If you know the answer to this question, you were probably recently in the 6th grade.
This week, we began a research unit. Each student chose a topic related to the Civil War that they will conduct a research project on. Of course, being the Abe Lincoln-lovin’-honorary-Illinoisan that I am, I was excited to begin this unit. I also believe in a process approach to writing, ‘a la Peter Smagorinsky, which is how the high school and middle school have chosen to teach research writing to students. The students were provided with a workbook at the beginning of the unit that breaks the writing process down into steps and provides a calendar that details when each “step” should be completed. This makes it much easier for students to approach the task of producing an essay.
Only problem is, some of the steps are dumb.
Case in point: Step 1 is “Brainstorm a Topic.” Since Social Studies isn’t getting to the Civil War for another month, this was going to be difficult without giving the students any background information. [insert first ever practical use of History master's degree here].
Step 2 is “Write a Thesis Statement.” Ah yes. All good, reasonable, knowledgable writers go directly from choosing a topic from an arbitrary list of topics they know little to nothing about, and then immediately form a thesis claim. Tell me more, workbook.
Step 3: “Assemble a Working Bibliography.” I don’t know about you, but it makes total sense to start doing rudimentary searching on a topic after I have already decided what my research will discover.
Step 4 is “Take Notes;” Step 5: “Outline.” No big deal.
Step 6: “Write Body Paragraphs.” Uh huh. Easier said than done.
Step 7: “Write Introductory and Concluding Paragraphs.”
Step 8 is “Edit and Revise.”
When my mentor teacher gave the workbook so I could start planning the unit in more detail, my inner historian researcher was highly offended. So was the part of me that believes we are teaching young people to be productive and thoughtful members of society by the time they reach adulthood. I believe it is actually irresponsible to be teaching students that they should draw their conclusions about a topic or argument before knowing ANYTHING about it. And for the majority of my students, they won’t end up writing papers or conducting research, it’s true. But they will have the power to vote and make important decisions, and they shouldn’t be in the habit of doing so without being fully informed.
Then there was the calendar. 1 class period to find books that might be useful. 1 class to take notes on the topic. 3 to outline. 1 to write THE ENTIRE BODY. And 4 to revise. Mind you, the curriculum designates 3 weeks to this project, so I guess we are just supposed to show reruns of Jersey Shore on the extra days?
I wouldn’t say I’m God’s gift to writing instruction, but I figured I could do a little better than that.
So I kept all the steps to pacify my students’ future high school teachers, but I rearranged the order to pacify my own convictions about writing. I moved Step 2 (Write a Thesis) to between Steps 4 and 5 (“Take Notes” and “Write and Outline”). I gave the most amount of days to taking notes, outlining and to writing the body paragraphs. I gave students a copy of the calendar because I wanted the students to SEE which steps are the most important based on which have the most time dedicated to them.
So on day 1, I gave them a powerpoint presentation on the Civil War, and then let them choose from a list of topics that was provided by the school librarian (who is an invaluable source of help when putting together a unit like this). So far so good. Everyone had a topic and there was only one short argument about who chose “weapons” first.
Then came Step 2: Bibliography. To do this, the workbook instructs students to complete 10 “Bib Cards.” That’s where the title of this entry comes in. I consider myself an educated person. I am capable of conducting research and writing about it. I did not know what a bib card was.
I don’t know this for a fact, but I assume that “bib cards” originated sometime back when libraries still used card catalogues. The students take a stack of index cards and record bibliographic information on them. Anyone who knew me in my History Dept. days knows that I am all about proper citations. But this bib card stuff is crazy. There are all these specific rules that the students are graded on that they get all caught up over indents and colons and there is no emphasis put on the WHY we need citations. I think that teaching proper citation techniques might make more sense after students understand the research process a little better. After doing the bib cards with the students, I don’t think they are as worthless as before, but I remain unconvinced that they are the best way to teach this to young students. They take a lot of time for not a lot of results.
While working on this post I was talking to my best friend who is a totally smart lawyer, and she didn’t know what a bib card was either. So the moral of the story is: you don’t need to know what a bib card is to be a lawyer, but you need it to pass 9th grade history class.
Ok, so I will teach it.