Updated: Jul 5, 2021
I attended the virtual NCTE conference this past Friday and it got me thinking about the research paper, or really, rethinking it. Part of me still wants to prepare my seniors for college with the five-to-seven-page typed analytical essay, but part of me wants to break as many rules as possible and give students complete freedom to write about whatever inspires them. I don’t think this is the year for a massive research paper, although it might be a good year to do both, as long as we give them enough time.
I like to work under the idea that everything is an essay, even a research paper. To me, an essay is words, a piece of writing, the foundation of everything – movies, songs, the news, conversations, stories, theater, politics. In addition to asking for serious literary criticism, we can also ask students to extract the main idea from any work of literature and explore it using any resource they encounter. For instance, last year, at the end of a unit on the novel Things Fall Apart, I gave my students the following options:
· create a video essay
· record a podcast
· create a PowerPoint video
· write a blog-style essay
They could pick one of the following topics: status, custom, religion, colonialism, gender, violence, the psyche, family, language, or conversation. I asked that they interpret at least one passage from the novel, but then worked with them to help them find resources to explore the idea. It’s so much easier to have students find supplemental materials (or to help them find them) than to spend countless hours digging them up.
They could use anything (with prior approval) to research the topic:
· video (YouTube, Vimeo)
· essay, article, book
· short story, poem, novel
The structure for an essay (or podcast or video essay) never changes: the introduction, the interpretation of evidence, and the most important, the conclusion – the implications, the relevance, the meaning. In a way, this kind of assignment allows students to expand on the conclusion, the moment the writer makes a powerful connection or tells you what to do or what to remember before you put down the paper (or click somewhere else).
If we want our students to understand the relevance of a text, then we need to ask them to demonstrate that they know the relevance of the text. Let’s not just hope that they see the significance of the novel, let’s formalize that hope and make it a reality. Great ideas come from the most unexpected places.
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