Blogstitute Week 6: A creative alternative to the research paper

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.

Don’t forget to leave a comment or ask a question to be entered to win a package of five writing books. You can also purchase the package for a special, reduced price — for a limited time only!

The Adventure Essay: A Creative Alternative to the Research Paper

David Somoza and Peter Lourie

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

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Linda Baie  |  August 15th, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    My school focuses on research, each student choosing a unit of study for the year, with all kinds of research going on, and communication of their discoveries in various ways. I love your idea, and see also that it can be used across the grades. Thanks for the good detailed examination of the idea. I’ll share with all my colleagues!

  • 2. Wendy Greve  |  August 16th, 2011 at 7:00 am

    Love the idea! Approximately how much class time do you use for this project?

  • 3. Dave  |  August 16th, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    Hi Wendy,
    Thank you for writing. It’s nice to hear that you like the idea. We spend a few months on the big state adventure project, and about two weeks on the Latin America project. It really depends on how in-depth you want your kids to go with their writing and their research. The state adventure projects are major works of writing for 5th graders and are often 10-15 pages typed. The Latin America projects are usually about 2 pages long and contain much less research. You might try out the idea with a smaller project first and see how it goes. Every year I get new ideas from the kids, and I end up making small changes for the following year. It’s so much fun. I hope you enjoy it too!

  • 4. Tracy  |  August 17th, 2011 at 6:56 am

    You are so right…research provides the opportunity for learning many important skills, but the end result is often blah. A few years back, a group of teachers in our school put together a “research binder” for 4th and 5th grade teachers to use as a guide for reasearch projects. Something I especially liked about it was while it focused on specific skills during the research process, it left the end result fairly open ended. Students, teachers, and/or whole classes could choose how the research would be presented. This involved discussion about audience and voice: who would be reading the final project would greatly influence your format and word choice. Over the years, we’ve written childrens books with a target audience of second grade, Power Point presentations for parent showcasing, and yes, the standard ‘research paper’. I’m excited to add your element of adventure into the fold!

  • 5. KimberlyGutierrez  |  August 21st, 2011 at 10:33 am

    Its reading things like this that make me want to teach upper el (I teach 1st). We do a mini-intro into research in first grade while teaching about non-fiction. We teach the difference between fact and opinion and teach the kids how to find out information about something they are curious about. Thanks for sharing – maybe I can do more with my higher readers and writers or do a group writing piece. Hmmm…..

  • 6. Michelle  |  August 22nd, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    Sounds like an interesting concept. First, I’d love to devour some of Peter Lourie’s books to breathe in the life of nonfiction and research! Unfortunately, teachers dread the research paper as well. The students love to learn and read about a topic of choice. I think changing it up a bit may be beneficial. Thanks for sharing!

  • 7. Jacob  |  October 7th, 2015 at 10:55 am

    Thank you for the wonderful idea. I am looking forward to utilizing the Adventure Writing concept in my 7th/8th grade classroom when discussing colonial American life. Very exciting!

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