Common Core Standards: ELA
7. Research to Build and Present Knowledge: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
It’s your students’ worst nightmare: You reserve the school library, tell them to pick up a 100-count pack of index cards, and give them a list of possible topics. That’s right, it’s research paper time!
When it comes to research, it all starts with a question. There are two types of questions: super easy and rather difficult. The super easy research question is the stuff your students can answer using Google or a relatively knowledgeable friend. (For example, tell them to ask their smartest friend what the capital of Paraguay is. Either he’ll know, or he’ll take a quick Google break and come back with the answer: Asunción. Then they can make him mad by saying, “Well, of course everyone knows that!”)
The rather difficult research question doesn’t have quite such a simple answer. Research topic questions can run the gamut from: “Should America be focusing on finding renewable energy sources or new oil resources?” to “Why are Americans so interested in watching overly-tanned drama queens slap each other on reality television?” Your students will notice that both of those questions could have any number of possible answers—unlike the question about Paraguay. So in order to do effective research, they will need to start with a question that does not have a specific answer.
However, they also don’t want a question with too many answers. If they were to embark on a research project that asked the question “What is the meaning of life?” they would never get the project done on time (and they’d have to buy an infinite number of index cards for notes) because there are far too many possible ways of answering the question. So it’s important to have a “focused” question, meaning a question that is open to more than one interpretation, but is only concerned about a relatively small topic. So questions on the nature of life and death are out. But questions about the popularity of people named Snooki and what this says about American culture are in!
The point of research is to show your reader that you understand the topic, and can come up with interesting claims and ideas based on it. If research were all about coming up with random facts and throwing them together in an essay, then no one would groan when research projects were announced. It’s very easy to find facts and statistics without getting what they mean—and then putting them together in a random way without really understanding their significance. Like this:
68% of 18-29 year olds like or love reality television (source). There are on average 1.1 bleeped words on reality television shows per hour of programming (source). Four out of five Americans think there are too many reality tv shows (source).
While all those facts may be true, the research presented does nothing to show a deeper understanding of the reality entertainment phenomenon or the possible links between these various statistics. In order to show that they understand the facts they have unearthed, your students must interpret them. Like so:
While 80% of Americans think there are too many reality TV shows (source), this percentage probably does not include a lot of 18-29 year olds because they are clearly enjoying the reality TV phenomenon. In fact, a recent study shows that 68% of them like or love reality television (source). This might be because young people are generally less conservative, and are less likely to be offended (and more likely to be entertained) by watching people use words that need to be bleeped on TV – and reality TV shows are certainly full of those! There are on average 1.1 bleeped words on reality television shows per hour of programming (source).
So in order to create a great research project, your students will need to start with a focused but open-ended question and then find out information about the topic of their question. Once they’ve gotten that information, they need to decide what the facts mean and come up with an answer to their original question. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.
The following is an excerpt from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll:
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice ‘without pictures or conversation?’
So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.
There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!’ (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.
In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.
1. What is Alice’s focused research question?
She is very curious to see why a little white rabbit with pink eyes might have a waistcoat-pocket or a watch to take out of it. The research she is doing on this rabbit is focused in that she is not concerning herself with other rabbits and whether or not they have clothing and accessories. She is following a single rabbit in order to learn more about it, rather than attempting to learn about all rabbits at once—as that would take far too much time.
2. How does Alice show a further understanding of her subject?
Although at the time Alice does not see anything particularly strange about the White Rabbit talking to himself about his tardiness, she is able to realize later, after some further research and contemplation, that it is rather unusual for a rabbit to be talking at all. She has a clearer view of what is natural and unnatural for rabbits after taking the time to follow (and research) this particular and extraordinary rabbit.
The following is an excerpt from Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
‘Now, if you'll only attend, Kitty, and not talk so much, I'll tell you all my ideas about Looking-glass House. First, there's the room you can see through the glass — that's just the same as our drawing room, only the things go the other way. I can see all of it when I get upon a chair — all but the bit behind the fireplace. Oh! I do so wish I could see that bit! I want so much to know whether they've a fire in the winter: you never can tell, you know, unless our fire smokes, and then smoke comes up in that room too — but that may be only pretence, just to make it look as if they had a fire. Well then, the books are something like our books, only the words go the wrong way; I know that, because I've held up one of our books to the glass, and then they hold up one in the other room.
‘How would you like to live in Looking-glass House, Kitty? I wonder if they'd give you milk in there? Perhaps Looking-glass milk isn't good to drink — But oh, Kitty! now we come to the passage. You can just see a little peep of the passage in Looking-glass House, if you leave the door of our drawing-room wide open: and it's very like our passage as far as you can see, only you know it may be quite different on beyond. Oh, Kitty! how nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-glass House! I'm sure it's got, oh! such beautiful things in it! Let's pretend there's a way of getting through into it, somehow, Kitty. Let's pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it's turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It'll be easy enough to get through — ' She was up on the chimney-piece while she said this, though she hardly knew how she had got there. And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist.
In another moment Alice was through the glass, and had jumped lightly down into the Looking-glass room. The very first thing she did was to look whether there was a fire in the fireplace, and she was quite pleased to find that there was a real one, blazing away as brightly as the one she had left behind. 'So I shall be as warm here as I was in the old room,' thought Alice: 'warmer, in fact, because there'll be no one here to scold me away from the fire. Oh, what fun it'll be, when they see me through the glass in here, and can't get at me!'
Then she began looking about, and noticed that what could be seen from the old room was quite common and uninteresting, but that all the rest was a different as possible. For instance, the pictures on the wall next the fire seemed to be all alive, and the very clock on the chimney-piece (you know you can only see the back of it in the Looking-glass) had got the face of a little old man, and grinned at her.
1. What is Alice’s focused research question?
2. Prior to the research of actually going through the looking glass, what smaller research questions has Alice asked and answered about the Looking-glass house?
3. How does Alice demonstrate her understanding of the subject of the Looking-glass house?
1. What is it like in the Looking-glass house?
2. She asks if they have a fire in the fireplace in the Looking-glass world, and surmises that either they do because she can sometimes see smoke, or they might only be trying to fool her by creating smoke to make it look like they have a fire. She also asks if the books in the looking-glass world are anything like the books she reads at home. By holding up one of her books to the mirror, she decided that their books are similar, but backwards.
3. Alice is able to easily see the differences in the house she lives in and the looking-glass house she is visiting.