Thursday, April 23, 2015

Redesigning Our Research Paper for Community Involvement

As we reviewed, updated, and rearranged our curriculum to correlate with the new Indiana College and Career Readiness Standards for Language Arts after our state opted out of the Common Core Standards last summer, we determined The Odyssey would be our major literature companion to our research paper. This research paper is our last major paper of the year, but it is the first "real" research paper our students ever write. I have generally helped facilitate this process by having all students write on the same topic, just choosing which direction to take that topic. While many papers are similar, it gives me a chance to focus on the skills and formatting of the research paper.

I wanted to give my students a topic that was recent, relevant, and in some way involved our community, since one of my major focus areas this year is to provide opportunities for home, community, and world interaction with our learning. Thinking of Odysseus's 20 years away from home and eventual happy reunion made me reflect on what life was like after the story ended. Would Odysseus live happily ever after with his family in Ithaca? Would he be satisfied no longer having adventures and visiting exotic lands? Would he have nightmares from his war days or losing his men on the way home? Would he be content to rule just Ithaca since he is "Master of landways and seaways"?

This line of questioning led me to recall a college classmate of mine who struggled to come back to normal life and classes after 14 months of active duty he had never anticipated. I had just begun my freshman year in fall of 2001 when September 11 happened.  Of course I'll never forget that day, but I'll also never forget when one of my classmates disappeared in February and the professor told us he had been deployed to Iraq. After the initial shock of the announcement, I really didn't think about him at all until he arrived back, as suddenly as he had two different classes I was taking the next school year. Our college had put him back into the same classes he had been enrolled in upon his return. He struggled. Everyone could tell sitting still for nearly two hours, even fifty minutes was torture for him. He always faced the door, searching for something or someone unknown who might enter. When those last 6 weeks of the semester ended, I never saw him again. Every once in a while, like trying to determine a topic for this research paper. I think of him again. I never saw him again after that semester; I have no idea if he followed through and became a teacher.  But I hope he did.

With these two thoughts in mind, I knew immediately that I would have my students research the difficulties soldiers returning from a war zone, like Odysseus r my college classmate, might have in returning to a "normal" life after their experiences.  Most of the research is from after 9/11, and many of my students have a family member or acquaintance who has served or is serving in the military. Next, I knew I wanted to have a veteran come to visit my classes and offer first-hand experiences. I sent out several text messages and emails and made a few phone calls, but a good friend of my brother-in-law was my first and only response. It can be extremely difficult to get someone away from a real job to fit in time to accommodate our school schedule!

When the day of our guest visit arrived, my students were amazing as always! We had already generated a list of research questions and begun reading articles on our topic, so they had plenty of background knowledge AND curiosity to fill a fifty minute class period with questions for our veteran to answer. My students listened attentively, took copious notes, and fired away questions the entire class period!

Perhaps most impressive of all was their reactions after our interview sessions. In EVERY class period, at least one student approached our guest, shook his hand, and thanked him for his time that day and his service to our country. Without any prompting, they immediately asked the next day if we could send a thank you card-one student even brought one in herself! They talked so much the following day about how difficult it must have been for ur guest to share such personal information with a room full of strangers, and how several of them went home to talk more about the topic with a family member who has served in the military. Our papers aren't drafted yet, but I'm already calling this new research paper a success!

How are you building community connections in your classrooms? What are some of your ideas for reinvigorating the standard research paper? I'd love it if you'd share!