Posted in Education, Learning, Teaching

How a Reflective Research Process Can Empower Students to Change the World

When I was about ten years old, I wanted to be a doctor so that I could saves lives.  It seemed like a really cool thing to do as I liked helping people anyway.  Then, when I found out that a lot of math was involved, I decided to switch gears.  While I still wanted to help others, the math parts of my brain never seemed to work right.  And that’s when I realized my true calling: circus clown.  Unfortunately, there was no circus in my town and so I had no way to train.  As that option was out as well, I kind of stopped trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and just started living.  Then, in my junior year of high school, I discovered that teaching was in my bones.  So, I became an educator to help students see that school and learning can be fun and engaging.  I wanted students to see that school doesn’t have to be boring.  After four years of college and many years of training and practice, I’m still trying to save the world, one student at a time.

As a teacher, I have realized over the years that helping students also means helping make the world a better place.  If I inspire a student to study and learn about cancer and he or she one day helps to find a cure, then the world will be forever changed.  If I inspire a student to learn more about astronomy and he or she then discovers how to communicate with the alien life living on other exoplanets, then the world will become a more inclusive place.  One of my main goals as a teacher, is to help students find their passion and reach for the stars.  I want them to see problems in the world and want to make a difference.  I want my students to be angry that all mention of the very real and critical issue of climate change is no longer on governmental websites.  I want my students to be shocked when they learn about how women are treated in other parts of the world.  I want my students to want to make a difference in the world.

Today in Humanities class, I had a chance to witness the birth of empowerment and shock within a student in my class.  It was amazing.  The boys were working on their I-Search projects in class today as they mined their four resources for knowledge nuggets.  They were taking notes, in their own words, on facts they learned that will help them answer their guiding question.  The students were intrigued by the facts they learned and curious for more knowledge.  One of the ELLs in my class asked for help in clarifying a fact he found on one of his online sources.  The fact explained that more than 300,000 people have lost their lives due to the conflict in Syria.  I reworded the fact for him so that he could comprehend this shocking statistic.  I then asked him how he felt learning this knowledge nugget.  His response, “I’m speechless.  I can’t say words.  Why is nothing being done about this?  What can we do to help?”  While I provided him with some information about diplomacy and how interactions between countries need to be treated carefully, I also didn’t want to give him too much information.  I want this student to be upset and angry so that he will want to make a difference in the world.  I went on to tell him how we hope that some of the students learning about more serious research topics will see the adversity and atrocities being committed and want to do something about it.  “Perhaps you will now want to grow up and be a lawyer so that you can help victims of human rights violations,” I said as he smiled and quickly returned to researching his topic.

Although the I-Search project that we are having the students complete does effectively teach the students how to complete the research process, it also helps to better engage them in their research topics compared to the routine and normal research project.  Most research projects do not contain such reflective phases and aspects.  Because the students feel connected to their topic as they choose one that truly interests them, they care more deeply about the research they gather.  The facts mean more to them than just the words they read.  They become married to the information and their guiding question.  As we constantly have the students reflect on the process as well as the information learned, they quickly grow attached to their research topic.  Each year, we have some students who become so interested in their topic, that they do more extensive research.  It’s possible that some of those students will go on to address the issues that their topic raised for them, later on in life.  This reflective research process helps to empower the students to care about what they are learning.  They become so deeply engaged with their topic that when they learn something shocking, it upsets them.  They get angry and curious.  This particular student wondered why countries haven’t stepped in to overthrow the leader of Syria.  Why isn’t anything being done to stop this bloodshed?  I could almost see the wheels turning in his brain: “What can I do to help?”  This byproduct of the I-Search research process is one of the main reasons why we utilize this research process in the sixth grade.  We want our students to not only learn about the world and how to complete a research project, but we also want them to see problems in the world and brainstorm solutions.

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Author:

I teach sixth grade at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH. I'm currently ensconced in my fourteenth year at this small, independent boys' school. I love engaging students in relevant and hands-on learning. I was nominated for the NH Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 by a parent. While I love education and guiding students, my first passion is my family. I have a wonderful son, Jeffrey, and a beautiful and intelligent wife, Kim. I couldn't be happier. Every day is the best day of my life.

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