Like most authors, I remember negative reviews. When the first two books of my Imagine Living Here Series were published back in the early nineties, the reviews were mostly quite positive. But one critic said that the books were “Not good for reports.” It got me thinking; what did that mean? This Place is Cold is about Alaska and This Place is Dry is about the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. The adjective that describes each place allowed me to write the books from a point of view: Why is it cold or dry? How does the climate affect the flora and fauna? How does it affect the lifestyle of people? How does it impact the culture –the art, clothing, festivals, etc? In other words, the information about these places was organized around the thesis that the climate had an overriding impact on every aspect of life in these parts of the world. Now let’s imagine the students who have an assignment to do a research papers about Alaska. They go to online and look up the place and get the facts. They list these facts and (ta da!) they’ve produced their reports. It’s possible that many students cut and paste the facts into a report without passing any of it through their own brains. My guess is that my books weren’t deemed worthy for reports because perhaps the unique organization and my “voice” made it difficult to plagiarize as opposed to the “vanilla” writing in reference works.
The Common Core Standards for writing are more concerned with the process of researching and writing than the product. They want students from kindergarten on to: “research to build and present knowledge.” They want students to study how nonfiction authors write and they expect that by third grade, students will “Participate in shared research and writing projects (e.g., read a number of books on a single topic to produce a report; record science observations).” In other words, students will have to do close reading of a number of sources to prepare to write something in their own words. So the bar for such reports is far higher now than back when my books first came out.
As every scientist, historian, and doctoral candidate knows, you have to formulate a question that your research can answer. But in order to ask a good question, you have to KNOW something. This means that reading a lot is prelude to writing. Reading a lot is also known as research. So there are two stages to research:
1: Reading to educate yourself so you can formulate a thesis.
2. Researching to fill in the blanks so you can articulate your thesis persuasively. This research can include more reading, experiments, interviews, other media, etc.
One of the things we’ve noticed in the Authors on Call pilot program with the Bogert School this year is that the teachers are in a hurry to have the kids write reports. They want to make report assignments almost as soon as they’ve introduced a topic. My interaction with the students was to help them find subjects for reports. It was immediately clear to me that the kids didn’t know enough to ask a meaningful question. They’ve been reading my book What’s The BIG Idea? in their classroom work. This book is about the questions scientists ask that lead to BIG ideas about motion, energy, matter and life. In the introduction, where I define a BIG idea as one for which there is no quick or easy answer, I tell the story of Isador Isaac Rabi (1898-1988) who discovered magnetic resonance—the phenomenon behind MRIs . (He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1944.) He said that he owed his success in science to his mother. Everyday, when he came home from school, she would ask him, “So, what good question did you ask today?”
The Common Core Standards are asking for nothing less than a culture change in education. Where NCLB was focused on answers so kids could do well on high-stakes tests, now we will be focusing on process—how to get students to think critically and creatively, which means asking questions and learning how to do research to get answers. Only then will students be able to speak and write in their own words.
They are going to need our help.