Getting students to write reports in their own words is always a challenge. Many times those reports are, as Truman Capote once said, examples of typing, not writing.
To encourage a more personal approach to report writing, I had my sixth graders prepare a research paper without using any books. Instead, the report came from inside them, from knowledge they already had, aided by non-book clues I provided.
The subject chosen was ancient Egypt. One reason for Egypt was that abundant non-book resources were available. I had slides I took in Egypt plus our local museum had Egyptian artifact kits that teachers can rent.
When I explained to my students that they couldn’t use books, they were less than enthusiastic, but that resistance didn’t last long. First, i asked them to list things every society has (government, money, jobs, religion, transportation, education, food, energy, technology etc.) Once we had this list, I had them place anything they knew about Egypt under the proper heading. It didn’t matter how trivial. Next I discussed techniques of observation and recording. Using a slide of Egypt as an example, we went over what types of information you might get from it.
Then I showed them slides of pyramids, tombs, tomb paintings, wall carvings, statues, and the land itself. We kept the slides up long enough for them to glean as much information as possible. Again, nothing was too trivial to record. While it was possible they might be wrong, I told them it was mostly important that they write down an honest observation. They could write down that a pyramid is simply a pyramid, but they could also speculate on the people who built it and what level of technology they had. Even opinions based on what they saw were all right. Eventually, everyone had a long list of impressions.
Next, I set up stations around the room using objects from the museum kits. These included a mummy’s cloth, scarabs, figurings, tools, hieroglyphics, and broken pieces of a statue. The kits also had photos of King Tut’s treasures and plenty of pictures of tomb paintings where they could see Egyptians winnowing wheat, driving cattle, making bread, and farming the land. None of the written material in the kits was used.
As the students walked around the room taking notes, they commented on what they saw. Naturally, this meant they were getting information from one another. We talked about whether that was okay, and decided it was – after all, the information was still flowing from the students.
Many students finished quickly, so I sent them around again to find one more impression from each station. They did this, and sometimes found more. Some students had trouble recording facts, impressions, and conclusions, but in time they realized they could simply write comments such as “The Egyptians made lifelike paintings” or “The Egyptians drew animals better than people”.
Now it was time to write the reports. Most of the students had extensive lists of observed information and conclusions, but felt lost because their notes were a hodgepodge. So we went back to our main headings and had them place each observation under the proper one. If they weren’t sure, I helped them here. These, of course, would be their major themes. And I said it would be all right if the report dealt with only one or a few themes. Just as long as their was enough material for a report.
Students had two days to complete the reports. I asked them to include an interesting introductory paragraph (something we went over) and make the report something they would like to read. They also had to pass in their notes with the report. A random check of a paragraph and the information in their notes showed if they had gone back to a book.
In most of the reports the voice of the student managed to rise above the material. A few students did go out and gather information from books, but it was evident they did. For the most part, however, the reports breathed a certain lightness and life.
Now that my students had written their reports, I felt it was important they check out their facts as much as possible. After I looked over the papers and made comments, we made a trip to the library.
In preparation for this, I asked each student to list each topic they covered in the report along with another word that meant the same thing. If a topic was “clothes” they would also write “fashion” and any other words they could think of. In this way, they would have sufficient references for using the indexes in the books. I also told them that if they found information that conflicted with what they had written, they should note it, but could keep their original observation as long as they gave a rationale for doing so.
Once the project was completed, we discussed the advantages and disadvantages of using only non-book sources. Most students realized that there are limitations to this approach. But they also acknowledged that they went to the books with greater interest and focus.
I think the project was a success. Students asked many more questions and their writing and ability to observe improved. It didn’t completely stop plagiarism, but I do feel students saw that it brought out more of their own creativity in writing.