Friday, February 5, 2016

Making Research Relevant

The research paper.

It's the bane of every English teacher's existence.

Why? Because students are either forced to write about a topic that is irrelevant to them, or they are disengaged from the research because they don't understand the point of the assignment.

I have been teaching language arts for almost ten years. And every single year I have gotten it wrong. I fully admit that my students have left my class disengaged from the research process.

Until this year. I am determined to get it right this year.

Thanks to my wonderful adviser at Eastern Michigan University, Cathy Fleischer, and her writing partner Sarah Andrew-Vaughan, I have decided to have my students complete an Unfamiliar Genre Project as their research paper this year.

The Unfamiliar Genre Project takes the research process and turns the focus to writing, asking students to immerse themselves in a genre they're interested in, but not familiar with, and then to eventually write in that genre. 

I just introduced the UGP to my 8th graders this week and already I'm seeing way more engagement and motivation than any research project I've ever assigned. And what I've loved the most this week is hearing the conversation around the room as students talk about what genre they're going to choose and are bouncing ideas off of each other.

So this week I am celebrating making research relevant in my classroom. 
What makes the UGP such an engaging research project and something I'd encourage you to try is as follows:

1) It teaches students that writing is not one thing but multiple things, and one must study the conventions of a genre in order to write well in that genre. So when we tell students things like, "avoid passive voice" or "no first person allowed," we're doing them a disservice because different genres call for adherence to different conventions.
2) It puts the research focus on writing rather than some random topic that bears no significance to English class.
3) It empowers students by showing them that if they can develop the tools to write in one genre, then it's possible to do this for many genres. It's essentially taking the mystery out of writing for them.

If this sounds like something you'd love to learn more about, I highly recommend you check out Fleischer and Andrew-Vaughan's book Writing Outside Your Comfort Zone. I can't say enough about how much this project has changed the way I view not only teaching research but how I teach genre as well. It also made me realize the importance of having students study multiple mentor texts rather than just giving them one to emulate.

So if you're like me and you'd rather scratch your nails down a chalkboard than teach another group of disengaged students the tired old research paper, then I highly encourage you to give the Unfamiliar Genre Project a try.

Book info:
Writing Outside Your Comfort Zone: Helping Students Navigate Unfamiliar Genres by Cathy Fleischer and Sarah Andrew-Vaughan
Published: January 9, 2009
Publisher: Heinemann
Pages: 184
Disclosure: Purchased Copy


  1. I introduced multi genre research projects to my 8th graders this week. They, too, are excited. Just being able to study anything they want instead of me assigning them topics is enough to get them excited. I can't wait to see what they create with this.

  2. Beth, I can relate to every word of this post. I could have written this, "And every single year I have gotten it wrong." I get parts of it right, but it never seems to come together. I just ordered this book. Thank you for recommending it! You always inspire me with great new ideas!

  3. Your post reminds me of Genius Hour -- students research any topic of their curiosity for one hour a week. It is magical!

  4. I would have loved to have examined this book when I was teaching. Fortunately, my students always wrote about some aspect of their own unit topic, so motivation wasn't a problem. Getting them to see at times that their questions called for sharing as a research paper was challenging, but I had several ways they could approach it, & that helped. Sounds as if the book offers choice, a good thing.

  5. Choice matters in writing both for students and teachers. Makes me smile to read how you and your students have a positive start to this year's research projects.

  6. I agree with Terje, Beth. Choice leads to voice that is why I fell in love with your uncle's multi-genre approach to writing.

  7. This sounds like a lot of fun. I have been thinking about doing this with my fourth graders, on a somewhat smaller scale... but playing around with genre... taking a topic and then experimenting with genre. I think the engagement you noticed is not just about their engagement in the project itself, but is also a product of your belief in the authenticity of this work. They can almost smell it on us, can't they?!?

  8. This sounds like a much more engaging project that the research papers I did in school. :)

  9. What interesting work for you and your kids. I'm thinking about researching graphic novels. Sounds like a lot of fun. Keep us posted!