Elizabeth A. Johnson
When I sat on that hard plastic cafeteria chair, watching another slide show on a Monday afternoon, I did not know how seriously I should take the information. An overhaul of curriculum standards? It's going to be adopted across the country? The Common Core was with us.
The most drastic of all changes calls for an increased emphasis on nonfiction writing across the disciplines. By senior year, all students will read nonfiction most of the time. Of course, this is spread across the disciplines, but the fact remained that educators are being asked to have students read critically in every subject, every day. It means that English teachers have a significant new role: bridging the gap between literature and nonfiction.
The Common Core standards were adopted in 2010. That means that as of this writing, many states and teachers have begun the difficult task of shifting their lesson plans and goals. One major question on the minds of all English teachers is, "How do I include argumentative writing into my literature classroom?" The standards called for 70% of reading by grade 12 to be nonfiction. This is applied across all disciplines, and it is a boon for English teachers. It means that all teachers are now responsible for teaching literacy. Since its implementation in 2010, dozens of scholarly articles and innumerable research papers have been written on these shifts and what it looks like in a classroom. Books and blogs have been published to give teachers a way to work with the new standards.
This unit seeks to give English language arts teachers a way in which to teach a Research Paper. I write this in capitals because it is a daunting undertaking with which every high school student must become comfortable. This is an argumentative essay in which students will research a topic, choose a side, and argue their point in front of their peers. This unit offers ways in which to take this paper into a presentation, which achieves more of the CCSS, and, as this educator has found, creates more student interest. Students feel positive pressure to do well in front of their peers, more so than they feel the need to do well on a piece of paper for their teacher. Additionally, there are tremendous benefits to presenting in front of a group, both in terms of skills needed and the authenticity of doing so. This educator knows that many students struggle to present in front of groups, so practicing as much and as early as possible will help students in class and in their lives.
The additional piece that brings this from antiquated research and word processing into the Common Core State Standards is the inclusion of technology throughout the unit. We are thirteen years into the twenty-first century. Technology is integral to how we live our lives and how we experience the world. By utilizing the software and online applications available, teachers can reach more students and students can produce more high-quality work. The planning and self-education necessary for this is considerable, but the rewards are considerable, as well. Students with special needs and children who often struggle with class work show improvement when using computer-assisted instruction. Some research shows that students do not see online teaching as school, but rather as fun. This takes down barriers to learning, bringing students in on their own level. This unit gives details on how to integrate technology throughout the unit.
The audience for my unit is specific: Ninth grade students of every level who have some, but limited exposure to research, structured writing, and rules around plagiarism. They have limited common knowledge. They have exposure to the five-paragraph essay, topic sentences, evidence, examples, and the severity of the consequences of plagiarism. They may also know transition words, such as "also," "next," and "in conclusion." Their inconsistent knowledge, however, plus a summer off of learning, means that all these skills need to be refreshed or re-taught. Students in this unit may be advanced or struggling learners. The format of the unit allows for advancement of all levels of learners. Key to the success of the unit is the integration of computer-assisted instruction. This will boost skills students already have and add pieces that they still need.
The unit can be applied and adapted broadly, although it was written with urban students in mind. That is to say that this was not written with the highly-motivated, highly-skilled student in mind. It was developed for struggling learners, students with special needs, or simply regular high school students who are not yet interested in school and lack general motivation to do work well. The strategies herein are aimed at reaching the difficult-to-motivate child in the back row, the eager young woman who is on the autism spectrum, and the young man who is five years below reading level. The mentality is to aim high and scaffold all the work so that every student can succeed. This mantra, that every student can succeed, serves as a guide for the entire unit.
Ultimately, students will produce a researched, revised, and publishable research paper on a topic of their choosing. The best papers will meet all criteria of the Common Core nonfiction writing rubric. The purpose of this unit plan it to help teachers make the shift to argumentative writing in the English classroom.
Truly, there is a limit to what from this unit can be achieved in just one or two months. I suggest teaching these skills discretely over the course of the year. Here, though, I will put them all together. This unit begins with acknowledging and assessing where students stand on the following skills:
1. Assessing the legitimacy and reliability of sources
2. Avoiding plagiarism
3. Citing sources in a List of Works Cited
4. Citing sources within the text of a research paper
5. Conducting research to learn new ideas, then to focus in on one theme
6. Writing a thesis statement
7. Organizing a paragraph into a topic sentence, explanation and examples, and a concluding sentence
8. Writing introductions
9. Writing conclusions that bring together the ideas of a paper into a new thought,
not just a summary of the body paragraphs
10. Typing a paper to meet high standards of neatness and completion
11. Using written language appropriate to audience and task
By the end of the year, students will have had assessments requiring them to do all these skills, which are required in the Common Core. They are also supported by years of writing and reading in the early grades. The key is to build these skills throughout the year and assess them in a research paper.