Research Writing for the Middle Grades

Seventeen years in education, ten of those teaching science writing, I’ve refined some techniques to support twelve-year-olds navigate research-based writing. Unlike most, I refuse to succumb to the mounting pressure to focus solely on standardized test prep. Instead, we learn in the real world by being scientists. And, before you can become a real scientist, you must be able to write a grant!

The gearing up begins NOW! My students will write a grant for the Caring for our Watershed Competition. In March of every year, they propose a solution to improve their community watershed and earn themselves real cash to make it happen!

Through their years in elementary school these students have receiving a plethora of lessons on creative writing. Unfortunately, this causes my now seventh-graders to be caught off-guard with the demands of research-based writing at the middle school level. Their self-esteem plummets, so I’ve learned to tweak their understanding of creating writing to rebuild their confidence and produce my science writers.

First, we review how to write from a third-person perspective. Then we practice, over and over again. They fight to use first-person because they want to write about “our” experiment and “our” conclusions. But, with consistent redirection they begin to write about their experiments from a narrative viewpoint.

Then, we replace all personal possessives with proper nouns. It’s clunky at first, but all writing is completed in collaborative groups. Their negotiations to form sentences free of personal possessives permeates the classroom. They have clung to their personal possessives for so long that it takes large banks of sentence starters that I happily provide.   

Once all of the options for personal possessives have been eliminated, we develop our main character, data. Data is the real protagonist of research-based writing. This character takes a journey of responding to situations; sometimes these responses can be predicted other times surprising. Our protagonist has relationships that can be mutual, beneficial or harmful. And, this character can have bias that leads it to react in very specific ways. Ultimately, I attempt to show my students that arguing the conclusions of a twelve-year old is easy, but data’s strength is unarguable. As long as data remains the main character, it’s power can prove or disprove.

Forcing students to take themselves out of research-based writing and allowing data to take on this role requires incredible patience. These students must grow into this type of writing with persistent practice. Once they embrace it, they see with a sound experiment, data becomes un-arguable, un-malleable; it just is, strong and disprovable.

After two months in the classroom with these students I can see their confidence rebuild. They’re becoming science writers, they can feel the power behind this type of writing. The un-arguable defense created when you base your writing on research.

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