It’s that time of year again when juniors are on their way to being academically exhausted. Our Advanced Placement English Language & Composition teachers tackled this fatigue by introducing passion projects to their 11th-grade classes. Allowing students to choose topics of study, the teachers created an assignment that would require them to do extensive research about an issue of their choice.
I teach many research lessons based on standard assignments, such as argumentative papers or literary critiques. While students are able to learn how to use the databases easily during these lessons, they don’t often seem excited about their work. With the passion project, each individual I spoke with expressed a higher level of enthusiasm. According to a 2019 Harvard study, “Students learn more when they are actively engaged in the classroom than they do in a passive lecture environment” (Deslauriers, et. al.). The authors point out that learners often feel as if they are retaining more information when listening to traditional lectures, but that being involved in dynamic academic activities incrementally increases learning.
For my lesson with the AP Lang students, I created a Google Slides presentation highlighting resources that would be helpful to them. One skill AP Lang teachers aim to impart is the ability to evaluate sources of information. The teachers encouraged their students to use a variety of forms of information including podcasts, interviews, TED talks, and documentaries. One of the foundations of all of my library lessons is information literacy. Using Google to find information is the default of all learnerss. I explained to them that I, too, use this indispensable search engine every day, but research commands a higher level of inspection. Showing them how to access information through databases and academic search engines, I did sample searches with them to demonstrate how to sift through the results and gather valuable material.
Another goal of the AP Lang course is to help learners develop skills in critical reading and writing. It’s typical during one of my library sessions for me to watch as students find articles, look over them quickly, and try to get the relevant facts to include in their papers. With this passion project, however, I noticed the students were spending more time with each article or video they found. Because they had chosen the topic on their own, they were interested in what they were reading. I listened to students sharing their findings with peers: one discussed the effects of specific skincare ingredients; another explained how DNA genealogy solves murder cases. What better way to increase reading and writing ability than to structure these tasks around issues that intrigue students?
Having teachers bring their classes to the school library is an important step in helping learners internalize the research process. Many of the students don’t carry over the skills they learn from the years before, and if we want them to leave high school fluent in information literacy and research skills, we need to guide them repeatedly. Even simple tools like the library catalog, which I reminded them how to access to search for print books on our shelves, remain unknown. Most of the 11th graders in the AP Lang classes had forgotten that they could use their computers at school or at home to search for books in our library.
Passion is not always a word associated with school work but the more often teachers and school librarians help students identify their interests, and use them to inform their projects, the better prepared young adults will be for tackling problems through research in their future academic and personal lives.
Deslauriers, Louis, McCarty, Logan S., Miller, Kelly, Kestin, Greg. 2019. “Measuring Actual Learning Versus Feeling of Learning in Response to Being Actively Engaged in the Classroom.” PNAS 116, No. 39 (September): 19251. https://www.pnas.org/doi/epdf/10.1073/pnas.1821936116.
Author: Karin Greenberg
Karin Greenberg is the librarian at Manhasset High School in Manhasset, New York. She is a former English teacher and writes book reviews for School Library Journal. In addition to reading, she enjoys animals, walking, hiking, and spending time with her family. Follow her book account on Instagram @bookswithkg.