Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Breaking Down the Skills Needed to Write a Research Paper

Dinner tonight was Easy Grapefruit Corn and Mint Salad and we discovered that Zac loves avocados! It is a nice summery raw & vegan salad, although I suppose that serving it along venison steaks, as I did, removes some of the vegan-ness from the meal as a whole.

Summertime handwork lessons have been chugging along and we've enjoyed some great books like

and activities like weaving on an embroidery hoop, sewing felt gnomes, making knitting needles, designing creative artistic fantasy boats, and wet felting wool geodes. Lesson plans for each session are on the website.

It has been fun to decide how to structure the handwork so that the skills build on one another. Finger knitting with one finger (and adding the pieces to Zac's beautiful and colorful bamboo tipi with the sweet potato vine curling up it), finger knitting with four fingers, making homemade knitting needles with acorn caps on the ends, and then finally next week they will begin to knit little chickens! This is the simple pattern that Barbara Dewey taught me when I went to one of her Taproot Farm Teacher Training for Homeschoolers.

Cast on 20 stitches in a yellow wool yarn. Knit until piece forms a square. Cast off. Fold into a triangle and stuff. Sew up. Embellish as desired with eyes, comb, wattle, feet, etc.

Giving kids concrete steps to ensure success is what scaffolding is all about. I have a teacher colleague who teaches a combined 4th - 8th grade class and she has them do a large research paper each year as the culminating assignment of the school year. I've had all three of my daughters go through this process with her. Each time I've felt she was asking too much of them, but I couldn't put my finger on it. She has them pick the topic in February and the thing is due in May. The page requirements are less for the lower grades and the number of sources is less for the lower grades, but the whole thing is done in MLA format no matter how old you are. She gives mini lessons on citing your sources, avoiding plagiarism, and so on during the course of the research and writing process. It SOUNDS reasonable but it is not. This paper has tortured and tormented all of my children and when last year I decided we, as homeschoolers, should do this assignment alongside the school children, it turned out to be a huge mistake. I let both Natalie and Leah complete the research steps and initial draft of the paper, and then I discarded the idea because it wasn't working. Still, I couldn't figure out WHY. It just was too hard for them. It wasn't a reasonable expectation.

I've since concluded that scaffolding this research paper isn't just about allotting plenty of time and having it be shorter if you're younger. There are so many little steps that lead up to being able to write a paper in full-on MLA format, and this teacher wasn't giving the children the foundation to be successful. I don't love the Common Core but one of my textbooks from my Master's degree days (which was in the era of the roll-out of the Common Core) is actually the perfect resource to this problem, which plagues teachers from about 4th grade on up. The Research Paper.

Here is what Amy Benjamin says in Writing in the Content Areas:

She states in the section on Developing the Formal Academic Voice, that

    "Districts that are really serious about having students learn to write research papers have a scope and sequence that extends from late elementary grades through high school.

    "One of the biggest problems that students have with research papers is writing in the formal voice....

    "First, understand that a formal academic voice in writing takes time to develop, and not too many people ever achieve effectiveness or conciseness in this genre. This is not to imply that such a voice is 'bad,' merely that it is not natural and seldom taught. For it must be learned and practiced. As with any affectation, the novice is going to be halting at first.

    "It is the English teacher's job to teach students to transit from an informal to a formal voice register. The very ability to do that is a defining characteristic of an educated person. So it stands to reason that we do have to educate students to do this....

    "For some inexplicable reason, we've expected students to learn a manner of using language that they hardly ever encounter, even when reading a drily written textbook. Let's look at the problem of poor academic voice from the perspective of cognitive development.

    "Writing is not speech on paper, but many poor writers think it is. Who can blame them? They're still new at this thing called writing. They are at the stage where their writerly voices are only just emerging as distinct from their speaking voices. This means, developmentally, that they are nowhere near ready to write in the formal academic voice of a research paper. For many students, the proximal skill is to eliminate those features of speech that are not welcome in writerly prose. If you look at anchor papers representing substandard writing skills, you'll find many 'speechisms' that the writer needs to re-form into writerly language. Such students will write, 'Say you have...' when they present an example; they have difficulty deciding where one sentence ends and another begins; they are unsteady in their point of vice, jumping around from 'I' to 'you' with a smattering of 'one.' They insert informal expressions where they don't belong. But they think expressions like 'due to the fact' and 'in the way that' sound smart....

    "I am suggesting that teachers (1) understand that students need explicit instructions to develop the writerly voice and (2) show patience as students try out their new voices. I am suggesting that teachers abide by a 4-12 scope and sequence model that takes students gently through the developmental process of learning to write a research paper....

    "The harm in giving students research assignments that demand a writing skill beyond their evolution as writers is twofold: The students not only will become discouraged because of the teacher's frustration, but also will be denied the instruction they need to nurse their voices along naturally....

    "It is easily to be overly ambitious when it comes to research papers. We may overlook the developmental process and think that everyone should be able to produce a full-scale, ten-page, fully-documented research paper by the ninth grade [in Natalie's school it was a 15 page paper by 8th grade and a 25 page paper by 9th grade]. I know of institutions that claim bragging rights to seventh graders who are supposedly composing research treatises of upwards of twenty pages. I wouldn't be impressed by this, unless I saw the results, if I were you. A more prudent plan, and one more likely to lead to actual success in developing writers, is a scope and sequence model that layers skills one year at a time."

And, luckily for all of us homeschoolers, Amy Benjamin has created this scope & sequence, going backwards from Grade 12 and what the final goal is, to an outline, step-by-step, of what needs to happen at each grade level to get the child there. Here it is!

Scope and Sequence Model for Writing Research Papers
Grades 4-12

Grade 4
Summarizing fact-based written material from a single source

Grade 5
Paraphrasing fact-based written material from a single source
Putting together a summary of fact-based information that comes from two sources

Grade 6
Putting together a summary of fact-based information that comes from two sources, paraphrased information included, with running acknowledgement
Building a rudimentary bibliography of print and online sources for a topic

Grade 7
Understanding how to cite direct quotations through either running acknowledgement, in-text citation, or footnotes

Grade 8
Understanding that paraphrased information needs to be cited if it is not common knowledge
Integrating sourced information (summary, paraphrase, and direct quotations) with original commentary in a report of not more than one page with a simple bibliography and in-text citations; use of running acknowledgement as well as in-text citations

Grade 9
Writing a scaled-down version of an analytical paper, using a given list of sources

Grade 10
Writing a scaled-down version of an argumentation paper, using a given list of sources

Grade 11
Writing a full-scale documented analytical paper that conforms to a major style guide
Demonstrating an understanding that different style guides exist for different disciplines at the university level

Grade 12
Writing a full-scale documented argumentation paper that conforms to a major style guide
Demonstrating an understanding of the differences among the five major style guides: MLA, APA, Chicago, CBE, COS

Thank you Amy!

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