Authentic Research, Authentic Writing

by Sharon Murchie and Janet Neyer

We met in 2015 at the Chippewa River Writing Project’s Summer Institute. Janet was a returning CRWP Teacher Consultant and Sharon was a Red Cedar Writing Project Teacher Consultant joining the CRWP for the summer.  When given the opportunity in the institute to fashion our own inquiry project on writing, we both identified the research process as an area that intrigued us. As teachers we have always loved research — even back to the days of card catalogs, index cards, and microfiche.

Yeah, we’re geeks like that.

In all seriousness, though, the process by which students select topics of interest to them, dig deep into sources, fashion their own opinions through their critical reading, and then synthesize their thinking and sources into an original piece is one of the most cognitively complex processes we undertake in the English Language Arts curriculum.  Yet it is also one that hasn’t experienced widespread change to match the connected world in which our students live. That summer, we found ourselves researching the research process, asking such questions as, How do we authentically teach students to be discerning researchers? and How do they write about what they have learned in a way that will have implications and applications long after they graduate from high school?

We learned that we had been taking parallel routes in our high schools in exploring ideas like blogging, website creation, wikis, and Genius Hour to encourage broader audiences for our young writers. We were pretty sure we were not alone in thinking that it was past time for the research process and product to undergo a significant revision, and our conversations with our colleagues that summer — and our larger conversations since then — have confirmed that for us.

Teaching students how to be critical researchers has to be more than just an assignment or a unit. There has to be a shift in how we teach and in how students approach “doing research.”

Upon graduating, today’s students will engage in a wide range of research for academic and personal purposes, and they will continue to search out information that is timely and relevant as they do now. In thinking about this shift, Troy Hicks asks,

Today, what does it mean for students to do research? Left to their own devices, it could begin and end with a Google search, yet that is not enough for students, who should be developing information literacy… We can do better given the tools we now have available with the read/write web (The Digital Writing Workshop 17).

The web has expanded the availability of information and has provided the tools by which we can readily share, save and utilize information, but the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing calls on students to be able to “select, evaluate, and use information and ideas from electronic sources responsibly” while “using a variety of electronic technologies intentionally to compose” (CWPA, NCTE, & NWP 10).  Students need to develop not only the flexibility that is central to the habits of mind laid out in the “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing,” but also the discernment by which to judge the appropriateness of one resource or one technology tool above another.

Too often, however, we get bogged down in guidelines of how to approach the Internet and find reliable sources; then we get stuck in the rules of the research paper and citations and point of view and word count. The end result, in our experience, is a lack of student engagement, a lack of judiciousness, a lack of quality writing, and a lack of applicable skills for real-world contexts.

To ensure that the research process remains the transformative and meaningful process it can be, we have explored Genius Hour, Stunt Journalism, and Design Thinking units of inquiry, and we have modeled for our students how we research and how we write in our professional lives. Our stance is that critical reading and authentic writing are at the heart of it all. Just as we strive to be savvy readers and thoughtful creators of content, we are teaching our students to unpack the message and the ideology of what they read online, and how to thoughtfully join that conversation.

Join us next weekend for our session in the 4T Digital Writing Conference. We advocate for authentic student research, with student-created and student-centered inquiry, where students are judging sources through critical reading and thoughtful questioning. This authentic research leads to more authentic writing — the types of writing that we, ourselves, are doing in our professional lives — writing that is active and published and adding to the world-wide conversation.  We’ll share the tools we use and our strategies for giving students voice and choice in the research process. We’ll also share with you some of our student publications, as our students become part of the research-rich global community online.


Session Title: Authentic Research, Authentic Writing

Time: Sunday, October 9, 2016, 9:00PM – 10:00PM

4TDW Link: