August 15th, 2011
This week’s blogstitute entry comes from David Somoza, coauthor of Writing to Explore: Discovering Adventure in the Research Paper, 3-8. He and author Peter Lourie demonstrate how to teach adventure writing, which integrates nonfiction and fiction and motivates students to write with imagination, curiosity, and a hunger to learn everything about their topic.
Coming next week: a BONUS blogstitute entry from Maureen Barbieri on how she found friendship and writing inspiration in an unlikely place.
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The Adventure Essay: A Creative Alternative to the Research Paper
At some point all of us have either written a research paper or taught students how to write one. My experience, from both perspectives, brings up feelings of dread. I may be way off, but I bet others have similar feelings. And yet, when you think about why we teach students to write research papers, some great reasons come to mind. The skills that kids get from the process are important ones: from learning how to research a subject in depth, to being able to understand text and rewrite it in a meaningful way, to learning how to organize ideas into a cohesive essay. All of these skills are valuable, but more often than not there’s little or no opportunity for creativity in the process, and that’s the downfall. There’s also no personal attachment or purpose to the writing itself. It’s the tedious and laborious work in the absence of imaginative thought that leads to the feelings of dread when someone mentions the words research paper.
Recently I stumbled upon a way to instill imagination and purpose into the process of writing the research paper—and it all revolves around adventure.
After multiple failed attempts to make research paper writing more engaging for my students and myself, I began reading some of Peter Lourie’s nonfiction books. I found them full of factual information yet very engaging. The difference between his books and my students’ research papers was the creative element. Pete describes his passion for nonfiction adventure writing this way: “Research is exploration. Whether you’re exploring a subject by traveling to a place, or studying history in a book, or talking to experts, it’s all about discovery. Once I’m engaged in a journey or adventure, then everything I learn is possible material to weave into the adventure.” Pete develops a narrative thread that often places him at the heart of the subject matter. Whether he’s hiking through a jungle in search of Mayan ruins or talking with a gold miner in the Amazon, it’s through his eyes that we journey forward; inadvertently, we learn about the subject matter as he learns it himself when he travels. This, I realized, was the kind of writing I hoped to get from my students.
Through many conversations with Pete, I began to understand his process of writing, which I’ve tried to replicate with my fifth graders. Essentially it involves two unique elements that must come together seamlessly: the research element and the narrative element. Because I can’t take my students to the jungle before they write about it, they need to take virtual journeys, adding an element of fiction to an otherwise nonfiction research paper. The narrative is driven by the adventure that each student chooses to take.
We begin with research. Through the research process, students gain a deep understanding of the topic. In addition to facts and figures, they find photos, maps, and even video clips to strengthen their understanding of the place where they intend to travel. Once they have a solid grasp on the subject, they begin to plan their adventure. This is the fun part; they love to imagine themselves traveling and heading out on exciting adventures.
When a solid plan is in place, we dive in. Where will you go? How will you get there? What will you do? Where will you sleep? These kinds of questions tend to jar their imaginations and make them realize that we’ve gone from simply researching a subject to engaging with it. Kids have the best imaginations, and they’re eager to learn the details of places, history, and people.
This is where the two streams come together—the stream of research and the stream of imagination. As the imaginative stream continues, it gains its strength from the details in the research, and vice versa. In other words, the learning is woven into the fabric of the story to ground it and make it realistic. As teachers, we facilitate this back-and-forth process by encouraging students to do more research or expand their adventure narrative.
This process of alternating between the imagined journey and the actual research maintains all the best teachings of the research paper but also calls on students to be imaginatively engaged with their topic. Pete and I have found that this adventure writing model works in many settings. I use it with my fifth graders when they study the U.S. states and again when they learn about Latin America. Pete uses the same model with his students at Middlebury College, where he teaches adventure writing and digital storytelling.
As a departure from the traditional research paper, this adventure-based approach integrates student research with aspects of creative writing. The process of taking an imagined adventure can be more engaging, more personally relevant, and more rewarding for students. Their final projects represent not only their research but also their self-expression.
I’m sure this idea can be used as an alternative to a variety of research projects that we haven’t thought of yet. How might you use it in your own classroom with your own students?
Entry Filed under: Writing