Research Paper Class

Eight homeschooled high schoolers, from age 14 to 17.  Two writing-savvy moms, ages of no one’s concern. Six weeks.  One research paper. Here’s how we did it.


Ground Rules:
  • Bring index cards, pen or pencil, resources, and laptop (if desired) to every class
  • Turn in drafts electronically (MS Word or PDF only) two days before class (midnight Friday for us) so your instructors can have an enjoyable weekend reviewing them before Monday.
  • Paper must be 2,500 to 3,500 words long, plus a bibliography with at least 10 sources, one of which must be a book. (Wikipedia is NOT a source.)
  • Style guide is MLA
  • Formatting as follows:  Times New Roman, 12 point.  Double spaced with one inch margins.  Cover page, also  Times New Roman, 12 point with paper title, name, date.

We met at our local public library for two hours each week.  For the first half of class, we tag-team lectured. For the second half, we circulated around the library, helping them narrow topics, vet resources, organized outlines, develop a thesis, and eventually write and edit their papers.  Between classes, we fielded questions from students and parents, read and re-read papers, using moderate applications of red ink where needed, and generally cheered them along.

Week 1

Due:  An idea to start researching

Discussion:  Research and writing basics. Review of format requirements. How to narrow a topic (but not narrow it too much).  Finding and selecting source materials.  Avoiding plagiarism, the intentional and unintentional types.  How to format source cards and note cards.  (Fayette Co. Survival Guide listed above was excellent for these points.)

Work time:  Location of source materials within the library and start on source cards and notes.  Approval of topics.

Notes:  This was a challenging week of work for the kids.  Parental reports included tears, angst, topic changes, and plenty of moaning.  Overall, they handled the assignment well, and by our second meeting, everyone had a topic they liked and a fair number of resources.  Most had a good-sized pile of notecards as well.

Week 2

Due:  10 sources, each on its own index card and with a unique number in the upper right hand corner to be use on the accompanying note cards.  Plenty of notes were also due.

Discussion:  Thesis statements received much attention.  We discussed what a thesis is NOT (“This paper is about D-day.”  or “Charles Dickens had an interesting life.”).  We explored ways of sorting through the information they’d acquired, including mind mapping and charts to sort their ideas.  Finally, formal outlining was reviewed, including parallel structure.

Work time:  The kids spread out and organized their material in a variety of ways.  Some used sticky notes with ideas on them, arranging and rearranging them on the walls in clusters. Others made mind maps while some went straight to outline.  We circulated throughout the room, assisting in organization and planning along with doing some serious cheerleading.

Notes: This is a lot of hard work in a short period of time for the students.  They arrived this week with highly variable amounts of notecards, and for some, this time was used collecting more information.  They all left with at least preliminary ideas for organization, and some left with a good deal more.  From week one to week two, they’d acquired a huge amount of data (most of them), and for the next week, they’ll be working to focus on just one part of that information.  It can be hard to let go of what you worked hard to acquire, and we spent some time encouraging to “see where the holes are” in their information and leave out those fascinating parts that just don’t fit.

Week 3

Due: A formal outline and a thesis statement

Discussion: (handout with information below — gist is that of Michael Clay Thompson’s Essay Voyage, which was not assigned to the students)

Moving from Outline to First Draft 

  • Basic research paper structure (Introduce thesis, support and develop thesis, conclude thesis)
  •  Introductions and Conclusions (briefly, with more next week)
  • Unity (connecting words, micro-language — key words that do not change that help tie a piece of work together)
  • Formality:  Third person only; avoid personal reaction; avoid causal language and slang; no exclamation points (let your words the exclaiming); avoid clichés; write in complete sentences; minimize/avoid contractions
  • Transitions (from paragraph to paragraph, from topic to topic)

Quotations (with silly examples)

Short quotations:  enclosed in quotes then one blank space then parenthetical documentation.  Example: Lowry declared her yarn theory to be “the single greatest contribution to quantum knitting physics”  (Lowry 28).

Long quotations: Indented 10 spaces.  No quotation marks.  Period followed by two spaces then parenthetical documentation.  Example:

Plenty of blah, blah, blah that relates to my subject and supports my thesis, leading into a necessary and well-placed quotation from a source of great repute.

And here would be your quote.  Not in quotation marks, since that would be unnecessary, what with indenting ten spaces.  Long quotations, by definition are five lines are longer.  These lines better be rather important and be well supported by your own words before and after.  Do not use long quotes to pad your word count.  (MacLeod 345)

(Quote would not be italics or have a line of space before and after it –blog formatting isn’t like Microsoft Word, but their handout was correct.)

Work time:  We reviewed each of their outlines and thesis statements, with only one student having to redo it entirely.  We’d worked with most of the students during the week, and most had a structure that could lead to a fine research paper.  We circulated through the library, seeing that they were on task and troubleshooting.

Notes:  This session felt like a relief.  For many of them, the work should be easier now.  With most having strong, specific outlines, the writing should flow out of their notes via those outlines.  We emphasized that their rough draft (due in five days to we can spend time reviewing them before the next class) may not be as long as the assigned 2500 – 3500 words, but not to worry.  The draft will let us see where they need more elaboration and explanation. Plans for session four and five will be based on what we find (and don’t find) in those drafts.

Week 4

Due: A rough draft, two days before class.

Discussion: For about twenty minutes, we discussed the problems that were most common.  For this group, we covered when to capitalize words within a sentence, how to cite a source, how to write a works cited page, transitions, formal language, and proofreading marks.

Work time:  With a four to one student ratio, we had plenty of time to review each student’s paper with them in depth. The rest of the time was spent circulating while they worked.  Interestingly, we’d decided not to have them peer edit their papers, largely due to concerns about their highly uneven writing skills as a group and somewhat due to unpleasant memories of the same in our childhood.  They, however, took this task up themselves, passing their papers around the table and offering encouragement.

Notes:  As we suspected, the papers reflected a broad range of writing skills.  My co-teacher and I spent a long Saturday evening reading their papers a few times each and generating a list of three items that needed work.  These ranged from removal of first person to putting more into their own words with proper citation to smoothing transitions.  Most students needed to add material to support their thesis, and a few needed to change their thesis to reflect what they’d actually written.  This was hard work, and required more time than I had anticipated.  But taking the process slowly and methodically kept our comments and corrections manageable and focused for the student, and that generally paid off when we received their second draft.

Week 5

Due:  A second draft, due two days before class.

Discussion:  Again, discussion with group as a whole was short.

Work time:  As with Week 5, we spent time with each student going over another (or sometimes the same) three items on which they needed to focus.  One student’s second draft was so good we called it finished, allowing her to work on another paper on which she’d like our feedback.  The remaining students spent much of their time correcting their work based on our edits.  For most students, the areas of focus were assuring the thesis was supported throughout the paper, correct citing of sources in the paper and on the Works Cited page, appropriate transitions, and strong introductions and conclusions.

Notes:  In the interest of consistency, we mentored the same students we had the week before.  Originally, we’d planned on reading all eight and switching who we worked with each week, but at this point, we saw the need for a consistent approach. All papers did show improvement, and for some of the students, only small changes were needed for the last draft.  Most needed more substantive changes in structure and content, although generally less than what was asked of them the week before.

Week 6

Due: A final draft, two days before class.

Discussion: Just congratulations.

Notes:  Most of the papers were short of the word count goal, which we knew would be the case after the first review of papers.  While we never formally lowered the word count requirement, we did adjust our expectations on an individual basis, stressing  that supporting the thesis was the primary goal.  All the students developed their writing ability during this short course, some by leaps and others by steps.  All felt they accomplished something significant, which they all did.

In addition to a lower word count, I’d also stretch the first several weeks of the paper out, allowing more time for research and note cards but including guidance during that portion.   The week between drafts was generally adequate, although I wonder if they’d have had an easier time those weeks with more time to do the research and planning.  Ah, hindsight.

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