Thursday, 28 May 2015

Addressing the "Why?"

I hear this every day from my own kids.  I heard this with almost every assignment when I was in the classroom.


Why do we have to do this?
Why does it have to be done that way?
When will I ever use this?
What is the point?
How will this help me?

And many other variations on that theme. I'm sure as parents, teachers, even coworkers and bosses, we have heard this symphony more times than we care to count.  The incessant droning of the sentiment is probably why the phrase "because I said so" has become a common answer to the question.

But, in life as well as the classroom, I think there is a lot of justification for answering this question.  I'm going to address this in the context of the classroom but I think that it is transferable to parenthood as well and bears thinking about.

Do you remember as a student having to do a project you thought was idiotic?  Did you ever question the sanity of your teacher for assigning something that seemed to have no bearing on anything in real life?  How many of us made fun of our teachers for something they were passionate about that we just didn't get into?

Why would we think our students are any different than we were?

As teachers, we tell ourselves that we want our students to learn how to think for themselves, we encourage autonomy and responsibility but we get frustrated and defensive if that takes a turn toward questioning what we have decreed is important.  It kind of comes out like, "think for yourself but do what I say."

The difficulty is, we have to occupy our classroom full of students every day for 180 days.  And not all lessons are going to have obvious links to practicality.  While that doesn't make them less valuable, it is harder to explain their importance.  As we help our students move beyond the concrete and instantaneous to the abstract and long-term, what are some tools we can use to explain the value of the lessons we teach?

Here is one suggestion that has worked well for me.  I find that most every concept/lesson falls into two rough categories:


Content refers to the details that are specific to that subject matter.  A biology lesson on cell division has a lot of information that pertains only to that subject but that information is built on learning more about living organisms and can then be applied to how cells work in the body and encouraging healthy living.  This specific set of information is important for the knowledge it imparts.

Process refers to the route taken to understand the concept.  Doing algebraic equations requires a specific process that has to be followed precisely in order to arrive at the right answer.  But learning to follow this process can be transferred to anything that follows a step-by-step procedure.  Cooking, for example can fall into this.  If students can learn and memorize recipes, they can also learn and memorize the steps to performing calculations.

These two categories can and often do overlap and there are going to be important things that may not fall easily into such rough categories.  But I think it's a good place to start.  Because if we can't answer for ourselves "Why" we are teaching something, there is no way we are going to convince our students it's worth learning (and I ask you to extend this to the homework you assign).

Do you have any tips and tricks to answer the incessant... I mean chronic... I mean perpetual student question of "why"?  Share it with us!

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Ahh, Romance

Hollow City: The second novel of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

I was too dazed to follow her right away, because there was something new happening, a wheel inside my heart I’d never noticed before, and it was spinning so fast it made me dizzy.  And the farther away she got the faster it spun, like there was an invisible cord unreeling from it that stretched between us, and if she went too far it would snap—and kill me.
            I wondered if this strange, sweet pain was love.

Sherlock, Season 3 Episode 3 “His Last Vow”

            The problems of your past are your business.  The problems of your future… are my privilege.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

"As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once."

Oscar Wilde

"Never love someone who treats you like you're ordinary."

"You don't love someone for their looks, or their clothes or for their fancy car, but because they sing a song only you can hear."*

Is it sad that while I'm a confirmed hopeless romantic, I also think romance doesn't apply to me? Maybe that's why I read fiction.

*Misquoted often as from Oscar Wilde but most likely not; still a sweet sentiment.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Not another research paper! Part 7

1. Topic/Research Question
2. Pre-search
3. Research
4. Outline
5. Research
6. Fill-in-the-blanks
7. Edit

Well.  This is it!  You've made it this far and you're almost ready to put the icing on the cake!

What is so important about editing?

Well, this is the window dressing that shows your reader that
1. you care enough about what you've written to make sure there are no obvious mistakes
2. your reader doesn't get confused because of misspellings or bad grammar
3. it is very hard to take someone seriously if they can't even take the time to fix a typo.

Your editing is going to put the finishing touches on your masterpiece.

So, before I go into a string of humorous posters detailing why you need to be grammar and spelling conscious, let me remind you that appearances can be deceiving but it's unfortunately important to make a first impression.  No matter how good a doctor is, if the office is dirty and bug-ridden, you're not very likely to go in, are you?

So, how's this for convincing you of the importance of editing?

Read your paper aloud, you might catch some mistakes.  Give it to a friend to read.

 All you have left is the cover page and "Works Cited" page.  Those are just window dressing and citations will be the subject of another post.  But...

Once you are done editing, the body of your paper is done! 

Give yourself a pat on the back and reward yourself with your favorite thing to do.  Eat ice cream, nap, read a book, whatever.  Kick back and know that you did your best.

Congratulations, you have finished your research paper!

Monday, 18 May 2015

Not another research paper! Part 6

1. Topic/Research Question
2. Pre-search
3. Research
4. Outline
5. Research
6. Fill-in-the-blanks
7. Edit

This is it!  You've made it so far and now you're almost done.  But before you start doing the happy dance...

You have to add some substance to your bare-bones skeleton.  Remember your outline?

Now it's time to flesh it out... 

Take your important points and match up the resources that support them.  Then start explaining how they support your point and how they relate to each other.  You want to tie it all together and tell the reader just how each of these things answers the question you are posing.

DON'T get caught up in trying to write your thesis statement first, do the body of the paper first and THEN go back and write your thesis and conclusion.

Think of it this way:
Your paper is a journey to answer your question.  You write out the route to make sure you know you'll get where you're going, then write the abbreviated instructions at the beginning and then talk about the trip after you're done (for your conclusion).

How about this?
Your thesis is the short answer to your question and the body of the paper is the long answer.

Or this?
The thesis is your elevator pitch and the body of the paper is your presentation.

Let your creativity flow and don't be afraid to enjoy the opportunity to employ your vocabulary.  This is also where you get to use all those transition words and phrases your elementary and junior high school English teacher drilled into you head.  Have fun explaining to your reader how all the dots connect!

Once you have finished with the body, and gone back to write the thesis and conclusion, go ahead and sit back and relax and let your paper sit for 1-3 days (or even longer if you were REALLY on the ball).  Don't even go back and re-read portions until you've let it sit for a little while.  You'll have a much fresher eye and will be able to catch more flaws, mistakes, typos and stuff after you've rested a bit.

Once you've let it set, you are ready to move on to the last, final, ultimate step: 

Step 7 Editing!

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Not another research paper! Part 5

1. Topic/Research Question
2. Pre-search
3. Research
4. Outline
5. Research
6. Fill-in-the-blanks
7. Edit

NO! No huffing with impatience!  This is not a repeat of Step 3.  This is a refinement.  You don't get gold from rock without some effort.  You don't get seedless jelly without straining the fruit.

So, you've got some resources, you wrote your outline, now go back and make sure that the sources you have say what will support your point.  If some are weak or questionable, go search again for more resources.

Personal guideline: Your teacher will probably tell you how many resources he/she wants you to use.  My advice is, look for twice as many and then you can weed through and use the best!

So, since we already talked about how to evaluate your sources, let me expand on places to look for reliable information.  If you are looking in places that are reliable to start with, you make that evaluation process a bit easier.

First off, this is where I tell you why you can only use Wikipedia* for pre-search and not as one of your authoritative sources.

Where to start...

  • Anybody can edit it at anytime.  Which means that an expert can write it and a scoundrel can change it and you wouldn't be able to tell.
  • It has a lot of trivial information (example:  how important is the detailed definition of "bromance"?)
  • Even the less controversial entries have problems.  Here's a tip even I didn't know until recently.  When you go to any entry, there are two tabs at the top.  One is the article and one is labeled "talk".  This is an enlightening series of arguments for and against points in the actual entry.  It will really  make you doubt the truthfulness of anything you just read. 


I would recommend these as your go-to place to find resources.
This is as if someone took all of the printed journals on a subject and scanned it in for you to search and use.  Nowadays there are lot of databases that offer full-text so make sure that is selected when you are performing your search.  There are generalized databases like Academic OneFile and there are specialized databases like ATLASerials (American Theological Library Association).  Take a look but revert to the general ones if you start to feel overwhelmed.  Information is incredibly easy to come by in the digital age.

And (shameless plug) ask your friendly librarian for help searching the database.  They'll be thrilled to show you!  Check your school, university or public library!


Here is a cheat-sheet when taking a look at websites.


And here are some ways to decide if something is a reliable journal or a popular magazine.

*Here are four interesting articles about Wikipedia:
Huffington Post
The New Yorker
The Awl
MIT Technology Review

You are almost done!  Next is when you play your own game and fill in the blanks between your resource points in Step 6!

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Not another research paper! Part 4

1. Topic/Research Question
2. Pre-search
3. Research
4. Outline
5. Research
6. Fill-in-the-blanks
7. Edit

This is it!  This is when you make your own template for the fill-in-the-blank!  You are going to take your question and the pieces of information you found and make a skeleton of the answer to your question.  Often what people (teachers) call this is your outline.  This is the backbone of what the answer is going to be.

Essentially you are making a skeleton and will "flesh" it out later.

As you lay down the points, there a lot of ways to organize them.  It will depend on the question you ask, your subject and how you want to go about answering it.  But, if you have a path in mind, it will come clear to the reader.


  • Chronological--you can put things in the order that they happened, like a timeline, and draw links between the events.
  • Relationship--you can put the things that are related together and explain the connection.
  • Causation--you can show the cause and effect or something (or show the effect and then discuss the cause).
There are a lot of variations just within these three ways of organization; choose one that complements your sources.

DO NOT worry about a thesis, yet.  You just want to make sure you get the main points down so you know what steps you are taking to get from the question to the answer.  (If you do have thoughts along that direction, though, write them down so you have them to refer to and free up your brain waves to think about something else).

Once you get the major points down, add the little steps that get you from one to the other.  Don't worry about complete sentences at this point; just get your thoughts down on paper.  Also, don't be afraid to look at it and say, "That's not going where I want." and scrap it!  Try again.  Since you're not putting a lot of time into writing paragraphs, you can spend time making sure your organizational method works.

Now that you have your skeleton in place (major points) and your supporting details (tendons and ligaments), it's time to research!

WAIT! I can hear you say.  We already did that in Step 3!

I know, but that was to find information and figure out what steps to take to answer your research question.  This step of research is to refine and strengthen your argument. You're not reinventing the wheel, just aligning it a bit better (I like to see how many different metaphors I can make for one subject. By the way, if you count them, let me know how many I achieved). But that's a subject for another post... 

Step 5 Research!

Monday, 11 May 2015

Not another research paper! Part 3

1. Topic/Research Question
2. Pre-search
3. Research
4. Outline
5. Research
6. Fill-in-the-blanks
7. Edit

Ah ha ha!  This is where the game begins!  Do a scavenger hunt, be a pirate, search for Easter eggs... whatever prize metaphor you want to use; this is it.

What are the prizes you are looking for?  Why resources for your paper!  The facts and information that are going to explain, defend, and oppose your point (always address at least one point of opposition so you deflate the alternative argument).

I'm sure you remember from grade school and high school that there are:

  •  books, magazines and internet articles.  

But there are also:

  •  journals, personal interviews, audio/video materials, databases (this lies in conjunction with journals, especially), scientific studies, and theses and dissertations.  

All of these are fair game when searching for information to answer your research question.


(and it's a big BUTT)

Not all available resources are created equal.  This is where your intelligence and training come into play.

The main points to look for in all resources (there are nuances between the types but we can get into that later) are:

Author: Who are they?  Have the written other stuff? What are their qualifications for writing this?
     Why is this important?  Do you want parenting advice from someone who never had kids? Would you like scientific data from someone who has never worked in a lab?  Would an atheist give good information about faith-filled living?

Purpose: Why was this written?  Was it to persuade, inform, convince, support something? Was the author biased in some way?
     Why is this important?  If the author is trying to sell you something, they probably won't include information that makes their product look bad.  In the same way, a Christian church website is not going to give you positive information about pagan practices.

Scope: Is this a broad overview of a large topic?  Or does it focus on one or two things?
     Why is this important?  Sometimes a larger view may miss important details.  Conversely, a small focused view might miss out on big-picture connections.

Publisher: Are they well-known? Do they have a specialty?
     Why is this important?  A publisher has someone read, edit and proofread the book before it goes to press to verify quality and accuracy.  A self-publishing company often lets the author do it (whether or not they're good at it) themselves. If the company is known for science tomes, will it have good representations of art?

Date: When was this published?  Is it a first edition or a reprint?  Is the information time-sensitive?
     Why is this important?  It's hard to believe "breaking" news when it's 5 years old.  It's hard to cite something as current when it lists the president as the one who was in office 3 terms ago.

Once you have answered these questions, you have to decide if the answers add up to something you can trust.  Just because a medical book was published 30 years ago doesn't mean you can't use it if you are talking about how treatments for a condition have advanced over the years.

You have to evaluate your potential sources using the purpose of your own paper. 

You are the one to decide, use and defend the resources you are using.

When you are starting out, I recommend actually writing all this information down for each source you are considering using, along with all the pertinent publishing data.  Eventually you will do this fairly quickly and internally and things will go faster.  Until then, you want to make sure you are hitting every point.

So there you are Step 3!  You are well on your way to setting up the fill-in-the-blank template.  Have fun on your treasure hunt and don't be tricked by fool's gold!

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Not another research paper! Part 2

1. Topic/Research Question
2. Pre-search
3. Research
4. Outline
5. Research
6. Fill-in-the-blanks
7. Edit

I can hear you saying now, "OK, pre-search is not even a word."  You caught me.  It's not really a word but it does describe a helpful concept.

Ever have a topic given that you know nothing about?  This is what pre-search helps with.

*unfounded statistic--85% of understanding a new subject is learning the vocabulary*

When you are doing your research, you need to know proper search terms to get the information that will help you answer your research question.  Knowing the vocabulary that is used in conjunction with the topic and how it might relate to other things is vital.  Especially if some of the terms have other meanings in different disciplines.

For example "colon" in English and grammar is vastly different from "colon" in internal medicine!

REMEMBER: the pre-search you do is just a starting point and won't really be used as the research sources you cite in your paper.

With the knowledge that you won't be using these as your authoritative sources (we'll learn more about that in the "research" step) two good and easy ways to find out more about your subject is to:

1. Google it (essentially just run an internet search)
2. Go to Wikipedia*

Sounds simple, right?  Well, it is.  The challenging part comes in when you are evaluating whether or not the results you come up with are accurate and reliable enough to go on.  For that, I recommend looking at at least 5 different results and find what matches up.  If 5 completely different websites are discussing the same topic using similar vocabulary, then it's a safe bet you'll find good information from reputable sources using those as search terms.

Once you get started on your pre-search and are finding more terms and related subjects, write them all down.  You are writing a paper, right? So practice writing everything down (or type/cut and paste into a document, whatever works for you) to leave a trail of breadcrumbs in case you need to retrace your steps.  You never know when the side-idea you have while reading will turn into a major discussion point down the road.

That's it for Step 2 in writing your research paper!

*I am compelled to emphasize that you will NOT be using Wikipedia as your authoritative source in your works cited page but we'll get more into that with the next step.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Not another research paper! Part 1B

1. Topic/Research Question
2. Pre-search
3. Research
4. Outline
5. Research
6. Fill-in-the-blanks
7. Edit

Bear with me, you're almost done with the first step.

What your paper is NOT:

A game of Jeopardy. When someone is done reading your paper, they should not be playing a guessing game of  "I'll take smoking for $100, Alex.  What are health effects?"

What your paper IS:

The answer to a question.  What is the question?  That's what you get to ask!  This is another place where you have the power to choose your focus and where you start to make your fill-in-the-blank game.  If your paper is the answer to a question, then you have a purpose and a mission to answer it completely.

The trick is, there are good research questions and bad ones.  I think it's good to get acquainted with the bad ones first so you can avoid them in the future.

Let's think of your research question like a photograph.  You know what a bad photograph is:

What would a research question be for each of these?

Why is smoking bad for you?
--What do you mean?  Is this philosophical, social or health oriented?  It's also pretty broad.

Double Exposure
What are the cancer and emphysema effects of smoking?
-- You've only got time for one in this paper.  Is it cancer or is it emphysema?  You won't be able to do them justice if you try to answer both.

What would the world be like if nobody smoked?
--There's no way you could find anything to back it up because it doesn't exist.  This sounds good only if you want to write a futuristic novel otherwise, scrap it.

What are the effects of smoking in different countries?
--Whoa! No matter how early you started, there's no way you're going to have time to dive into the research for more than one country.  Even if you found information, it wouldn't all be the same type and wouldn't go together easily.  Pull back and think smaller.

So, now that you know what NOT to do, let's think about some that could work.

Going back to our lightning strike of laws/government:

  • What are considered the most effective anti-smoking laws within cities?
  • How effective are local government-sponsored anti-smoking campaigns?

Or thinking about health:

  • What are the identifiable symptoms of cancer caused by smoking?
  • Is there a critical time to quit smoking before emphysema is diagnosed?

You want to find something that is pointed, has some research done on it before, and focused enough you don't have to stretch far to tie the ends together.

Once you have settled on your working research question remember:

It's not set in stone, you can change it if you need to!

If you start looking things up and can't find enough information on your question, tailor it.  This is not a one-shot deal.

Now you can breathe a sigh of relief because the hardest part of your research paper is done!  And since you've started early enough, take a break before you start on Step 2: Pre-search