Rethinking Research Part #3: Using Student Research to Create Positive Change in the World Through Writing

In the first post in this series, I discussed how my students and I began our inquiry circle work by selecting current social issues to study and the beginning by acknowledging our own biases towards these topics. In the second post in this series, I discussed how my students and I learned to use research as a tool for critical literacy and also as an assessment of what they were learning how to do. And now, in this post, I would like to some time to talk about what we did with all of the research that we had done in order to make this work really meaningful, not just to us, but to the world.

After weeks of research, my students had started not only to better understand the topics they had chosen to study, but they started to really care about these topics. As I guided them to narrow their focus and select a lens through which to look at their topics that really mattered to them, I noticed that they were developing empathy for the people they were learning about and they were also developing strong beliefs about what changes needed to be made in the world in order to create positive change in the world in regards to the topics that they were studying.

In the last blog post in this series, I talked about how I introduced to my students the idea of how we, as readers and researchers, often move from understanding, to feeling and believing and then finally to action.  IMG_5542

As my students were researching, they used THIS NOTE TAKING DOCUMENT to begin to track their developing beliefs.

And after a while, it was time to gather these beliefs into one claim statement. As I discussed earlier, I used to do this process in the reverse order. I would have my students start with a claim and then find research in order to support that claim. I discussed this in depth in the first post of this series. But now, I wait until my students have done a large amount of research before I ask them to state their claims. Because I want these claims to be based on what they have learned and not just based on what they think they know.

So after weeks of research, I finally introduce THIS CLAIM ORGANIZER to my students. My students have done their research in groups, but I let them know that it is more than okay for them to have reached different claims within their groups. So if part of the group has developed one belief about their topic and the other has developed a totally different belief, that is just fine. This is part of making sure that I am not telling my students WHAT to think, but rather HOW to think for themselves based on the research that they have done.

I start by explain what a claim really is.   I use THIS DOCUMENT to help me to do that. And then, I pull up ALL of my own research notes so far and think out loud for them about my own possible claims. I make sure to include both my understanding of the problem AND what I think can be done in order to help solve this problem. This year, I studied DACA as a model topic and this MY EXAMPLE OF HOW I FILLED OUT THE CLAIM ORGANIZER. It is important to note that on the first day, all I modeled was the top section. I talked out loud as I reflected on my research and tried to synthesize what I understood about the problem I studied and what I believed about what action needed to occur. I wrote this claim statement in the top of the organizer and then broke it up into the parts that I needed to support with research.

After showing this to my students, I sent them off to work and talk in their own groups. Now this is a really tough skill, so I told my students that I was there to help them. My small group work for the next few days was coming around to each inquiry circle group, talking with them about their research and helping them to draft their claims. This is not work that I expect my 5th graders to do on their own quite yet, so I made sure to heavily support each group.

As I began to help groups craft statements, I stopped and called the whole class over to look at them as a way to provide even more models. Sometimes, when I came to a group, they already had a claim statement and just needed my help to refine it and figure out what parts they needed to support with research.  Here are some examples of the claim statements that my students ended up with:

One of the most powerful parts of this work is helping my students to craft claim statements, even when I do not agree with what they are saying.  But, because we are tying all of our claims back to research, it was possible for me to help my students make sure that what they were saying was based on facts.

This came to light with the group that was studying the anthem protests within the NFL. After weeks of research, the group reached the belief that NFL players should not kneel during the national anthem. This is a belief that I disagree with in a passionate way. So how was I going to help this group? I simply asked them to tell me WHY they believed this. And part of their argument, was indeed based on research. They told me that they learned that having players kneel had led to disagreements and fighting and also inspired younger players to kneel and get into trouble themselves. Okay. That was all true. I do not believe that those are reasons that players shouldn’t kneel, but I was willing to accept that these parts of their claim could be supported by research.

And then, one of the students in the group told me that the players were kneeling to protest unfair treatment of black people in this country and this student then said that there was not unfair treatment of black people in this country. Now, my first instinct was to begin yelling about how wrong that was. But I took a deep breath and I asked her instead, “Do you have research to support that part of your claim? Do you have research that proves that there is no unfair treatment of black people today in our country?” She thought for a moment and then said, “No.” And I replied, “Then you cannot say that is true.” And then I went on to share with her some of the research that I had that proved that there is INDEED continued unfair treatment of black people in this country. And I told her that it was okay to have a claim that I didn’t agree with, as long as each part could be supported by research.

In this moment, I was not telling these students what to think. They kept a claim that I did not agree with. However, what I was teaching them was something more important, that they have to base their claims on actual facts and research. This is something that my students struggle with. And so I made sure to make this a part of our learning.

The next day, after all of our inquiry circle groups had crafted claim statements, I went back to my own example and showed them how I was going to pull from my research in order to support each part of the claim I had crafted. And if I didn’t have enough research to support a specific part, then I would have to go out and search some more to find the research that I needed.  And then I asked groups to go back and do this work with their own claims. And again, I spent my time going around to each group and helping them to use their research to support their claims.  Again, this is hard work for fifth graders, but I was in awe of how well they were able to do the work.

Once we had our claim organizers completed, it was time to figure out what we were going to do with all of this research. In the past, the final product of weeks worth of research, was a product created only for me, their teacher, or possibly to share with their classmates. This was fine, but I always felt like there could be more.

So now, I talked with my students about what we could do with all of the research that we had gathered that could work to create positive change in the world BEYOND our classroom. To often, our students’ research stops at the walls of our classrooms. The problem with this is that our students miss an opportunity to see that our learning can lead us to action. Our learning should lead us to action. Our work should matter in the world and not just as an assignment. Because when my students leave my classroom, I want them to know that they have the power to create change. It is not enough for me that they know that they have the power to complete assignments that I give them, I want them to know that when they see a problem in the world, they should do the work to learn about that problem and then use that learning to demand change.

So this is the work that we now do with the research we have gathered. I started by sharing this chart with my students: IMG_5986

I shared with my students that the claims they had crafted would lead them to figure out what kind of writing they wanted to do. They needed to think about who they wanted to reach and how it was best to reach that audience. And then, in order to inspire them a bit more, I shared with them some examples of how other kids their age were using writing to create change in the world. THIS DOCUMENT contains the examples that I shared with them. I wanted my students to see that there were kids out there in the world doing this work and making real change. And they were not doing it because a teacher told them to, they were doing it because they cared and they were passionate and they believed that their voices could make a difference. So as my students listened to and learned from kids like Mari Copeny and Marley Dias and Jazz Jennings, they were beginning to think about their own pieces of writing.

I then shared with them THIS WRITING PLANNER and MY OWN EXAMPLE OF A COMPLETED WRITING PLAN. At this point, I do want to mention that while my students were engaged in our inquiry circle unit as readers, they were also working on a persuasive writing unit as writers. The start of that work is described IN THIS BLOG POST. As they were learning how, as readers, to learn about a problem, they were also learning, as writers, about how to use writing to demand change. The two units came together in this final work. The beauty of that is that I did not have to spend time teaching them HOW to write a piece of persuasive writing at this point, because we had already spent many weeks learning about that. This is the benefit of using a LITERACY STUDIO approach that ties reading and writing together.

So with their writing plans complete, they students began writing. Many wrote letters to members of congress, one of the LGBT groups wrote to Betsy Devos asking her to do more to help LGBT kids within schools, the anthem protest group wrote to coaches of NFL teams, two groups wrote op-eds that we sent to the local newspaper and two groups wrote blog posts that we shared the link for on our class Twitter account. No matter what the students wrote, I made sure that we worked together to send their writing out into the world.

For some groups, that meant that I helped them learn how to find out who their representatives were and how to find their addresses. For other groups, that meant that I taught them how to address an envelope (a skill that surprisingly few of my students possess). And for other groups, that meant that I helped them to find existing hashtags in order to share their writing as a part of a larger conversation.

And our writing went out into the world. Our voices went out into the world. And they carried with them all of the learning that my students had done over the past few weeks. And, more importantly, our pieces of writing also carried with them a new belief that my students had that their voices mattered in the world. This work was not done for me or for a grade, this work was done because this is how you create change. That is what my students now understood. They now knew a process that they could use long after they left the walls of our classroom. They knew how to follow a social issue that interested them in order to learn more and to develop beliefs and then to take those beliefs and that knowledge and use them to ask for change.

They did more than just turn in a paper for a grade. In fact, not one student worried about what grade they would get. Because something much more incredible happened. They saw their writing go out into the world. And then, a few weeks later, they started to get responses. Not every group, but many of them. They received letters back from government officials. They saw that their voices were being added to larger conversations. And they were moved by that.  That mattered to them in a way that a grade never could.

And while this was the end of our inquiry circle unit, I knew that the impact of the work that we had done together would last much longer. Not only did it give my students a renewed sense of power and agency, but it gave me a renewed sense of hope. Because it is so easy to lose hope in today’s world. But when we can find ways to help our students to learn processes through which they can go out and use reading and writing to make this world a better place, that gives me so much hope. These kids and what they are capable of, that gives me so much hope. And be rethinking how we teach our students to research and what we ask them to do with that research, I think we can all find a little bit of hope.



One thought on “Rethinking Research Part #3: Using Student Research to Create Positive Change in the World Through Writing

  1. This was so helpful. I have been following your research posts. . Thank you so much for sharing. I am a little a little challenged when it comes to opening the documents, such as he Writing Planner and templates on the first and second blog post. Could you help me with this?

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