All 10th graders at my school write a literary analysis research paper. When I went to high school, we were required to write one paper in 11th grade on any research topic (believe it or not, my teacher actually let me get away with writing about Led Zeppelin) and one paper in 12th grade on a literary topic (I wrote about symbolism in Robert Frost’s poetry). This is my sixth year teaching students how to write this paper, and I think it was my best. Students worked very hard on their papers this year. They made excellent use of the library.
I know I’m a bit old-school when it comes to this particular project, but students have told me they appreciated it later (if not at the time). First of all, I use note cards. Now I will state categorically that I never used note cards on my papers in college. They seemed to be too much trouble. But two years ago, I wrote a paper like those that would be expected of my students so they could have a model of the process. I used note cards, and I loved them! I could move ideas around so much more easily, and the paper was much easier to organize. Some might argue that this step is superfluous and silly in our modern age of computers, but I found it much more useful in terms of seeing what I was doing than putting notes in a notebook or word processor would have been.
The first thing students must do is choose a topic. I have found it is best (and will avoid much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth) just to give students a list of topics and require them to pick from the list. Otherwise they try to pick topics for which they will find no information. Students should know that a thesis is a statement they are attempting to prove. Therefore, the thesis I used in my 12th grade paper — “Robert Frost uses symbolism in his poetry” — should have received a great big “well, duh” from my teacher (he was really phoning it in right then, as he was close to retirement), but it didn’t. If I had been my teacher, I’d have taken me aside (which would surely have been awkward) and told myself that Frost had to be using symbolism for a reason, and it would be my job to prove that he used it for that reason. What was Frost using symbolism to convey? I make students write and rewrite their thesis until it’s perfect.
I teach students how to take notes on note cards. They must write some sort of title on the top of the card that indicates what the card is about. Before they write notes, they should create a source card. Their first source card is labeled “A” in the corner. The source card should be formatted according to MLA standards (or whatever documentation style your school uses). I tell students to write the library location and call number, so they are not searching fruitlessly for the book if they need it again. When they begin to take notes from the source, they label their cards A1, A2, A3, and so on in the upper right-hand corner so they have a key to which information came from the source. This is important later. If the source is a book, they must put the page numbers on the card. After they have been taking notes for a week or so, they have a general idea of where their paper is going. I ask them to create a work plan (rough outline) with an outline of what they will discuss and an estimation of how long it will be and how many note cards they will need to get there. Students have found this to be helpful, but they should be coached not to see it as set in stone.
Students will need about 50-80 note cards for a five-page paper. This fact will freak them out, but just make sure you give them library time commensurate with their ability to work independently on a project like this, and they will thank you later — if they take fewer notes, they will have to go back and add information. It took me years to figure this out, and I didn’t require enough note cards. This year for the first time I didn’t have a lot of students complaining about not having enough information or having to go back and look up more information.
After the students finish taking notes, they should compose an outline. This is a pain because MS Word does not format outlines properly. You remember: I., A., 1., a., i., etc. Students, however tech savvy they may be, cannot figure out how to work with MS Word’s helpful auto-formatting and still make the outline come out correct, so I just created a template for them. You can download it if you want: RTF, MS Word Template (.dot). If you don’t care that MS Word doesn’t format formal outlines correctly, then you can skip this step and call me anal-retentive. It wouldn’t be the first time I heard it.
I teach students directly how to integrate quotations. If you don’t, what you’ll get is a paper with a string of quotes that are not tightly integrated. I have a great handout for this activity (download). I think once the students see the difference between properly integrated quotes and dropped quotes, they can do a better job integrating quote with their own ideas. My students are doing well with this so far (I’m halfway through the papers).
Their first drafts should be polished. Expect documentation errors, but caution them that they really need to turn in what they consider to be a final draft in terms of grammar and mechanics. They shouldn’t need much help with organization if you gave them good feedback on their outlines, but they might still need help integrating quotes. For the final draft, I require the old large envelope with all pieces inside. Students should implement all changes you suggested on their first draft in their final draft.
- Spread out due dates enough for you to grade without going crazy, but not so much that students lose focus on the project.
- Grade the small things, including note cards and outlines, in such a way that you see fewer mistakes. It doesn’t help students if you just count the cards (or eyeball them!) to see if they met the number required. See if they actually took the notes down correctly. Check to see if their notes from print sources had page numbers. Really look over that outline for problems in organization, and require it to be full-sentence.
- Require every website they want to use to be approved. You can do what you think is best, but I would steer students away from SparkNotes. It goes without saying that essay cheat sites are no good. Wikipedia? Up to you, but I’d say no.
- If your school can afford it, get a subscription to databases such as EBSCO. They have a wealth of information that students won’t be able to find otherwise. If your school can’t afford it, take a trip to your local library and get the research librarian to show you what databases are available to patrons of the library. Do what you can to get students access. They’re that good.
- Gale’s series Novels for Students, Poetry for Students, Short Stories for Students, and Drama for Students are invaluable if you can get to them. They are more accessible than Contemporary Literary Criticism and other similar series.
- Be firm with deadlines. If you don’t, you will go crazy, and your students will not take the deadlines seriously and will not work like you mean it.
- Analogies help. I came up with an analogy to describe this process to my students that they seemed to like. Writing a research paper is like making Jello. Choosing a topic is like choosing a flavor. Creating a thesis is like figuring out what you will do with the Jello — any fruit? fancy molds? those little squares you are supposed to eat with your fingers? Taking notes and formulating a work plan is like assembling your ingredients and getting all the cooking paraphernalia you need. Outlining is combining the ingredients. There isn’t much else you can do after this step, as the Jello hardens fast, so you better make sure you put in all the fruit and use the right mold now. Creating the first draft is like sticking the Jello into the fridge to harden. By the time students get to the final draft, it should be more like enjoying the fruits of hard work — eating the Jello — than discovering you screwed the whole thing up and have to start over. It made sense to the students, anyway.
I was the Research Paper Witch for Purim last year, and I scared everyone:
I had note cards stapled to my cape (you can barely see one in the bottom right of the picture), and I painted “MLA” on my hat in white-out.
Although you may have to get firm with students when you teach them this process, it is a critical skill to learn. All of us have to write research-based papers, no matter what discipline we study in college. I highly recommend Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference for students writing the research paper. My school purchases copies of these books and allows students to keep them, taking these books with them to college. They are excellent. The sixth edition doesn’t seem to be available for pre-order at Amazon yet, but it is coming out this spring. Go ahead and splurge on the plastic comb edition. It seems like such a little thing, but it stays open when you’re writing, and it’s much easier to navigate.