Mrs. Selinsky just hosted her annual Plagiarism Storytime, complete with cookies and milk. Which can mean only one thing.
It’s research paper season!
Juniors research learning differences. Sophomores tackle the French Revolution. Eighth and ninth graders explore the seven wonders of the world (along with a few runners up). Fifth through seventh graders dig into science related topics.
A number of students start these projects with a similar philosophy, mostly learned at their previous schools: “Don’t use Wikipedia! It doesn’t have good information!”
Many are surprised when we tell them, “No, actually, Wikipedia’s a great place to start your research. It’s your research diving board.”
In other words, it’s the jumping off point for their papers. Unless they are experts in their topic, we tell them while assuring them that they most definitely are not experts yet, Wikipedia usually provides a fine overview of a topic. It’s the place to find the specific area of their subject that they’d like to focus on before diving deeper into the information.
I use this as an opportunity to teach the format of Wikipedia. That it’s not just the article. Students learn to check to see if the article is locked or open for edits from everyone. They look at the history to see how often information has been changed and what kinds of changes people are making.
We discuss who can make changes and how easy it can be to miss those changes. I have a folder full of screen captures of many of the pranks that Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon encouraged their viewers to participate in (including the Sarah Palin/Paul Revere/bell debacle). More recently, students enjoyed the story of a fan of the Australian band Peking Duk who managed to get backstage by claiming to a be a band member’s step-brother. His proof? The band’s Wikipedia article. We also look at webpages for major sporting events like the World Series and the Super Bowl to see how quickly information is updated after those events.
Students are encouraged to look to the bottom of articles at the references and external links. These are the sites that should end up on the Works Cited page. These are the sites for diving into the deeper end of information on their topic. Those references and external links are also crucial for confirming that the information presented in the article is valid.
The only catch: Wikipedia can’t show up on the Works Cited page. This is usually met with groans, eye rolls, and sagging shoulders (because it means finding another source). To back up our position, we teachers cite the man himself, Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales, who says the web site should not be used for academic research. And even though the overall quality of Wikipedia has improved over the past 10 years, the site itself still cautions researchers to be extra critical in their use of the site.
Wikipedia, in a fantastic piece of transparency, even keeps a list of hoax articles with links to the pages that are still available. Most of the pages now contain a warning that the entry is considered a hoax. For some articles, students can even read the detailed discussion surrounding an articles deletion or categorization as a hoax.
Because many of our students are strict rule followers, it can be hard to break them of the Wikipedia taboo. So for the middle schoolers, we have them practice using Wikipedia for what it does best: trivia. Each class begins with a daily trivia question. The point of the exercise is to practice searching and reading skills. Students have to provide a link to a web page that contains the answer to the day’s question (even if the question is common knowledge, like “Who was the 43rd president of the United States). For most of these questions, Wikipedia is considered a valid source. Just this past week we used Wikipedia to research Lil’ Abner, Sadie Hawkins, and leap day traditions.
Do you have any fun Wikipedia lessons you use?