Guest Blogger: Jeremy Hyler, Michigan Middle School English Teacher
“At its core, multigenre means letting go—letting writers decide”
- Penny Kittle, Write Beside Them
Yes, it is true, I dislike the term “research paper". Since I was an undergrad, it brings nothing but anxiety to me, personally. For my middle school students, it can be downright terrifying, causing negative thoughts about the process of writing a research paper. However, in my experience, if we reimagine the terminology and use “research project,” it is less likely to raise levels of discomfort in my middle school students. On the other hand, as educators, we can’t just change the wording of something we do in our classrooms and expect a magic fix. In this blog, I describe the multigenre research project, and I provide tips for engaging in these projects through distance learning.
What is a Multigenre Research Project?
For those unfamiliar with the multigenre research project, here’s a brief description from Tom Romano’s, book titled Blending Genre, Altering Style: Writing Multigenre Papers.
After reading Romano’s book, I knew my students would no longer be creating research projects the same way. Add the current pandemic into the mix, the multigenre research project can afford students the opportunity to show what they have learned about interest-driven topics through multiple lenses, technologies, and genres.
What's the timeline? How do I begin?
Anyone who has tackled multigenre projects knows it can take time (4-6 weeks, depending on the number of students you have or how new you are to implementing this practice). I always start showing students past projects as mentor texts. For those engaging in remote teaching, this can be you sharing any artifact a student may have completed using digital tools. For asynchronous instruction, you might consider creating a screencast explaining the effective elements of the project or building a hyperdoc with links to multiple mentor texts that show all the ways that success can be achieved through the multigenre research project.
How do I support students in choosing their topics?
After showing students the multiple possibilities they could choose from for displaying their knowledge, I want them to focus on choosing their topic. Oftentimes, students have difficulty in choosing something that may be fascinating to them, that they will be interested in for a 4-6 week unit. I always begin with sharing a Google Doc with each period of students. I ask my students to generate a list of (school appropriate) topics by adding their topics, one in each cell of the table. Below is an example table from this past spring that was easily used while teaching remotely. As you can see, my students were interested in a variety of topics from video games to history to contemporary issues to sci-fi.
Starting with a table where the whole class can collaborate is a great way to get students thinking about topics and building off each other’s ideas in meaningful ways. It engages them in conversations about different topics. For those students who say they have no idea what to do, this gives them multiple options to choose from.
After we are done working through the table, I have my students write down their top three choices in their writer’s notebook. I also ask them to take the rest of the day and evening to think and reflect on their choices. I tell them if they think of a new, ore interesting topic, they must eliminate another choice, so they only have three topics to choose from. Below is an example where a student thought of a different topic (Yosemite National Park), and crossed out their least popular choice (the Badlands).
The next class period, I ask the students to narrow their lists down to their top two choices. For most of my students, it is fairly easy to eliminate one of the choices they had in their notebooks. When students have their two choices, I ask them to think about each of the topics and imagine which topic they could potentially get the most information while researching. (This might take doing a preliminary search for information to back up students’ thinking.)
Supporting Students in Choosing Genres
Once students have narrowed their list down to two topics, I ask them to start thinking about the different genres they could pick. Students reference the mentor texts we reviewed at the beginning of the unit and write down any potential genres that pique their interest in their writer’s notebooks. They could create a list, table, or another way to help them organize their thoughts. Next, I move into something similar to what we did the day before with the topics to help students select their genres. But first, my students are asked to consider the three broader genres (i.e., Narrative, Informational, and Argument) that are a priority in the Common Core State Standards. Of course, we also focus on contemporary multimedia literacies and many students want to include mulitmedia in their projects.
The table below gives only a few examples of what students can choose to demonstrate their learning. The links (in blue) offer basic guidelines or examples of each genre.
Broader Genres and Examples from Each Genre
The project I do in my classroom requires my students to choose at least one type of writing under each broader genre, four types of writing in total.
I want my students to do well and I want them to enjoy what they are doing. Ultimately, I want to maximize my students’ choices in what they are learning (and they do not have to do that through a traditional research paper).
What about my students with limited access to technology?
Breaking away from the traditional research paper can be a great instructional practice, especially if it offers students opportunities to delve deeply into a topic they care about while learning the conventions of different genres of writing. Additionally, the multigenre research paper can be adapted for remote teaching and learning, like many of us are experiencing during 2020.
Here, I offer one flexible (albeit imperfect) option to accommodate students with limited access to digital devices and/or reliable internet access.
One possibility for our students is to have them complete the multigenre research project with a partner who shares the same interest. More specifically, have students partner with a student who has regular device/internet access. Partner-projects can help students in several ways by:
One other strategy to support all students is to use traditional methods for completing assignments. For instance, students can use poster board, construction paper, lined paper, care stock, or other paper products they might have access to. Here, you can see examples from chapter 8 of Create, Compose, Connect, where students used low-tech options for creating their multigenre research projects. These examples show that the project is not contingent on much technology, yet they offer students important ways of demonstrating what they had learned about their interest-driven research topic.
Because most of my students have cell phones (97% of students in my district who were surveyed) despite limited at-home access to laptops and the internet, they took pictures of their work and then emailed me the pictures from their phone.
Ultimately, we as educators, just need to be creative in how we go about giving all of our students opportunities to learn and showcase that learning.
The multigenre research project helps empower students by giving them choice on the topic they are researching and how they want to display their learning. By offering them these choices, I found that my students take more ownership in their learning and are genuinely excited.
Though the multigenre research project is a significant investment in class time, it is worth it if more students are engaged and inquiring more about their interest-driven topics.
This type of project is easily adaptable for remote learning and can give more choice to students when it comes to different digital/analog tools. Overwhelmingly, in my opinion, a multigenre project relieves the stress of students having to complete a traditional research paper and gives them an opportunity to write in the genres they love.
Jeremy Hyler is a middle school English teacher in Michigan. He is a teacher consultant for the Chippewa River Writing Project, a Community Ambassador for NCTE and a Media Literacy Innovator for KQED.
Learn more about Hyler’s work below:
Connect with Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremybballer
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