136: Creative Real-World Research Projects in ELA

As a kid, I was torn between wanting to be a marine biologist and wanting to be a helicopter pilot. But by high school, those aspirations had changed a bit. I knew I loved English class, and I thought that love might translate well into a career in law, teaching, or ministry. Then one day, as my AP literature class finished up our unit on Madame Bovary, my teacher introduced a new project. We would re-enact the obscenity trial of Gustave Flaubert, presenting our own cases as to why Madame Bovary did or did not offend the public morals. We would meet in prosecution and defense teams, prepare questions for our witnesses, make our opening and closing statements. Our teacher brought in a shelf full of resource books and told us we could use what we needed. 

I was all in. I immediately volunteered as the defense attorney. As our team met on that first day, I went searching for the original transcript of the trial on the resource shelf. No dice. 

Later that night, I was to be found in a dusty old corner of the University of Minnesota library, using my dad’s professor i.d. card to borrow the original transcript of Flaubert’s trial. I read through it eagerly and brought it in to share with my team. 

That was only the beginning. My eventual closing statement was seven single-spaced pages. 

So, you might be wondering, what does this story have to do with today’s episode? 

Today we’re talking about a concept first introduced by Dave Perkins, a Harvard researcher, called “Playing the whole game at the junior level.” The Flaubert trial, and almost every other memorable experience from my own education, are examples of this concept, and today we’re diving in to find out what it means and why it matters. 

You can listen in below, or on the podcast player of your choice.

I first learned about “playing the whole game at the junior level” when I read Sarah Fine and Jal Mehta’s book, In Search of Deeper Learning. Fine and Mehta traveled the country for several years observing teaching and learning in a huge variety of programs, trying to put the puzzle pieces together on why deeper learning happens in some classes, programs, and schools, and not others. One of their big takeaways was that where educators could put Perkins’ concept into action, deeper learning was often the result. 

Think of a young little league player, getting her first glove for her first practice. She learns to throw. She learns to bat. She learns to scoop up the ball from the grass. All this is moderately interesting. But then, she has her first game! Everyone is wearing their brightly colored uniforms, and the field smells of freshly mowed grass. The parents are watching. There’s ice cream afterwards. Whoa. Baseball just got cool. 

Now think about our system of education. If we pull the lessons of the excited little baseball player into the classroom, what can we learn? According to Perkins’ concept and Fine and Mehta’s research, deeper learning happens when we don’t just practice skills on repeat at school. There need to be games. Chances to use the learning in real world ways that feel relevant to students. They don’t have to be the exact ways that they’ll use their skills as adults, that’s where the “junior level” part of the “whole game at the junior level” comes in. But they do need to push beyond the daily practice and routine assessments of the classroom.

While I could share many ways to put this into practice in class, from poetry slams to play performances, podcasting to writing contests, genius hour to blogging, today I want to share ways to apply it when it comes to research. And hopefully by narrowing in on this one aspect of ELA, you’ll get a clear view of exactly how “playing the whole game at the junior level” can impact the way you teach, the way you talk about their learning with your students, and the way you share what you’re up to with parents and administrators. 

Ready? Let’s do it.

OK, so imagine you are planning a research unit for your students. You want to teach them MLA citation and how to reference outside works as they write about a research topic. These are essential skills of ELA. 

Pictured: The MLA Format Fun Pack on TPT

You know you want to do some mini-lessons on MLA, summarizing ideas, and incorporating citations. You want them to practice these skills several times. You’re thinking of having them do a five page research paper on the topic of their choice, scaffolding the paper into four steps with multiple drafts. This is important work for sure, and highly relevant to improving their writing and helping them prepare for college. 

But what if we apply Perkins’ concept of “the whole game at the junior level”? Does a research paper with an audience of one fit the bill?

Not exactly. So how can we get the same basic skills practiced while incorporating the game? Making the learning feel more relevant? 

Let’s re-mix this unit, so you can cover the same skills while pushing for that deeper learning.

Frame It: Carousel Post

One way research is showing up in the real world of our students these days is in social media carousel posts. Open your Instagram feed and you are likely going to see a swipeable series of images in which someone teaches you about something in five to ten clear square images. (Check out this example carousel from @so.informed about Banned Books Week). To teach this way, you have to do careful research and boil it down to its most essential concepts, pairing your words with images and/or fonts and colors that help to tell the story clearly and quickly. Your caption and citations must be clear and spot on to hold the attention of your social media audience.

Hmmmm. What if this was the final product of a research unit? If you began by looking at social media carousels and talking about what makes them effective, and framed your whole unit around their creation, students would be aware of the whole game from the beginning. They could research a topic they’re passionate about, and hope to teach others about. As you shared lessons on MLA, summarizing ideas with citations, and integrating varied sources, they could immediately apply them to the creation of their carousels. 

Pictured: The Social Media Carousel Project

To culminate the project, you could have them print their images into flip books to put in the school library, turn them into posters to put up in the hallways or bathrooms, or pitch their carousels to the class and vote on the most effective. You could talk about how they might use carousel posts in their future work – summer jobs or careers. A pediatrician might use them in her social media to explain something to parents. A small business owner might use them to showcase a product line. A barrista might use them to share why the type of coffee beans their coffee shop uses matters, and bring in more customers that way. A chef might use them to teach cooking concepts and help customers try out a recipe at home, garnering good PR and connection. 

Frame It: Social Media Movement

OK, let’s try another frame. It’s hard to miss all the social media movements happening in the world these days. There are the frustrating ones (the most recent TikTok Challenge comes to mind) and the ones creating powerful positive change. What if you framed a research movement around creating the building blocks of a social media movement? Students could choose an issue they care about, anything from global warming to mental health, elective options in schools to better funding for local parks. They could build a foundation of research on their subject, so they are prepared to teach about it to others and galvanize action around it. Once again, as you introduce the concepts of MLA, citation, summary, and argument based on research, there are obvious “whole game” connections. 

Pictured: The Start a Social Media Movement Project

Students can choose hashtags, create post images and write captions, design merchandise, plan event options, write (mock) letters to influencers suggesting collaborations, and more, all based carefully on their research. Once they have designed assets for a potentially very real social media campaign, they can present what they’ve created to your class community or at a larger community event. Perhaps your class will even want to choose a social media campaign to launch together, based on the work of one or two students. Though of course there are permissions and privacy to consider if you take it that far, just getting to the point where they could means you’re playing the whole game at the junior level

I could go on. You could frame your research unit around writing letters to local politicians or the school board to push for changes your students want to see. You could frame it around designing infographics to submit to media outlets. You could frame it around entering one of the many national writing competitions, giving students a real-world audience of judges who are scholars and leaders in their field. In all of these units, the basic building blocks of research are the same. Students will need to find strong sources, take notes on those sources, and understand how to weave their research into their writing and cite it. But when they’re “playing the whole game at the junior level,” everything feels different, and deeper learning is likely to be the result. 

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I'm Betsy

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