Writing, Research, and Youth Voice by Lisa Rothbard


Skyline High School, Oakland, CA

Introduction

Two people taught me to write in my life, and neither of them did so from the front of a classroom. Growing up, my mom read every writing assignment I completed for any of my classes – from preschool (I imagine) through high school, and even some of my work in college. After college, in my first “real” job, my boss, the Communications Director and a former journalist, took the reins to show me the power of a writer’s voice.  Together, these two women equipped me with a skill that appears to be far too often lacking in adults and students today. It has been a passionate mission of mine, in my first five years of teaching, to equip my students with the skills they need to become strong writers.

While I still believe that writing is an important and necessary skill in and of itself, it is only in the past two years I’ve spent working with EDDA (Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age), that I have reflected on the powerful ways in which students can use their writing to effect change within their own lives and communities.  Rather than asking students to “trust me” when I say they will “need these skills in the future”, my work with EDDA has helped me to realize the various ways in which my students can put these skills to “real” use right now.  To encourage civic action among students, teachers no longer have to organize massive events that occur once a school year and require the teacher to do most of the work. Rather, in today’s world of technology, students can become advocates from the classroom everyday, and their efforts can go far beyond the traditional letter to their elected officials. By creating regular opportunities for students to engage around civic matters, and to do so through writing, they will be, as EDDA states, college, career, and community ready.

With this in mind, I took the curriculum on writing and research that I’ve used in the past and adapted it to incorporate key components of civic engagement and action. Through the rest of this piece, you’ll learn about my experience as a teacher in this work, my students’ experience as learners and actors, and my own reflections on the outcomes and lessons learned.

The Research Project (Issue Analysis)

In my 11th grade ELA class, students are asked to research potential civil rights issues of today in which they have a personal interest and stake. They form groups, write their own research questions, form hypotheses, conduct online research, and present their findings at the end.

I designed this project initially to push my students’ abilities to understand and analyze real and complex issues in our society on which they too often take simplistic stances. My school, Skyline High School, is located in the beautiful and affluent Oakland hills but mostly serves students from poorer neighborhoods in Oakland. Over ninety percent of our students are students of color.  Typically, I find that when we engage in conversations about societal inequities (for example, why the neighborhood in which they go to school differs so drastically from most of the neighborhoods in which they live), their understandings of these complex subjects remain overly simplistic. One minute, they argue that everyone has equal opportunity to succeed in this country as long as they work for it.  A minute later, our society is racist and prejudiced; no matter what people of color do, society will hold them down.  After a number of these stagnant class conversations, I decided that the students needed to discover the complexities of these issues, from a societal, historical, and personal lens.  I could feel their desire to know more and, more importantly, to feel a sense of control over their place within society.  I hoped this research project would be one small opportunity to explore these issues further and to consider actionable steps.

My Inquiry Focus for 2013-14 School Year

Taking the lessons learned from the previous years, I decided that by the end of my students’ 11th grade year, I wanted them to write KQED-style listener commentaries in response to research questions of their choice.  In these opinion pieces, they were to support their arguments with corroborated and/or contradictory evidence from multiple sources found through their own online research as well as evidence from their own personal experience, observations, or background knowledge. Additionally, in these final pieces of writing, I expected a certain level of maturity in their writing, with respect to stylistic choices, structure, and voice. Knowing my end goal, I set out with the following inquiry questions:

  1. If I focus primarily on evidence-based argumentative writing throughout the school year and provide enough scaffolds and opportunities for practice, will I see significant growth in my students’ writing skills from the beginning of the year to the end? Additionally, how many opportunities for practice will it take before my students feel comfortable weaning themselves off of the scaffolds in order to produce a more stylistic piece of writing that captures each student’s unique voice and perspective?

  2. Which scaffolds and instructional practices will best support my students to find their own relevant and credible sources of information online?

  3. If I provide my students with an online platform (youthvoices.net) on which to publish their work, will their engagement in the work and quality of work increase?

Inquiry Focus #1: Evidence-Based Writing

To measure student growth in argumentative evidence-based writing, I chose to use Oakland Unified’s 5-point Argumentative Writing Rubric.  I created this data tracker in Google Drive Spreadsheet to track student achievement in writing over the course of the school year. I used the Performance Writing Task as the diagnostic exam and measured students’ growth in scores from that initial writing task. As you can see in the data tracker, my junior classes (periods 3 & 4) averaged about 2.3 out 5 as their overall score on the diagnostic PWT, with the lowest marks (about 1.75 out of 5) in their use and analysis of evidence to support their arguments.

I had originally designed this data tracker as a teacher tool to measure and assess student learning and to use as a vehicle to drive instruction. I quickly learned that in addition to meeting my teacher needs, the tool also became a driver of increased student engagement in their own growth as writers. I decided to show the students their class’s average scores after each writing assessment. Not surprisingly, after seeing the low scores on the diagnostic PWT, the students appeared frustrated. At the same time, the low scores staring them in the face became motivators.  As they worked on each consecutive writing task, I would constantly remind them that at the end, we would look at the data tracker to see the growth we’ve made. With each writing task, the students saw their skills improve and they had the data to prove it.

By the end of the school year, each class met and most exceeded the goal we set from the beginning, to grow by an average of at least 1 point on the 5-point rubric. The class that started with the lowest average score on the diagnostic grew by the most (1.3 points).  The growth and its effect on the students is clear not only in their scores but in their reflections on the work. In exit interviews with a few of my students, they opened up about their experiences with writing throughout the school year.

Student Perspective:

This first student I interviewed started the year with a score of 1.6 out of 5 on the diagnostic writing task. By the end of the school year, she earned a 3.56 on her research writing assignment, showing growth by about 2 points (or 40%). When asked about her own growth as a writer this year, she reflects, “In the beginning, I did not understand, like, mostly, like the writing task – such as making my conclusion, thesis statements – I didn’t know anything about it. After you explained to me, and did all these projects, I practiced and practiced, and I really understand it now.”  When I pressed her on her experience with research this year, she stated, “At first I thought my research was about to be a failure, but it came out brilliant!”  When you listen to this student’s interview, you can hear the excitement in her voice, stemming from a newfound confidence in her abilities as a learner and actor.

Another student, who started the year with stronger academic skills, had this to say when asked about what she’s learned about writing this year: “I understand the structure a little bit better than last year cause I used to just write my essays without any structure. I know it’s the thesis statement and how to do the body paragraphs, and stuff like that.”

Inquiry Focus #2: Evaluating Source Credibility and Relevancy

From doing other versions of this research project in the past, it was evident through the process and in their final presentations that the students had struggled to find relevant and credible online sources. While they still attempted to analyze the information that they did find, many did not achieve a deeper level of understanding of their issue areas at the level I had hoped. Because they were working with limited information, their analyses would retreat back to the simplistic levels from which we tried to stray. Therefore, I made it a goal for this past year to improve my instruction around determining source credibility and relevancy, so my students could find compelling information about their topics of choice.  As students, professionals, and civic actors, our students need to become informed citizens who have the skills to seek, consume, and analyze information from various sources; and they need to be able to do so independently from others, so that they can continue to develop and share their own beliefs, values, and ideas.

I did some research on teaching research and discovered the concept of a “trust-o-meter” – a tool students (and anyone really) can use to determine the aspects of a source that make it reliable and those that make it questionable.  The trust-o-meter is beautiful because it takes what most of us consider a rigorous skill to teach and to develop and boils it down into a simple concept – What about the source is trustworthy? What about the source is questionable? This is what a blank trust-o-meter looks like (pretty complex, I know!):

Trustworthy/Reliable/Credible

Untrustworthy/Unreliable/Questionable

Before asking my students to do their own research, I modeled the various steps of the process with my own research question. I focused my inquiry on New York’s controversial “Stop and Frisk” policy. I asked, “Should New York continue to use ‘Stop and Frisk’ as a way to reduce crime in the city?”  I found and shared four online sources with my students.  Together, we spent two weeks examining the sources, evaluating their strengths and weaknesses in credibility, and ultimately used the information to make written arguments in response to the research question.

When looking at samples of student work during this process, it is clear that the trust-o-meters guided the students to consider whether or not a source was “good enough”.  Here’s an example of what some of the students might have written in their trust-o-meters about the sources on “Stop and Frisk”:

 

Trustworthy/Reliable/Credible

Untrustworthy/Unreliable/Questionable

  • Provides statistics on crime

  • Interviews multiple people who have been stopped, frisked, and arrested

  • From The New York Times

  • No interviews with police officers

  • Only interviews people who have been stopped and frisked; doesn’t interview those who haven’t

Some students were able to evaluate source credibility more accurately and consistently than others, but for the first time in my experience teaching research, students were thoughtfully considering the strengths and weaknesses of a variety of sources. And when it came time to find their own source for their research topics, they carried these skills with them.

Student Perspective:

When asked what they’ve learned about research and evidence-based writing this year, here’s what some of my students had to say:

“I learned that not all evidence is good. You have to decipher between different sources that you use because they might not always be true. They might not always support your reasoning for your essay…Research is a lot of work. You have to find your sources and put it all together in the way that you want it. You have to make sure that it is informative.”

“Research can be very difficult, but once you do find what you’re looking for, it’s kind of easy to keep going and not to give up. I learned that if I’m struggling not to just quit on myself, cause I’m usually just one of the ones that will just quit and just shut down. So I might take a break but to keep working at it and to find what I need.”

“It’s cool to find stuff that really goes with my argument. Once I find stuff it’s nice. It helps you get to where you need to go.”

While it is wonderful to hear the students reflect on their own progress, it is even more exciting to see the growth in their work. As I read and graded my students’ final research writing assignments, I was floored by the quality of sources and evidence they found in their research.  Over and over, I got to comment on their use of “compelling and relevant evidence!” In the writing growth tracker, you can see the high scores they earned in the evidence category.  However, you can also see the scores in their analysis of the evidence remain stagnant.  While the instruction on evaluating source credibility proved successful, I think it may have distracted the students from going deeper with their analysis of the evidence. If I were to do this project again next year, I would incorporate multiple opportunities throughout the year to conduct shorter research tasks. With more practice, the students will be less and less likely to short change different parts of the process. Additionally, they will become more informed on a variety of issues.

Inquiry Focus #3: Blogging on Youth Voices (Authentic Audience)

Youth Voices is an online platform for student writing, online publishing and peer interaction that was created by a teacher in New York CIty. It is a space for students from around the country to engage with each other on academic content.  Students can publish their work, ask each other questions, offer suggestions, give each other feedback, and celebrate each other’s work and ideas. Youth Voices has many of the same characteristics of social media sites, but gives students an opportunity to put their ideas online in a professional, academic setting. It is a space for young people to begin to learn about the world of online advocacy and civic engagement.

I only started using Youth Voices with my students in March of this past year. Next year, I will get them set up with profiles from the beginning of the school year and use it weekly. With a platform like Youth Voices, students are not just producing work, they’re going public with their work by publishing it. They post progress updates on their work, reflections on their learning, and publish their finished products. For every post they add, in my class, they must also comment on the posts of their classmates or of students from classes around the country.

Youth Voices has potential as a student blogging site to be a real space for students to engage in civic action. Given the late start I had with it this year, I’m not sure that we were successful in getting to that point. However, the platform did provide students with a regularly accessible authentic audience, which added a lot to their level of engagement and to the overall quality of their work.  Each time students logged on to Youth Voices, at least one student in the room would shout, “Hey! Someone commented on my work who I don’t even know!” Then, classmates around the room would ask what they said, or call out that someone had done the same for them. The interactions show students that people other than their teachers care about what they have to say. They are no longer developing skills for the audiences of their future, but they have a real audience right now. The value of this can be heard and felt in the comments from the students below.

 

Student Perspective:

When asked why they thought I had them publish their work on Youth Voices this year, here’s what some of my students had to say:

“I think the purpose of using the Youth Voices was to feel like we’re being heard. Instead of just writing an essay, turning it into the teacher, and getting a grade and then that was it. I feel like you made us do that so we could feel like our points were getting out there. You had us comment on each other so we could understand everyone’s point of view and not just our own. And it was cool.”

“So we can get feedback from different people. So we can meet new people and besides that to hear from other people to see what they think about our things… Especially us being at school and being around our friends, people don’t give us real real feedback. Some people don’t want to make you feel bad…And it helped us spread our word out to other people about how we feel about what’s going on and stuff…I had some people commenting on my stuff that I didn’t even know!”

Conclusion

It was difficult over the course of this past school year to wrap my brain around the ways in which my three different areas of inquiry focus intersect. I knew that in order to successfully complete the summative task of writing a KQED-style listener commentary on their research findings, the students would need strong writing skills, credible sources of information, and an authentic audience (among other skills and tools not discussed in this piece). However, to get them there, I had to break the pieces down into their parts before the students could then piece them back together. For a sampling of the students’ final research writing assignments, please click on the links in the box below.

Every year, I learn more and more about the art of teaching. One lesson I’ve known from the beginning is about the importance of practice. Students need multiple opportunities to practice new skills, and then when you think they’ve had enough, give them more. The rule is no different when considering the task of preparing our students to become civic actors in their communities and in our society. Every day, every week, students should feel the connection between what is happening in the classroom with what is happening in their lives, in their neighborhoods, on the news, etc. We can provide our students with daily opportunities to analyze and discuss complex issues, consume information, share ideas, and take action. Next year, my students’ experiences with research and blogging will not be restrained to one portion of the school year or one project; rather, they will do this work consistently and regularly throughout the year with smaller, more frequent tasks. They will have an authentic audience for all of their work. They will have a portfolio of published work to showcase. After I test out those new strategies in my practice, I’ll let you know how it goes. :)

 

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