It’s that time of year to assign a college-style research paper to my seniors and I’ve found myself giving more and more time in class to walk them through the process. I prefer working with them in class for several reasons. When students go home, they walk into a number of different scenarios: they either get help from their college-educated parents, their classmates, the internet, or no one at all. They may have to go to after-school activities, complete projects, study for a major test in another class, or travel for family trips. They may be sick, recovering from illness, or face distractions from television or siblings.
They definitely don’t have the ability to ask me questions if they get stuck. At any time, I can redirect them to a better source, help them organize their ideas, or give feedback on their writing. Simply put, I can teach them how to write. I don’t always give a week to write an essay, but I want to know before they graduate that they can handle a large task.
A student can overcome writer’s block and start the essay by answering a simple question: “What are you going to write about?” I can see them bouncing around their consciousness to make sense of all their notes, conversations, and quotes covered in class. Many students start with a topic, gather quotes, and then come up with a thesis after looking over everything. Once they explain where they want to go, I can ask questions and suggest passages that might give them more ideas.
Here are 8 steps to make writing the research paper easy for students:
1. Take notes on the novel or main text
This includes all independent or group activities where students interpret quotes and passages from the main text in question. I like to cover at least 30-50 quotes before assigning an essay, so students have plenty of support for their main argument. My students also take notes on the novel independently before we study it in class, so they can also use those notes to help them write the essay. This way, the essay should write itself.
2. Conduct independent research
We just finished a unit on the novel Beloved, by Toni Morrison, so there’s a ton of sources, including history and literary criticism that help students understand the text on a deeper level. Many of my students will also use articles on topics like trauma, memory, and motherhood that they found online or in my school library’s databases. Sometimes I like to have students read the same article, but it’s important that students learn how to find good sources on their own.
3. Read and take notes on the articles
It’s not easy to read someone’s interpretation of a text and then come up with a newer, better interpretation that exposes a flaw in the argument or fills in some unexamined gap, so I tell students to write down quotes, think about them for a little while, and then write down their own ideas about the text. I also allow them to choose sources related to their main topic instead of the novel. For instance, some of my students found articles on trauma and racism to extend or enhance their understanding of Beloved.
4. Generate a list of quotes and evidence
Before coming up with a thesis, it’s smart to start with a list of quotes that a student plans to interpret in the essay. When I was in high school, my English teacher had me write one hundred quotes from Wuthering Heights and the sources on one hundred index cards. I then organized them into piles and created an outline.
5. Create an outline with ideas
An outline helps students avoid writer’s block. They organize the topics of their body paragraphs. They now have the structure of the house they will build, and they just need to decorate the inside. If their class and reading notes contain interpretation of quotes, they’ve already done the informal thinking required before putting it all together.
6. Write the essay
With all these prewriting activities, writing the essay should be an easy and stress-free process. It should also not be time consuming, as students have already done the necessary leg work.
7. Revise the essay
Since students have already put in so much time preparing and writing this essay, revision shouldn’t take long. Students should look for typos or grammatical mistakes. Maybe rearrange the order of the body paragraphs. They should review the rubric to make sure their essay meets all the expectations.
8. Create a works cited page and a title page
EasyBib is a great website to help students create a works cited page. Titles at this point should be easy and fun to create and should include a date, period, the name of the teacher, school and course.
I always feel guilty for not working hard during the week I assign the research paper. I mostly float around the room, have short conversations and give advice. However, my students learn a tremendous amount about how to find quality sources, about time management, and that the process of meaning-making can be fun and easy if taken one step at a time.
English language arts teacher
Teacher's Workshop, LLC