I have to be honest: I’ve often dreaded teaching research papers in my high school English classes. When students would turn in their papers, they would have composition issues that needed to be addressed, and there were so many other problems: questionable sources, MLA formatting mistakes, instances of plagiarism. Often I wouldn’t even know where to start assessing this work, even though these are all skills I consider essential in my classroom. Eventually I came to realize that they didn’t all have to be taught at the same time.
I also needed to find ways to help motivate my students to take ownership of their research process because the biggest problem with the papers was their incredible blandness. Without proper guidance, students miss the point of research: to look into a question and develop new questions, insights, and ideas as they search. For too many of them, a research paper is just a bunch of facts with a list of works cited at the end. No wonder they, and I, have often been bored to tears by the process and the result.
Because my 11th-grade students had been listening to podcasts to expand their knowledge base about the world for the argument essay on the AP exam, and because I’ve been trying to embrace a more experimental spirit in my teaching, this past year I decided to have students create podcasts in their first research project instead of papers. It was successful for many reasons—among other things, it separated the research process and the writing process, making both teaching and assessing skills easier—and I will definitely do it again. Here’s how I did it, and what I learned.
Choosing and Narrowing Topics
In the past, my students researched assigned topics. Because this year was a difficult one—our town was devastated by the Camp Fire in November—I decided that more choice was in order, to counteract the extraordinary and understandable lack of motivation for schoolwork that students were struggling with.
I had them form small groups and set them to work discussing topics they might work on. When they realized they really could research anything, they became excited, choosing topics like conspiracy theories, the rise of YouTubers, medical terminology, memes, cults, and how people become politicians.
Next the groups created research questions. These would evolve as they did the research, but they needed a starting place—I’ve learned that working out their own questions helps students focus their research. One group started with the question “What are conspiracy theories?” As they looked into the subject, that changed to “How do we know conspiracy theories aren’t true?” and then to “Why do people believe conspiracy theories?” The group created a rather nuanced podcast about the psychology behind these theories.
During this project, I taught my students many skills in the research process, including how to determine that sources are credible and how to cite them correctly. The most effective strategy by far was using professional podcasts as mentor texts.
Using Mentor Texts
We listened to several podcasts before and during the research process. Some of the ones that most engaged students were Serial, Radiolab, Invisibilia, Hidden Brain, StoryCorps, The Moth, Revisionist History, This American Life, and The NPR Politics Podcast. We analyzed them by asking questions such as:
- What parts of this are interesting? Boring? Why?
- How is it structured? What do the creators do at the beginning, at the end, and during transitions? How do they build their story or argument?
- What is the main idea or insight that this podcast is illuminating? How does it make its argument, if there is one? What rhetorical strategies does it use?
- What sound effects, music, and other tools does it use, and for what effect?
- What else do you notice?
As we listened, students took notes on the aspects of each podcast that they wanted to emulate, and ones they wanted to avoid. Each time we finished listening to a podcast, we compared notes, eventually coming to a consensus on what created the most effective structures and arguments. By the time students started researching their topics, the process and purpose of research was much clearer to them: They realized that they would need to come to some conclusions about the significance of the information they found, and structure their evidence and commentary to support those conclusions.
When it came time to record, I had some equipment—professional mics I had secured through a DonorsChoose.org project—but no idea how to use it. One student had some YouTubing experience, and he and his group were soon off and running, but the rest of us wrestled with the process until one of my resourceful girls discovered a very user-friendly app called Anchor. It was free, and with it my students were able to record, cut, mix, and publish their podcasts using just their phones. The results were surprisingly polished, and my students were justifiably proud of their final podcasts.
Why This Worked
Although I felt guilty at first about my lack of preparation for this project, I’ve learned that when trying new ideas in teaching, the best strategy is to fire, and then aim. I’m generally an overthinker, and if I wait until a lesson is perfect, it often never makes it into the classroom.
My students struggled with the technology of recording, but they were so engaged in solving the puzzle that they forgot to get bored. They were also quite anxious about creating a publishable product that would be listened to by their peers, rather than a paper that only I would see. They were deeply invested in creating an interesting, meaningful podcast. In the end they worked harder on the analysis and synthesis—and did far more thinking—than they would have done if I were the only audience.
This assignment introduced students to the purpose and structure of research, something that was reflected in our more traditional research paper later in the year. They learned from the feedback I gave them and from the work they did on formulating and structuring arguments, and they gained an understanding of why people do research in real life.
Now that I’ve tried this idea, I can make it even better next year. That’s the joy of teaching experimentally: I can try just about anything because I don’t have to be perfect—there’s always a next time. And that makes teaching so much more engaging for everybody in my classroom, including me.