Student Engagement: Who Knew Research Could Be So Addictive?

Rachel Porter
Rachel Porter, Cincinnati Christian Schools

We are pleased to feature this guest post from Knovation customer Rachel Porter. Rachel is a Junior/Senior High English Teacher at Cincinnati Christian Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio.

I have been assigning research papers for years… Not only do these things get boring to write, but also reading over 130 of them is the pits! But as I’ve shifted my approach and started assigning authentic research projects, allowing students to focus on things they are really interested in, I’ve seen increased student interest and engagement in the research process. In my classroom, gone are the days when students wrote about a teacher-selected topic. Gone are the days when students half-heartedly did research on topics that are of little to no interest to them. All teachers know that some of the best teaching occurs when you least expect it.

One of Those “Best-teaching” Moments

Three years ago, as I was taking attendance, some students were venting (complaining) about one of the many things that they didn’t like about our school. I tend to listen carefully, and then attempt to turn these types of situations into teachable moments. When I say, “So let’s have a discussion about that,” I get the collective, proverbial groan from the class, and then I know I’m headed in the right direction (insert wringing hands and deep, evil laugh here). And this particular moment was no different. I gave all students an index card for them to list as many positive things as they possibly could about our school on one side, and write a list of things that would make our school better on the other side of the card. Next, I asked them, “What would that mean to you and the rest of the student body if you could get that changed?” Some of the “complaints” would hold no water in court. However, many of them were serious concerns that the students carried close to their hearts. It was then that I had a “Eureka” moment, and said to myself, This would make a great research paper!

Authentic Research and Its Lessons

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I taught my students how to do authentic research about things that mattered to them, things that in their minds would make their school better. Ideas were coming like wildfire:

  • Changing exams to be before Christmas rather than after
  • Allowing collared shirts that have patterns on them
  • Having a student-led anti-bullying program
  • Adding an AP History course to our curriculum
  • Starting school at a later time
  • Hiring a counselor for mental/emotional needs of students

Because they were researching about something they cared about, they actually got excited to read and write a paper! They were so hyper-focused on this paper that they were chatting with me on Google docs all throughout the night to get help on how to perfectly word things so that they could persuade their audience to make the changes they were proposing.

The kicker? There was no grade attached to these presentations. I told the kids that they had to present, and they actually wanted their teachers and administrators to hear their voices and researched arguments. They believed strongly in what they were arguing, and they wanted someone other than themselves to care about it, too.

Through this research process, they learned:

  • Rhetorical devices–ethos, pathos, logos
  • How to effectively present, acknowledge and refute the opposing sides to their argument
  • How to give a live presentation and answer questions from an authentic audience (consisting of the school superintendent, the principal and teachers)
  • How to smoothly embed quoted and paraphrased material into their own writing

From Complaints to Results, Through Research

Several papers over the past three years have resulted in positive changes in our school. As a result of this assignment (birthed from a complaining group of kids) the following things have happened so far:

  • First semester exams are held before Christmas
  • A counselor comes to our school a couple times each week to offer mental and emotional support to students in need
  • Students are no longer required to wear solid-colored Polo shirts
  • Our weekly chapel service has been moved to the end of the day to allow more instruction time for teachers and more worship time for students who can stay after school

So, now when I hear a student ask why something is or isn’t a certain way at school, I say, “That sounds like a good topic for a research paper.” Of course…I still get the “roll-of-the-teenage-eyes” response, but it is then that I know I’m onto something–I know that I can tap into something they’re passionate about and teach them a ton in the meantime. Now, that’s engaging!

9 Replies to “Student Engagement: Who Knew Research Could Be So Addictive?”

  1. Awesome article. I love the whole idea of having the students engage in a topic that they are passionate about while employing the necessary tools of research and persuasion. Great read!

  2. Your article is inspiring, Rachel. While my students are younger, engagement that comes from an authentic need still has its place with them. How much more engaged and invested in the research process (and how much better they would learn/remember) would students be if topics came from a true need to know and desire to bring about change?! Lots to think about. Thank you.

  3. Great article. This teacher is awesome and should win an award for greatest teacher in America. She must be a lot like her mother. MOM

  4. I’d love to see a follow-up article from Rachel about the great website assignment that your students loved!

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