You Don’t Always Have to be the Expert

A few years back, I noticed something weird – kids sometimes, maybe even often, learned more when I did less. One unexpected side effect of our spring semester 20Time experience was that I saw kids taking more ownership of information when they were the ones doing the research. This started me thinking about, and changing, how I present all sorts of material.

Now I’ll admit, I love to lecture. I’m a big ol’ goofball and love acting out the highlights of the Trojan War in a one-woman show so my freshmen can picture Odysseus’ story as we launch his epic tale. I love using comedic timing as I explain logical fallacies, strategically pausing to pull a laugh from my students at exactly the right moment. And I especially love droppin’ a beat as I break down Shakespearean sonnet structure and figure out which students’ first names are iambic. But lecturing has its limits. I don’t do it every day. It’s just one tool in a crowded toolbox of teaching techniques and I’d lay odds that not all of my students love my lectures as much as I do.

Face it, few of us actually enjoy lectures. From toddlers to teenagers to teachers trapped at professional development workshops, no one likes to be talked at, especially if the speaker is dry or the content feels disconnected from our lives. However, most of us do enjoy the thrill of discovery. That’s what I’ve learned from watching 20Timers in action.

Because of this, I’ve expanded my approach when launching a new novel unit or explaining the historical context of an era we’re studying in American literature by placing the bulk of research in the hands of students, letting them determine what’s most interesting and important about an author or historical figure’s life.

When I provide just a few questions to help guide students’ research, they end up reading more articles about the person and learning much more information than I’d ever consider cramming into a slide deck. They also benefit from collaborating with a classmate, debating what is and isn’t important in their research.

If you want to try this, you could start by projecting a list of questions/prompts, such as:
1. When was this person born?
2. When did this person die?
3. What significant impact did this person have on the world?
4. What obstacles did this person overcome?
5. Which notable people living today cite this person as an influence on their lives and/or work?
And so on…

You could also present these kinds of questions in a grid, like this:

What can I say? I like to make things snazzy and everyone knows that writing sentences in a grid is way more fun than writing sentences on a blank sheet of binder paper.

I’m now building a collection of single-sheet grid research organizers to give students a concrete task to focus on as they learn about the important authors and historical figures whose lives we study.

Here are a few suggested uses for these student-driven research grids:

1. Book your school’s computer lab or have students access information on their own devices. Assign students to either work solo or in teams of two, all researching the same person. Once the grids are complete, have students share and compare answers in small groups, focusing on four interesting facts they discovered, a meaningful quote, and any personal/professional obstacles. Then, pull the students into a full-class discussion, having each group present an interesting fact, quote, or obstacle until every team has contributed. No repeats allowed.

This assignment works great as an “into” activity, but it could also be a “through” activity to add variety to your in-class routine as you work through a longer work. If you’re using this as an “after” activity, during the discussion I would also ask how any of the biography elements are reflected in the author’s work/s the class just studied.

2. Assign the worksheet as a traditional homework assignment. Launch the discussion mentioned in #1 at the beginning of the next class period.

3. Use the grid as the beginning assignment to a larger project where students must read two or three pieces by a single author or learn about two or three people from a specific era. Later, this research could be turned into a compare/contrast essay or a speech presentation, if you wish to expand the assignment.

4. Use as an emergency sub plan.

A note about sources: When students begin researching, most will automatically want to go to Wikipedia, looking to take material solely from that site. Before this happens, I let students know that Wikipedia is a fantastic website – as a starting spot. Due to the unvetted nature of submissions, citations of Wikipedia as a source don’t earn credit on academic work in my class. Instead, I emphasize that Wikipedia is a helpful starting spot for research because of the high-quality information available from the links within the “Sources,” “Further Reading,” and “External Links” sections at the bottom of each Wikipedia entry. Those links will (usually) take students to higher-quality source material that is seen as academically credible. For students who might struggle with this or need an IEP accommodation, I also sometimes supply a limited source pool, sending them directly to biography.com or history.com.

I hope you give this approach a try. Let your students do the research and see what happens. Teach on, my friend!

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4 years ago

Love it! <3

This is such a great idea to use with advanced students! Will definitely keep it in mind!

I found out years ago that getting my kids to look up information was a great way to spike up their interest. Back in those days, a trick we were taught when we didn't have an answer for them, was to have them find it and then tell the class the next day. This worked great a few times, but soon they'd hide behind their books before asking questions, so eventually I learned to tell them I'd let them know the next day. (Shame, shame! 😀 ) Anyway, I did start to use the research idea for different things, usually in group work (it was easier for them to manage the language), and that worked really nicely! Tons of motivation and learning! They loved it!

Thanks for the bright idea! 😉

Laura Randazzo
4 years ago
Reply to  Carolyn

Oh yeah, Carolyn, it’s so much better when the kids are driving the research. Glad to hear you’ve had a similar experience.

Jennifer S Willes
Jennifer S Willes
4 years ago

I agree. Even a simple review like Jenga (I use numbered sets of 18 blocks) brings out depth and engagement that amazes me. Last week, we used Jenga to review for the Macbeth final. It was so cool to hear them expanding on each others’ answers, debating who was more guilty, going to textbooks for quotes, and digging far deeper than the questions required — and some of the most talkative rarely comment in whole-class discussions. Love, love, love!

Laura Randazzo
4 years ago

This sounds like fun for the kids and so gratifying for you, Jennifer! Care to share the 18 talking points/topics you assign to the different Jenga pieces? I’ve seen a similar ideas on Pinterest and I like your idea of slimming down the small group sets from the traditional stack of 54 blocks to a more economic (and maybe less noisy) set of 18 per team. Good thinking!

Robin Quinton
Robin Quinton
4 years ago

This is wonderful! I would love to do an author study. Would you consider putting all the authors and historical figures into a bulk buying option??

Laura Randazzo
4 years ago
Reply to  Robin Quinton

Glad to hear you like the idea, Robin! I’ve considered it, but it seems we all teach so many different author combinations that it’s tough to build a bundle that meets everyone’s needs and is still economical. TpT doesn’t yet allow custom bundles, but I’ll jump on that option when/if they do. Appreciate your interest! 🙂

Amany Hussiny
Amany Hussiny
4 years ago

Yeah, totally agree with you. Be a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage 🙂

Laura Randazzo
4 years ago
Reply to  Amany Hussiny

Absolutely, Amany.

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