Writing from Questions
by Gordon Korstange
During the past decade, some of the most exciting scientific information has been represented not through the dense jargon that formerly put off general readers, but in essays by such writers as Lewis Thomas and Carl Sagan. The combination of speculation, rumination and fact has found a home in the essay, a term which comes from the French word meaning "to try" to try and understand something important to the writer.
For the past three years science teacher Amy Furst and I have taught a unit on science essays. This is defined to our 8th grade students as: ". . . an attempt to understand and explain a science related subject. It should involve investigation into the topic and you your interest and curiosity. The science essay is not about regurgitating encyclopedia articles. Its about the quality and effort of your questions, investigations and thinking. Good essays are about the writer as much as the topic."
During this time we have received student investigations of time, dreams and musings on the calls of wolves. One girl discovered amazing (to her) facts about the stars. Another found out from her mother that time existed only near the earth. In each case, it wasnt the answers that were so important it was the questions and the curiosity.
I have always resisted teaching research on the middle school level. I hate reports. Most of them are the still-born offspring of encyclopedias dead information. Essays, on the other hand, present information as a road along which a questioning mind is traveling, looking for answers that matter. The reader tags along to be near to someone who may find some form of the truth. In a good essay, its the travel thats interesting.
On curiosity road
We begin the process by dividing our 30-some 8th graders into "focus groups." These groups will meet once a week to monitor the members process and to help each other brainstorm questions and suggest resources.
Amy provides them with a broad list of possibilities, everything from allergies to zoology. Then the questions begin: "Is out of the body experiences an OK topic?" asks a girl who dresses like she wants to return to the 60s. Well, we gulp and answer, as long as you analyze the scientific evidence that attempts to prove or disprove it.
"How about dinosaurs," says a hefty young man who likes to joke. Start narrowing the topic we reply. What are your questions?
Student questions are the basis for the science essay. We tell them that the only reason to research a topic is because you have questions about it. I trot out my own model: Why do male peacocks have an enormous, beautiful tail that serves no functional purpose? This question came to me when I saw peacocks out west one summer.
Their questions are somewhat more mundane, but we insist that they be real ones for which they dont have an answer. If someone in the group can answer a question, then they can cross it off their list. After they have written as many questions as they can, the group listens and suggests even more.
Next the students write down their hypothetical answer for each question. This activity sometimes elicits unexpected answers: One student thought that most stars were only five miles apart because thats the way they appear when you look at them.
Now they are ready to research not to find out everything they can about wolves, but to find out: ". . . why the wolf howls. Why is it so protective of its land, and what happens to intruders that come into its land? Does it howl to tell everyone that it is there or is it a mating call? Is it afraid of other wolves wandering on their land and maybe even trying to take the wolves land? When a wolf is on another wolfs land, does he attract him/her?"
Methods of inquiry
Students are given five methods of possible inquiry: experimentation; observation; reading/note taking; interviews; and their own reflection. We require them to choose a topic which must be investigated through either experimentation or observation, as well as the other three. Thus, "Wolves" would not be a viable choice unless the student has access to an animal to study.
However, for the last three years, our students have done a lot of reading, much of it from materials that Amy and I have collected, knowing the limitations of our library and the predilections of typical 8th graders. We emphasize they write about how and where they found answers to their questions: "A while ago I was reading a National Geographic, when I found some of my answers. I found that wolves howl to tell pack members to meet. They howl to tell pack members where they are and last, they howl to tell other wolves not in their pack to stay away from their land. I did not read why wolves are so protective of their land. But I have a reasonable guess why they are. I believe they are like human beings. When they feel threatened because someone tries to take their land, they feel like they have to protect it in any way possible."
In an ideal research class session, students will meet for ten minutes in their focus groups to give each other an update on how theyre doing and then spend another 20 minutes reading silently from sources we or they have provided. 8th graders have little experience in just reading non-fiction. Most of the time they take a lot of unnecessary notes. We continually tell them, "Read until you find something interesting that makes you want to respond or gives you an idea to jot down."
Following the essay model
After several weeks of reading, observation and experimentation, it is time for a first draft. They have had models in their possession since the beginning, so most know where to start. The essay begins with a narrative lead that expresses why and how the student got interested in the topic: "She was chasing me with a bloody knife in her hand. She had murdered someone, and I was the only witness . . ."
Then there is the statement of the issue or problem and the questions: "I sat up in bed, startled. It was a weird dream, and it confused me. Pretty soon all my dreams began to puzzle me, but what, I thought, exactly are dreams? What did my dreams have to do with me?" The third part is the path of curiosity the writers research and thinking: "I started my research by writing my own dream journal."
From here on, hopefully, the essay will lead the writer onward toward an ending that is more than just a summary: "Even with all this research Ive done, Im still left with many unanswered questions. I cant definitely say where time exists, or if it will ever stop. I know that time represents the interval between a before and after, but I still dont quite understand why we need to have time at all."
It would be nice to say that all the essays we receive exhibit an honesty of curiosity that would make them budding Lewis Thomass, but too many students have already internalized the report format. Theyre afraid of appearing ignorant. The hefty young man mentioned above turned in a "report" on different sizes of dinosaurs and received a C+ for it. The girl who discovered that stars really werent five miles apart got a B+ because she did not attempt to disguise her thinking behind reams of general information.
Nonetheless, the students have taken this essay seriously and have done some meaningful investigations. They have hopefully learned that the scientific method can be applied to areas outside the laboratory. They may also have begun to understand that their own unique curiosity and questions are the very stuff from which good science is made.
- Gordon Korstange did this work while teaching language arts at Flood Brook Union School in Londonderry, Vermont. He has offered wokshops on the science essay for several middle schools.