Every time I lead my high school students through the research paper composition process, I remember how my teachers taught us to write it back in the day—solitary hours on a typewriter, flipping through card catalogs in a quiet library, constructing elaborate formal outlines, and lots of silent reading. While some of that might be considered quaint now, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that adult literacy rates steadily increased through the latter half of the 20th century, at least partially as a result of the kind of writing pedagogy described above.

In my own classroom today, online collaborative applications have made the act of writing research more social. However, relying solely on collaborative web tools for student writers isn’t always for the best. In his article “Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age,” Wikipedia cofounder Larry Sanger writes that the solitary act of reading and writing is vital to individual growth and that the use of collaborative writing tools doesn’t necessarily lead to more proficient readers and writers.

Over the last few years, my own writing pedagogy has found a middle ground between the monk-like writing habits I was taught as a student and the social orientation that many adolescents prefer today. Using the best of both approaches, students can produce compelling online conversations about their research as well as a high quality traditional research paper.

For example, the tools used by the students in my latest research writing unit include Google Docs with some add-ons, blogging on Youth Voices, and annotating via Hypothes.is.

My students begin each week by finding relevant sources and annotating them. In essence, this is how I used to conduct writing research—the difference being that now students add thoughts to their online reading with the social annotation tool Hypothes.is, which I’ve written about before. Since my students use a common tag, the resulting annotations function as another way for them to have conversations about their reading and writing. Conversations that I believe push their thinking and improve their writing (as a side note, I require that they annotate at least one article a week; at the time of this writing my class has made nearly twice as many annotations as required).

As students read and annotate each week, they summarize and analyze their findings in a Google Doc using the Easy Bib add-on to manage the sources for their final paper. At the end of each week, they also publish their findings in a larger community of peers on Youth Voices, a site I codeveloped with my colleague Paul Allison. I detailed the kinds of comments that motivate students on Youth Voices and other online discussions in the Journal of Educational Computing Research. I’ve found that students appreciate comments from peers that also include links to resources.

At the end of this unit, students produce a traditional research paper with correct MLA formatting. I believe that the public conversations that happen around student research as it unfolds—whether through social annotations or in the comments they receive on their Youth Voices posts—make their individual writing stronger.

By Chris Sloan
Originally Published at International Literacy Association

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