Common Core Standards: ELA
8. Research to Build and Present Knowledge: Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
In a perfect world, doing research would simply mean you could shout your question out the window and have an answer shouted back to you. In a perfect digital world, you could type your research topic into Google and immediately have your research done for you. While most of us are unlikely to try the first method of research, all of us have probably done the second.
Here’s why that’s a problem: When we conduct research, we need to make certain that we are using multiple sources. (And no, the first two hits on the Google search do not count). Why? Because poor research skills could mean our NASA report is based on the blog of a member of the Tin-Foil Hat Brigade who believes that the 1969 moon landing was all an elaborate hoax. (And yes, moon-landing deniers do exist and yes, they do wear common household food wrap for headgear.)
So how to avoid the trap of bad information? Diversify! Start by gathering information from several sources, including books and magazines. Using multiple sources will make it easier to determine if the information we get is credible and accurate. So if one of our sources claims that Neil Armstrong took his one small step in a sound stage in Pasadena, California, but all four of our other sources detail the science necessary for mankind’s giant leap onto the moon, then we can assume that the odd one out is incorrect.
But playing “One of these things is not like the others” is not the only way of determining if our sources are reliable and correct. For example, when looking at a digital source, check out who the author of the article is. If no individual or organization will take full credit for the information in the article (we’re looking at you, Wikipedia!), then that should be a red flag that warns us that we might not be able to trust the information. If we do have an author’s name, we should find out what makes the writer an expert on this information. If John Q. Pointyhead lists his credentials as The Fox Mulder Institute for Weird Obsessions and an award for the best method for folding a tin foil hat to maximize thought reception, then we know we should back away slowly from that source.
Other things to look for when checking credibility and accuracy are: How old is the source? And how did we find it? While some information is not likely to change, other fields are constantly being updated. (Here are some things that scientists really used to believe: that Mars had a system of canals on it that suggested intelligent life, that it was possible to turn other metals into gold, that California was an island separate from the rest of the continent, and that the earth was flat). So checking the date of our source can help us determine if it is on the cutting edge or the cutting board of new information. Also, using general search engines is more likely to turn up dreck, as they only look for keywords. But using a database of relevant information is a solid way to make sure our sources treat us well.
The abundance of unreliable information available on the web is part of the reason why we also want to use non-digital sources. Anyone can create a web page or blog, but in order to get published in a traditional print medium, an author must convince a lot of people that his or her ideas have merit. It’s much harder to hide the tin foil hat when you are trying to get published in a book or magazine.
Of course, having the good sources is not enough. Once we have that information, we need to use it in our project without plagiarizing. Since we live in the future when information is ridiculously simple to get (and cut-and-paste—back in the dark ages, you would have at least had to recopy or retype the essay you wanted to plagiarize), it can be easy to forget that using information correctly is very different from stealing someone’s writing.
Basically, we can incorporate facts that are common knowledge without crediting the source. For example, “Neil Armstrong was the first human being to walk on the moon” is a fact that is common knowledge. For anything else, we must tell our reader where we got the information—even if we paraphrase!
Your teacher has asked you to write an essay about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The following are a list of five real sources about his death. It is your job to decide which of these sources are relevant, credible and accurate.
1. The Warren Commission Report: Report of the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy
Despite the fact that this is an 888-page book authored by a government commission, it is actually a well-known page turner. The book was based upon witness testimony and concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone when he shot President Kennedy and Jack Ruby acted alone when he shot Oswald.
2. The Citizens for Truth about the Kennedy Assassination website (source)
CTKA is activist group that lobbies the government to re-open unsolved cases of assassinations of the 1960s, including those of JFK, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. CTKA believes that a large conspiracy murdered Kennedy, rather than Oswald working alone.
3. The National Archives’ JFK Assassination Records Collection website (source)
This is a searchable electronic database of many of the documents about the assassination held by the National Archives. This database includes such important documents as the Zapruder Film (a film of Kennedy’s assassination shot by spectator Abraham Zapruder with a home-movie camera.)
4. Dealey Plaza Revisited (source), a website maintained by the magazine Texas Monthly as a companion to the November 1998 issue of the magazine, which was entirely about the assassination.
This website includes a basic timeline of events starting with JFK’s arrival at Dallas’s Love Field Airport on November 22, 1963, through to government conclusions about the assassination in 1979. There is also a list of important people involved in the event, as well as important locations.
5. On the Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison
Jim Garrison was a District Attorney New Orleans who investigated Kennedy’s assassination and ultimately blamed a New Orleans businessman named Clay Shaw of conspiracy—although Shaw was acquitted of any wrongdoing. This book became the basis of the film JFK directed by Oliver Stone.
How relevant, credible and accurate are each of these sources?
1. The Warren Commission Report is very relevant to the research, as it is entirely about JFK’s assassination. Students will probably consider it to be a credible and accurate source because it was conducted and written by the government and was based upon witness testimony
2. The CTKA website is relevant to the research, in that it does concern itself with JFK’s assassination. The student will (hopefully!) recognize that it is not a credible or accurate source because CTKA considers three solved murders to be unsolved, simply because it fits within their views.
3. The National Archives’ JFK database is also relevant, in that it has all of the documents that the government possesses about this event. Sources found in the database are generally going to be considered credible and accurate as they come from witness testimony and first person accounts.
4. The Dealey Plaza website is relevant. Students will likely recognize that the source is credible and accurate because the publisher of the information is a well-respected news magazine, and because the information given is factual.
5. On the Trail of the Assassins is relevant. Students may give various answers as to whether the book is credible and accurate (and indeed, this is a debate among scholars). Reasons students may think it is credible and accurate: the author was a DA and was in charge of an investigation into conspiracy. Reasons students may think it is not: the man Garrison believed to be a conspirator was acquitted, and the book was made into a movie.
Quiz QuestionsHere's an example of a quiz that could be used to test this standard.
The following excerpt is from the never-to-be-published novel Night of the Fuzzy Bunnies by Emily Guy Birken:
“Something strange is going on,” I said to my best friend Scooter as we walked home from school. It was a warm fall day, and we had been released from school early. I should have been excited, but I just felt a cold dread.
“You think?” he said, rolling his eyes. “They find five dead teenagers on the football field with nothing apparently wrong with them—except they all have an ‘Aww, how cute’ look on their faces. I’d say something is wrong.”
“I don’t know if we should even be out walking in the middle of the day. What if the adorable attacker comes out in the sunshine?”
Scooter shrugged. “The grown ups don’t have any better idea of what is going on than we do. We should try to figure what’s happening.”
“Let’s go to the library.”
It was my turn to roll my eyes. Scooter was probably going to be our class’s valedictorian. He thought going to the library could solve all problems.
“Seriously, Vicki-Jane,” he prodded. “I bet this has happened somewhere else besides here in Saccharine Valley. We just need to research it.”
“Fine,” I said. “I don’t really feel like watching daytime television anyway. There’s never anything on.”
Once we reached the library, Scooter headed for the stacks while I searched the internet. After a few false starts, I found a website called acuddlecankillifyousqueezehardenough.com:
Beware the fuzzy bunnies! They come at night and surprise teenagers with their unbearable cuteness. THEN THEY ATTACK! A herd of these bunnies will swarm over an unsuspecting teenager to cuddle and love him or her to death. It is an adorable and grisly sight.
There were several pictures of victims of the fuzzy bunnies. They looked just like the Saccharine Valley High School students who had been found early this morning. There was a look of pure, adorable bliss on their undoubtedly dead faces.
The author of the website was a college professor named Quincy T. Dorkoff. He had double PhDs in folklore and zoology from Cambridge. I studied his photograph. He looked so serious and smart. Either that, or he had some severe stomach troubles when that picture was snapped. No matter what, I felt sure he might be able to help us.
“Hey, Scooter,” I called, getting a dirty look from Miss Stern, the librarian. Man, she was strict.
“What?” he asked, dropping a load of books on the table beside me.
“I think I’ve found the answer.” I pointed to the website. Scooter scanned through the information, his mouth only moving slightly as he read each word.
“This is good stuff, but I think we also need to look at what I’ve found.”
I sighed and looked over the books he had brought. The one on top of the pile was titled Unusual Deaths in Small Towns From 2000-2010. “All right,” I said. “I think you might have some good stuff in these books.” The next one down was titled Adorable and Deadly Ways to Die. “But I’m going to keep looking up fuzzy bunnies. I’ll see if there’s anything else online about them—or about this Dr. Dorkoff fellow.”
“Fair enough,” Scooter said, opening up a book.
The next two hours were enlightening and frightening. I found out more about fuzzy bunnies than I would ever have dreamed possible—about how they go marauding for teenage flesh when they (the bunnies) become too adorable, about how they are always found in picturesque small towns that seem to have a large number of devastatingly attractive teenagers who look like they’re in their twenties and never get a pimple, and about how there is no way to stop the bunnies until their lust for adorable deaths has been quenched. It sounded like Saccharine Valley was in terrible danger.
Scooter would pass his books over to me as he found information that backed up what I was finding online. It turned out that Quincy Dorkoff had authored one of the essays in a book Scooter was reading—Clinical Studies in Unexplained Teenage Phenomena As Relates to Adorableness.