Online Research is a Human Right by Marguerite Sheffer

The Problem

It is Spring 2013.  In my 11th grade English classes at Castlemont High School, students are proposing their topics for their Junior Research Project. The 11th grade team is proud of this new initiative–designed to help students prepare and practice for their ever-looming Senior Project the following year. I tell students they can research anything!  Anything!  I am proudly committed to student choice and exploration.  The first round of topic proposals comes in:


        “Global Warming”

        “Gang Violence”

        “Teen Drug Use”



What do I do?  These topics are far too broad.  They won’t give my students a chance to flex their research skills, and they won’t help them develop complex arguments. Do I provide a prompt, or a topic-list, thereby limiting student voice?

The Culprit

It makes sense that students would choose broad, compelling, familiar topics, because the Junior Research Project is isolated and high-stakes. That school year, this project would be our only foray into online research–which meant that as a teacher, I was trying to teach every aspect of research in one go (topic selection, question development, using search engines, verifying source credibility, selecting evidence, outlining, citing). The context of this project prompted some unhealthy reactions from both me as a teacher and my students. I over-scaffolded all steps of the project, reducing complex ideas to checklisting, because I wanted to hit so many skills and I wanted my students to complete this high-stakes project.  There was no time or room for failure. My students were driven to choose those familiar, big, “safe,” topics.  Eventually, I did provide very directed frames for their research questions–students filled in the blanks.  I committed to doing better the next year.

The EDDA Push

As a member of OUSD’s Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age (EDDA) Initiative, I was given the push to re-examine my own teaching of online research. Working in a group led by Paul Oh, we shared tools and resources for teaching effective online research.

For my students, online research is a human right–an empowering tool, if students can learn to use it to dig up new information.  Empowerment does not look like using “Yahoo Answers” as one’s main source, or finding only cursory, basic info. Empowerment looks like using the internet for discovery, self-education, and choice.  It looks like joining new communities and discourses.  My participation in EDDA has helped me to see online research as a form of civic engagement.

More  and more students have smart phones each year, more and more have entry-level tablets or netbooks.  At an under-resourced school site that has neither a library nor provides reliable computer access, students’ ability to leverage their own internet access is paramount.  Students can use the internet as a tool for self education, advocacy, coalition-building, and mind-changing.  But only if they know how to wield it.

As Young Whan Choi, the Civic Engagement Coordinator for OUSD told us at our end-of-the-year meeting, part of our work is “planting the seeds of thoughtful action,” which is always “better than unthoughtful action.”  My work focused on helping students research more thoughtfully, hopefully pushing them to a more thoughtful understanding of issues, and therefore more thoughtful action.

In the service of this goal, colleagues at EDDA pushed me to incorporate more research into my ELA 11 course. I knew, based on my negative experience with the last Junior Research Project, that I wanted to make online research a focus throughout the year, and so I committed to a series of short, repetitive research projects throughout the year, at least once a unit/once every 6 weeks.

Conflict: Oversimplification vs. Overstuffing

In some ways, EDDA provided me with too many great resources and ideas. There were resources teachers shared for analyzing the credibility of sources.  There were multiple modalities of student publication modeled–from infographics to Ignite presentations, TED Talks and student blogging.  I see these amazing projects, and I want my students to do them, like, tomorrow[3] .

However, I feared that by building these different elements into my course, before I knew how to really teach research, I would again be creating a high-stakes project that would be over-scaffolded and not student-driven.  For my own particular conundrum, I decided that I would follow an inquiry model, and narrow the focus of my EDDA work down to one skill–topic selection.  I committed to tackling the student learning issue that had gotten under my skin, at the risk of oversimplification.

The Experiment: RE-searching

I wanted to help my students leverage the power of the internet to pick better topics. What I came to, with the help of my EDDA colleagues, was to focus on RE-searching.  Meaning, I prompted my students to keep refining their search terms multiple times, based on their findings. So, students might all start with the umbrella topic of “adulthood.” One student moved from “adulthood,” then based on her first source, refined her search term to “adulthood maturity” then after reading more, refined her topic to “brain development of maturity”–something that interested her greatly. I created a scaffold to encourage this, a research accordion, which, in retrospect, was the least successful part of the experiment–it simply gave students a place to record their search terms, findings, 6 different times.

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The new elements I implemented into my practice were:

The new elements I implemented into my practice were:

  • Scaffolded student tracking of search terms, findings, 5-6 times
  • at the end of a unit–building off of concepts, leading to a writing assignment
  • protected low-stakes time: 1 day, 1 lesson (1 hour)
  • modelled repeatedly
  • re-taught what to do when search terms failed
  • Encouraged student choice, but with some limitation (shared starting point)
  • Emphasized that there is no “right” answer–student interest drove refinement of topic

Small Victories–Different Definitions of “Adulthood” through REsearching

One of my goals for students was that they could use internet research, and the process of REsearching  & refining  search terms to learn new information, to go down a deep rabbit hole of research, with interesting concepts leading to more interesting concepts.

In small doses, this began happening in my classroom.

At the end of our “Adulthood” Book Circles Unit, in the process of finding sources for an essay defining adulthood, Vanessa refined her search terms from “adulthood” (all students started there) to “maturity” to “brain development”–something that was new and interesting to her.  In an end of the year interview, Vanessa stated that practicing the process of repeatedly searching and refining search terms led her to see research in a different way:

I started learning more and knowing more…how would I say it?  It’s like I’m learning something I never knew, but I’m teaching it as well.  It is new to me and to other people–that’s what makes it the best[4] .

Working on the same essay, Angelina came up to me in the computer lab, in frustration. She was sure she was doing the assignment “wrong.”  Her searches and sources had led her from “adulthood” to “womanhood” to “womanhood symbols” to “Athena.”  She had heard of Athena, and was interested in knowing more about how she represented womanhood, but felt that she had gotten too far off track.  After some quick reassurance that anything interesting couldn’t be the wrong track, Angelina returned to her computer.  Eventually she wrote an essay that defined adulthood by comparing the protagonist of the novel Divergent, Tris, with the goddess Athena.  In her introduction, she wrote that:

Society has a certain perspective for adults, as you get older you’re supposed to become independent, stable, there are so many expectations as you transition from childhood to adulthood. For example men have to get married, have children, be able to provide food on the table have a roof over his family, that’s the main ideology. Women on the other hand have to be pretty , and perfect, get married, have children, stay at home. They have to clean, cook, and be supportive. But, what society seems to forget is that everybody is different, not everyone wants to follow those footsteps. As Tris the main character of Divergent was transitioning from childhood to adulthood she was similar to the goddess Athena, who is known for wisdom, courage, and war[5] .

As a teacher, I knew something was working when Vanessa and Angelina were able to start with the same topic, but make their own different paths by refining search terms and following the ideas that interested them.

Learning through RE-search: Diego & “Agent Orange”

Later in the year, I saw more signs that students were using the simple technique of RE-searching to use online research in a new way. As an extension of our unit on The Things They Carried, students were asked to research any element of soldier’s experience in the Vietnam War. Diego, along with several other students, chose “Agent Orange” as his final research topic.  I was excited by this, because we had never discussed Agent Orange in class, and in class, Diego was expressing his own surprise and outrage at learning this new information.

In his final essay, he wrote that:

Soldiers and the people of Vietnam suffered from the affects of the herbizide Agent Orange.  According to the source “U.S.Department of Veterans Affairs,” soldiers from the war suffered from many diseases like Respiratory Cancer, Prostate Cancer, Parkinson’s Diseases, and so on.  This diseases cause many body functions to fail or get weaker, affecting there chances of getting good jobs, or any at all  According to the source from “DailyMail Online,” many orphans born years after the herbicide had been sprayed are still battling these affects of Agent Orange.  Many of this children are deaf, blind, mute, have been bedridden for most of their lives, and even have missing or deformed limbs.  The effects of Agent Orange have and are still effecting people to this day, leaving orphans and adults with deformities and disorders.

This was exciting to me for three reasons—firstly, I knew that Diego must be RE-searching effectively, because there was no way that “Agent Orange” was his initial topic/search terms.  Secondly, it demonstrated that Diego was using online research tools—in this case, search engines, as a form of discovery.  He was learning something new and following the tracks of that new information.  Finally, I was excited by the quality and credibility of the sources that Diego was using in his work.  While I did not focus on credibility in my class, I was encouraged by the fact that the process of RE-searching led Diego to news government publications about Agent Orange.

Students as Researchers: Student Reflections

As we came closer to the end of the year, I realized that my work with students on research was less about teaching or mastering a skill, and more about pushing students to internalize a habit of mind, a practice of research.  Much like the “brainstorm” step of the writing process, RE-searching did not take any skill to do (in fact, is kind of impossible to do “wrong”) and looks different for every person.  I realized that what I was actually inquiring into was how to prompt students to give themselves some protected, low-stakes exploratory time to refine their search terms at the beginning of a high-stakes research project.  In short, I cared that they did this at all, not HOW they refined their search terms.  But I knew that this was a valuable step that I did not want my students to skip.

With that in mind, I interviewed students about their use of RE-searching, and whether or not they were using this practice with their research for the new year’s Junior Research Project (which was not taking place in my class).  We had come full circle, and I wanted to see if our practice over the course of the year had any effect on students’ research process when I was not hovering over them, and when the scaffold was completely removed.

My results were mixed.  Two out of three students I interviewed said that they did RE-search for their JRP, while the last one said she “planned to try it now.”  Overall, students did feel that their research skills improved over the course of the year. They recommended teaching RE-searching in the future, but combining it with more support on recognizing credible sources, something I let slide this year.

In her interview, Elena reflected that RE-searching was “good because they made us go deeper into the topic and not just stick to the basic,” and advised me to” let [students] think about their question for a good time…it takes them awhile.”

Learnings and Next Steps:

While my inquiry was not quite smooth sailing, the many small successes over the course of the year have given me some bigger ideas about how to push students to a more thoughtful research process:

  • The more time we spent on refining search terms and topic selection, the more thought students put into these steps (this seems obvious in retrospect, but represents a significant shift in my practice)
  • Pushing students to RE-search, to refine search terms, led them to choose narrower, more unfamiliar topics—the scaffold worked!  It also pushed them, organically, to more rigorous, “academic” sources
  • Students needed explicit modeling of how to work around research “dead ends”

What’s up next for me:

  • I need to integrate a way to teach students to evaluate the credibility of sources, along with this method.  This is even more important now that students are finding more academic sources on their own!
  • Now that I realize RE-searching is more a habit of mind to internalize than a skill to master, I need to rethink the way I frame this for students, and the way I pace scaffolding/removal of scaffolding over time.

Throughout the course of my inquiry, I struggled to pinpoint the connection between the REsearching students were doing in class, and civic engagement.  I knew that empowering my students to use the tools of online research more effectively important to me, but I was never able to clearly tie classroom practice into beyond-the-classroom activism.  In the future, this repetitive, focused classroom practice of REsearching could be built into more action-oriented research projects (like the OUSD/Castlemont Senior Project, which is a Youth Participatory Action Research Project), and encourage students to take more informed, and therefore more meaningful, action.


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