This year, that topic was DACA. Now I know that there are teachers who struggle with teaching topics like DACA because there is this pervasive belief that we somehow are supposed to keep politics out of our classroom. First of all, we have NEVER kept politics out of our classrooms. Every book that we choose to read or not read, every textbook we choose to purchase or not purchase, every topic we discuss or refuse to discuss, it is all political.

I do not know where this supposed line of political or not political is supposed to be drawn, but what I do know is that I owe my fifth graders an opportunity to learn HOW to learn about a topic as complex as DACA. I owe them the opportunity to teach them how to wade through the noise of the media and understand the issue underneath. I do not want to teach them WHAT to think, but I do feel a heavy responsibility to teach them HOW to think. How to think for themselves. Independently of their parents, independently of their peers, independently of the headlines that are screaming for their attention. So that is what I do.  And I can do this by teaching them a process through which they can look critically at the media they are consuming in order to reach a more accurate understanding of a complex issue.

I took the topic of DACA. I began with a single article. A news article that I took from Newsela. Might I just stop for a moment here and mention how Newsela has revolutionized the work of inquiry. It has provided this incredible source of articles dealing with current social issues that are accessible for all of our students. I am incredibly grateful for the resources they give to this world.

Before I began reading the article to my students. I introduced the idea of synthesis (which is one they have heard in many previous grades) and explained how it might look as we work to understand a complex social issue.  I told them that as I read, I would be looking for the pieces of information that had some affect on my understanding. Using the chart pictured below, I went through some of the ways that pieces of information might affect my understanding.


After going through this chart together, I projected the article on the board for all of us to look at together.  Since all of the research that my students would be doing with this project is digital, I wanted to make sure that I modeled how I would research with a digital article. So I began to read out loud. And any time I encountered a piece of information that affected my thinking, I stopped and shared out loud my thinking. I then highlighted the piece of the text that led to my thinking and copied it onto THIS NOTE TAKING DOCUMENT. (I will come back to this document in a moment as it is an incredibly important piece of evidence that I use in order to assess my students).

I pasted the lines from the text into the first column of the chart on the top of this document. In the second column, I modeled how I could track how it affected my understanding of the issue and then finally, in the third column, I coded HOW this information affected my understanding.  We ignored the rest of the note -taking document on this first day and only focused on the first chart.

As you can imagine, this work caused me to move slowly through the article I was looking at. I told my students that this was exactly what I hoped would happen. When my students research online, they tend to read less carefully. When they are reading articles online, as opposed to on paper in front of them, they often do not make it to the end of the article. I believe that there are a different set of skills that we need to teach our students when they read articles on line and this work provides the perfect opportunity to do that.

On that first day, I probably only got through two or three paragraphs of the first article. And that is okay. Because it was then time for my students to try this work for themselves and to begin to collect evidence of how they were able to meet these first learning targets.

So after some modeling, I told my students that it was there to turn to try. They each had their own NOTE TAKING DOCUMENT that I assigned to them through Google Classroom.  And on this first day, I told them only to worry about the section of the note-taking document that I modeled for them, the chart at the top of the note taking document. They were not yet responsible for doing any of the sections that I did not model for them yet.

And for this first day, I found articles for the students to use. Though this work is inquiry and though part of our work would be locating sources, the first weeks of our work were really focused on the skills of HOW to read and synthesize. In order to make that manageable, I curated resources for each of our inquiry circle groups. I built a Padlet for each group and began to put resources there for the students to use. Since I began with online articles, that is what I first posted to the Padlets. I put two or three articles on each group’s Padlet and allowed students to choose from those. Here is an example of one of the group’s Padlets, but please know that this is from the END STAGES of our research when the students took over the gathering of resources.

So I then sent the kids off to work. I sent them off to work knowing that many of them were not ready, but also knowing that the best chance that I had to teach them what they needed was when they were actually IN the work and I could guide them through that work. So as the kids went to their articles and began taking their notes, I used my time to confer with students and notice patterns and step in to guide and teach and instruct. And while all of this was going on, I was also able to gather evidence of what my students were able to do.

And then on the next day, I modeled again. And the kids kept working. And if they finished one article, I asked them to choose a second article to work on. They created a new, blank note taking document and continued to gather evidence of how they were meeting the learning targets we had been working on. And I continued to confer and pull together small groups and work to push their learning forward. I talked not about WHAT they were reading and thinking, but HOW they were reading and thinking. I did not push them to believe one thing over another, but I pushed them to notice what they were reading and how it affected what they were thinking and understanding.

And on the day after that, we looked at the next section of the note taking document which dealt with how we synthesize at the END of a text. And so I introduced the chart below and then modeled for my students how I could document my end of text synthesis in writing. And then after I modeled this, I told my students that when they reached the end of their first article, I now expected them to do this work. And if kids had already finished articles and moved on to a second article, I asked them to go back and try to complete that section. And again, I worked to confer and pull small groups and instruct while my students themselves were doing the work.


And then after that, we started to focus on some new learning targets.

I can use questions to seek out information to better understand a problem/issue instead of making assumptions.

I can recognize when voices are missing and seek out sources that amplify and highlight those voices.

For these learning targets, we looked at the final sections on the note taking document.  Again, I modeled how I kept track of whose voices where heard in the articles I read and also pushed myself to think out loud about who might be affected but was NOT having their voices heard in the articles and we began to talk about where we might seek out these voices.

At this stage of the research, I was still supplying all of the articles and I made sure to pull articles that contained a variety of perspectives and also a variety of directions that the students’ research could head. We talked about how the first days of research can feel directionless and scattered, but how those are the days that will help them to pick a direction and an angle and a lens through which they want to dive deeper into their topics.

And after about a week of focusing on synthesizing within just online articles, we started to look at how we could do this work with other types of media.  Here are the charts that I used for that work: IMG_5546IMG_5545IMG_5544

Each time I introduced a new chart, I also modeled using that specific type of media source. And then, I added options of that specific type of media source to their group Padlets to allow them to practice. They were asked to use the same note taking document as they practiced these skills across a variety of types of media. And I continued to confer and pull small groups to guide them through this work.

This work took us through several weeks of class time, probably three weeks in total. And during these stages, yes, the work of curating resources was intense. I spent many nights gathering resources that each group might be able to use, but it was important to me that they have quality, reliable resources at this stage of the work so that they could focus on learning the skills of how to research without having to worry yet about gathering resources themselves.

After several weeks, it was time to focus on a new learning target.

I can synthesis information from MULTIPLE sources to help me understand complex issues from multiple perspectives.

And so, I pulled my students together and modeled for them how I could take information from ALL of the sources I had looked at so far and begin to reflect on my overall understanding that I gained from each source AND the overall understanding that these sources led to about my topic in general.

And again, I needed to provide my students with the space to show me how they were abel to do this. And so, I asked them to use THIS DOCUMENT to synthesize ACROSS the multiple sources they had looked at. And after modeling how to use this document, I sent them off to fill out the document for themselves. They each received a copy through Google Classroom and as they worked, I continued to come around and confer.

The next day, they met with their groups and shared their current understandings and then went back to their documents to fill in the final section of this document which provided evidence on how they were able to synthesize the perspectives being shared by the other people in their group.

After all of this work, they were finally able to make a plan with their groups on how they wanted to move forward with their research. It was at this phase that I told them that I was going to hand off the gathering of sources to them.  At this point we entered what I liked to call, “Phase Two” of our research. Now that they knew a bit more about their topics, they were ready to select a direction that they wanted to head. As a group they might all head in the same direction or they might all veer in different directions. I was okay with whatever worked for them. To figure that out, they met with their groups and filled out a plan for their research. THIS IS THE PLAN THAT THEY FILLED OUT.

At this point, my incredible librarian, Monica, stepped in to guide my students in how to seek out the resources they would need. She covered how students needed to be aware of accuracy, bias, and currency when they were searching for sources. She covered bias in different types of media outlets. She taught them how to use our online databases. She taught them how to perform more efficient google searches. And she did this all AS my students were engaged in the work. These were not isolated lessons, these were lessons that my students needed in the moment to do the work that they were engaged in. I could not be more grateful to have her as a partner in this work and my students have benefitted so much from her expertise.

As they started to gather their own sources, I no longer needed them to use the extensive note taking document from our first phase. Those note-taking documents had served their purposes. I had more than enough evidence of the how they had met our learning targets. And so I provided them with a second NOTE TAKING DOCUMENT that better reflected these phase of our research.  This was the one document my students would use for the rest of their work and the rest of their research.

After our lessons in the library on how to find reliable resources that represented a variety of perspectives, our final set of lessons focused on how my students would finally be ready to start to form their own belief, stance and claim about the topics they were studying. Here is the chart that I used to begin to introduce that idea: IMG_5542

In this final phase of our research, right before we are ready to think about how we will use what we have learned to take action through writing, we spend time learning about how we form beliefs. And, more importantly, how we tie those beliefs back to the research that we have done.

So at this point, I am indeed modeling how I form my own personal beliefs for my students and I recognize that will make some teacher uncomfortable. But here is the think, I am connecting all of this back to the research that I have done. I do a lot of modeling of how I notice patterns in what I researched, how I agreed with some opinions shared and disagreed with others, how I noticed the statistics that made me feel something, how I picked up on the research that angered me, and then I pulled all of those things together in order to form a belief based on fact and not simply on sensational headlines. And I will tell you that no one seemed to complain. Because I was tying it back to the research I had done in front of my students, because this was the work that I was asked my students to engage in, what they saw this was NOT as a way to preach my beliefs, but rather as a process through which I was teaching them to identify THEIR OWN beliefs.

And then, I asked them to go off and do this work for themselves or with members of their groups. And I asked them to document this work as it was taking place on their phase two note taking documents. And I think that is really important. As they watched me model this process, they saw how I was reaching my own beliefs, and then I asked them to do the work for themselves so that they could reach their own beliefs based on the research they had done.

And the process they were using, the process I was teaching them, was one they could use again and again in order to do this work without me. In order to read critically out in the world so that they could do better and be better than many of the models that they have in this world we are living in.

By the time all of this work was done, by the time they were ready for the action phase, I also had gathered an incredible amount of evidence of how they were doing in terms of learning targets. Maybe one day I will have a rubric to use in order to score their research notes, but maybe not (to be honest). Our district uses a 1,2,3,4 standards based-grading system. And what I tell my students is that if I see evidence on their note taking documents that they have done all that we have learned how to do, then that is a 3 for the learning targets we have covered. if I see evidence that they are able to do these things, then that is a 3. If they are going beyond what I have showed them how to do on these note taking documents, then that is a 4. If they are close to doing the things that we have learned to do, that is a 2 and if they are giving me almost no evidence that they are able to do the things we have learned to do that is a 1.

It is by no means a perfect system, but what it does allow me to do is to use the actual research as an assessment. I do not need to now create something separate, something detached from the meaningful work that we are doing, something that serves no purpose out in the world. I can simply gather evidence from the students’ own work. Work that matters to them because it matters in this world. That is the kind of assessment that I can live with.

If you have made it this far, let me tell you how incredibly impressed I am. I probably should have split this behemoth into multiple blog posts, but here we are (or at least here I am).  In my final blog post of this Rethinking Research series, I will go through the work that we actually did with all of this research in order to attempt to create positive change in the world outside of our classroom.


6 thoughts on “Rethinking Research Part #2 (Finally)–Using Student Research as Assessment and a Tool For Critical Literacy

  1. Thank you! I love how you make all the ‘how to’ parts so explicit and I admire your commitment to finding all those relevant resources!!. Can you. Tell me how you helped students who came to an opinion early on and then did not add/change their thinking with subsequent info? And how did you help student think about alternative perspectives? Was modeling enough? My 5th graders often have a hard time with this part.

    • Hi Jessica! Yes, this is a really tricky part of the research. Modeling helps, but even more so, one-on-one conferring helps. The truth is that some kids won’t change their opinions. And that is okay. Then we just working on UNDERSTANDING the other side. For example, the group studying LGBTQ rights, from the beginning, had a strong belief that all people deserved equal rights. The research that they did helped them to refine that belief. I pushed them to get more specific, to find out what the current problems were and how anyone could help. So they needed to understand the other side, I helped them to see that there were people who believed that LGBT people already had enough protection and also the argument of religious freedom. Sometimes this meant that I had to help them find resources that showed them these perspectives. They were not going to agree with them, but they needed to understand them. They eventually reached a more specific claim that they believed that the LGBT community doesn’t have enough laws inside and outside of schools and in order to change this our government needs to create more laws to protect the LGBT community in all 50 states. This final claim was much more specific and based more on research than just their own opinions and it also gave a specific action that could help. I am not sure that answers your question, but that is what comes to mind at first! Let me know if there is anything else I can do to help.

  2. Pingback: Rethinking Research Part #3: Using Student Research to Create Positive Change in the World Through Writing | Crawling Out of the Classroom

  3. Pingback: Helping Students Recognize The Role of Emotional Response in Research | Crawling Out of the Classroom

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